Functional illiteracy rises in Lansing area

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By Whitney Bunn
Ingham County Chronicle staff writer

Can you read a pay stub? Understand the directions on a bottle of medicine? Read a menu?

Many adults in the Greater Lansing area can’t.

Adults who are functionally illiterate cannot read above a third-grade level and struggle with everyday tasks.

Between 2000 and 2012, the number of adults in Lansing with a high school diploma has dropped by one percentage point, while those with college degrees have increased by two percentage point. The smart are getting smarter, as the amount of those who lack higher education continue to fall.

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Rebecca Klegon, a senior student in the College of Education at Michigan State University, is completing her pre-internship at Attwood Elementary School in the Lansing School District.

“I think there is a huge literacy problem,” she said.

Working with a sixth-grade class for the 2013-2014 school year, Klegon notes that nearly three-quarters of her students read below the standard reading level for sixth-graders.

Klegon said most of her students come from low-income families. “I don’t feel like they have enough opportunities to read at home,” she said.

In an attempt to combat illiteracy in the Lansing area, CALC offers a variety of programs for children and adults.

One of its most successful programs is called Read to Succeed. MSU students and volunteer community members are trained to teach literacy skills to children in poverty.

Serving schools on the bottom of reading achievement scores in Michigan, Read to Succeed tutors approximately 100 students at eight different Lansing area locations.

“It’s a retired teacher’s dream come true. All we get to do is help kids. (There’s) no hidden agenda,” said Pat Williams.

Williams is a retired special education teacher and the head coordinator for CALC’s Read to Succeed program.

“It’s terrifying. These kids are exposing their most vulnerable self – Many don’t feel very bright or capable learners,” Williams said.

Allison Kramer is a volunteer tutor from MSU who has been working with the same student since January. Debora is 6 years old and a student in the Lansing School District.

When Debora first came in, she didn’t know the alphabet, Kramer said.

She said the best part about tutoring these children is seeing their progress

Every session, tutors review word recognition, reading comprehension and writing skills.

“It’s the basis or your life. You can’t do anything if you’re not literate,” said Kramer.

Williams stated the importance of a safe, comfortable environment and a mentorship between the tutor and the student.

“Children need to feel validated,” she said. “If a child is not successful in learning, it’s not their fault. It never is.”

“People blame schools for illiteracy rates, but schools have no control over the first 60 months of a child’s life,” said Dr. Patricia Edwards, Ph.D.

Edwards is a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, and she has developed two nationally acclaimed family literacy programs: Parents as Partners in Reading and Talking Your Way to Literacy.

According to Edwards, literacy learning begins before formal reading instruction in school.

Her research focuses on the importance of family literacy and promoting early reading.

Edwards compared the literacy gap in America to an epidemic, saying, “This is the richest country in the world. We shouldn’t have this problem.”

Illiteracy affects adults, too.

Kathy Johnson, head librarian at the Downtown Lansing branch of the Capital Area District Libraries, said that literacy is not just a children’s issue. Johnson said her branch deals with many adult patrons who struggle with literacy.

“There are patrons who only check out DVDs, and I’m sure it’s because their reading skills are not good … and that’s sad because there’s a lot more to life than what’s on those DVDs,” said Johnson.

The Capital Area District Libraries try to offer programs to fit the needs of their wide variety of patrons, including computer and literacy skills.

“I think it’s very tough for people with computer skills and literacy skills to make enough money to live on,” said Johnson. “Nobody can make it on a minimum wage job… it all takes more skills than have ever been required to make a living wage.”

Additionally, 43 percent of adults at the lowest level of literacy proficiency live in poverty compared with the four percent of adults with strong literacy skills, according to the Capital Area Literacy Coalition.

Nearly half of the children in Lansing live in poverty, according to the 2013 U.S. Census.

If a family’s total income is less than the government’s estimate of an insufficient income for basic needs, then that family and every individual in it is considered in poverty.

Poverty and race tend to go hand-in-hand. In Michigan, 14 percent of white adults are impoverished, while 39 percent of both black and Hispanic adults live in poverty (78 percent total).

Race in the Greater Lansing Area is primarily white, African American and Hispanic.

With the Hispanic and African American races being the most impoverished in Michigan and a large portion of Lansing’s population, the majority of functionally illiterate adults in Lansing likely fall under these categories, though “Illiteracy is odorless and colorless,” said Edwards.

Could you interpret the various charts included in this story?

Many Lansing area adults can’t.

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