Fighting Adult Illiteracy, One at a Time 

A Silent Problem

Odds are that today you encountered an adult who struggles to read and write.

Not just today, but every day. About 14 percent of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate, according to the National Center for Education Studies. The figure is likely even higher in San Antonio, which is among the least-literate populous cities, per a Central Connecticut University study.

Although it's likely you came across someone who can't read, you probably didn't know it. Illiteracy is a largely invisible affliction. It skews toward the poor, but cuts across socioeconomic lines, sex and ethnicity. And those who can't read spend their lives trying to hide it.

"Adults tend to conceal the fact that they're struggling ... and there isn't a voice advocating for them," said Carolyn Heath, executive director of Each One Teach One, a local nonprofit that teaches adults to read and write through one-on-one tutoring.

Headquartered in what was once Fire Station 28 off Blanco Road, Each One Teach One volunteers instruct approximately 200 students each year. But they could help even more with additional volunteers — there's typically a waitlist between 10 and 20 would-be learners.

Students are scattered throughout the facility, now one of several sites the group operates. Free books line shelves. In a conference room, the words "Yesterday — Today — Tomorrow" are shakily scrawled on three consecutive days on a calendar. Posters about the alphabet and each letter's pronunciation are tacked onto walls.

Heath said that some of the people who come to the center have high school diplomas but can barely read at a basic level. Others may have dropped out at an early age, getting lost in the shuffle of the public school system.

"At some point, they needed intervention and they didn't get it. They just kept going through the conveyer belt," Heath said. "If you can't fit through the system, you're just lost."

That's what happened to George Yates, who didn't know how to read and write until he was almost 70 years old. He's spent most of his life hiding it from the outside world. And that hasn't completely stopped.

Yates requested that his real name be withheld from this article because he doesn't want his grandchildren to know he couldn't read. It's not something he's ever discussed with his family — not with his former wife, not with his children (who all graduated from college), not with his grandkids.

click to enlarge Executive Director Carolyn Heath - MICHAEL MARKS
  • Michael Marks
  • Executive Director Carolyn Heath

Yates never mastered reading, and his teachers focused on kids who caught on quicker, he said. He left school in the fifth grade and found work cutting lawns and painting houses on San Antonio's East Side. Eventually he took on construction, janitorial and railroad jobs. He spent his entire career not knowing how to read or write — something he's not sure he could do in today's world.

"Back then you could kind of hide it. Now, I don't think you could," Yates said. "If I was a young man [now] there wouldn't be no future for me."

When Yates would have to perform a task like filling out a form, he'd find someone who didn't know him well to do it for him. He'd get discouraged when he'd try to do it himself and hit a word he didn't know.

"I'd look at a word and I'd get disgusted with myself," Yates said. "People look at you a different way. You kind of feel empty after that."

Before starting lessons at Each One Teach One, Yates assumed that reading required memorizing each word. When he learned about using individual sounds to break words down, the floodgates opened.

Although he's still not at the level he wants to be, he feels good about his progress. He'll read anything he can get his hands on these days, though he prefers history books and the Bible. He even tutors another Each One Teach One student who's at a lower level than him.

In the aggregate, people who struggle to read like Yates can cause economies to lag. They are more likely to be in poor health, go to jail and be less productive workers. In Texas and nationwide, there's little investment to help them. Texas matches federal funds for adult education at only the bare minimum required by law.

"It's not an easy, cute or clean issue," Heath said. "Adults make us look in the mirror and ask 'How did this person get through a school system without being able to read and write?'"

Yates wonders what his life might have been like if he had learned earlier. He could have been a doctor, or a police officer maybe.

But he doesn't think about it for long, he says. He gets back to his current book, a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., and continues to highlight words he doesn't know.




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