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I was attending a gardening workshop, plotting my vegetable placement. The woman next to me gave me a hesitant tap on the shoulder. "Could you help me write a thank-you card for the instructor?" We'd chatted throughout the workshop, mostly about tomatoes. I must have won her trust, because she was confessing to me that she could barely write. I asked if she'd be interested in some kind of adult literacy class. She said yes, and that's why, two days later, I was in Valerie Hardie's office at the Malcolm X Library on Market Street. Hardie is the administrator for READ/San Diego, the adult literacy program of the San Diego Public Library and the San Diego County Library. "There isn't any one reason why adults haven't learned to read," said Hardie. "Many say that their parents didn't read to them; they didn't model that skill at home, so there's a cycle of illiteracy that gets perpetuated. A lot of adult learners in the program talk about their school experience. Some missed significant portions of their schooling due to illness. Some had learning disabilities or visual defects that weren't detected early on." Some had reading troubles too slight to receive attention, but big enough to make learning a struggle. "They got frustrated and dropped out, or they started fights at school. They decided they'd rather get kicked out than be embarrassed by letting on that they were struggling with reading and writing."

Most have some abilities, but the skill levels and types of difficulties vary widely. "In the years that I've assessed adult learners," said Hardie, "I have come across perhaps two people who had to sign their name with an 'X.' Most people recognize letters and can write their name. Some can write the letters of the alphabet -- but they may not be able to write the entire alphabet in sequence. Or they may not know the sounds of the letters. Some people can read any word you put in front of them, but they won't know its meaning. Others can look at a paragraph and distinguish its meaning -- what's going on -- but if you give them a three-letter word, they can't break it down and sound it out."

People's reasons for coming to READ/San Diego vary as well. "We don't see reading as an end. We see it as a means to an end. Some come because they're stuck in dead-end jobs; they know they're bright, and that it's just the lack of this skill that's getting in the way of their progressing at work. Others come because they want to read the Bible, or get involved with their community's Neighborhood Watch, or prepare for the citizenship exam. Others come because they want to work on their role as parents. They want to participate in the PTA, or help their kids with homework, or just read to their kids."

The Family Literacy Program is one of READ/San Diego's most popular. "We encourage parents and primary caregivers to come in and bring their preschoolers. The program starts with storytelling, with the parents generally sitting on the floor with their kids. There's homework, and if it's done, they get free bonus books to build a library. It's based on the premise that parents are the first and most important teachers. We gear the activities to support and foster a love of learning and literacy -- it's a preventative program to try to reduce the cycle of illiteracy. Even if you can't read, you can model holding the book and the importance of having books."

READ/San Diego is a free service. "We recruit volunteers to teach adult learners. We provide the volunteers with initial training, materials, and ongoing support and additional training. We explain that they will work with an adult learner twice a week for an hour to an hour and a half. We try to match volunteers with learners based on compatibility, time schedules, and geographic locations. We ask the volunteer to commit a minimum of six months to a year for the program."

Volunteer training is broken down into five sessions. First is an overview that features an adult learner as a guest speaker, and also gets at the difference between teaching adults and children. Later sessions cover various types of learning difficulties and focus on teaching strategies, "teaching phonics in a multi-sensory way. Our classrooms are set up for visual learners, but many adults who come into the program are more auditory learners. They may need to physically tap out syllables on the desk, or they may need to trace letters with their first two fingers." Finally, volunteers learn about teaching reading comprehension and writing.

The adult learners also go through training, though much less extensive -- "about an hour and a half. They get to hear from another adult learner in the program. Then we guide them through an exercise where they identify their primary reason for coming to the program. After that, we schedule them for an informal literacy assessment with one of our literacy professionals. We talk to people about their experience, do some reading and writing, so we have an idea of where to start with the tutor."

Once both sides have been trained and the staff has made a likely match, "we call the adult learner and tell them about the tutor, based on what the tutor has filled out on his or her application. If the learner agrees and the tutor agrees, we have them meet at an informal location -- someplace public and easily accessible, like a McDonald's. If both tutor and learner are comfortable with each other, they determine a day and location to meet. We ask them to keep it public."

Enrollment in the program also grants adult learners access to READ/San Diego's computer lab. "We have wonderful software that helps with math and phonics and reading comprehension, and we have a list of adult education websites." For more information, or to become a volunteer tutor or adult learner, call READ/San Diego at 619-527-5475 or visit

www.sandiego.gov/public-library/services/ .

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