In Delaware, 1 in 6 adults struggles to read

November 16, 2017

Literacy Delaware is helping parents of Head Start students to improve their literacy skills by offering tutoring for English language skills, reading and mathematics to help them navigate basic life skills.

Exacerbating the fact that half of Delaware’s third-graders struggle to read is another startling statistic: Nearly 1 in 6 adults are considered “functionally illiterate.”

More than 36 million adults in the United States cannot read, write or do math at more than a third-grade level, according to the international nonprofit ProLiteracy.

About 11 percent of Delaware’s adults lack basic literacy skills, according to a 2003 survey, the last to break the data down state-by-state. Though the data is outdated, Cindy Shermeyer, executive director of Literacy Delaware, said the First State likely mirrors the national rate, which is currently about 14 percent.

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“This country has a hidden crisis of adults who can’t read or do math,” Shermeyer said, adding that adult literacy rates have a huge impact on third-grade reading proficiency.

“Research shows that a mother’s literacy level is the best determinant of her child’s literacy level and academic success,” she said. “If we’re really serious about improving our schools and the literacy of our children, then I think we need to seriously address what’s happening with their parents and with low literacy in adults.”

 In fact, children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. They’re also more likely to get bad grades, act out at school, be chronically absent, repeat a school year or drop out.

Adults that can’t read well also struggle to get jobs and often live in poverty, which has been shown to have a major impact on their children’s literacy. Kids born into low-income families hear roughly 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers, research shows.

Only 27 percent of parents with below-basic literacy levels report reading to their children five or more times a week, according to ProLiteracy.

Carolina Lopez, 26, began taking classes from Literacy Delaware in 2012 because she wanted a better future for her kids, she said. She was one of the first students in the Parents Learning English at School program, which provides tutoring to parents with kids in Wilmington Head Start, a federally funded preschool program that promotes school readiness skills.

Parents Learning English at School does not receive federal funding and subsists on a combination of grants and private donations.

“I knew a little bit of the alphabet and things like that, but did not know how to communicate,” Lopez said.

English is not Lopez’s first language. She came to the United States about 10 years ago, at 16, to escape the violence in El Salvador, known as the “murder capital of the world.”

When she had her first son, Brian, eight years ago, Lopez said she barely knew enough English to speak to her doctor, which was both a little frightening and a little sad.

She worked hard to make sure things were different for the birth of her second son, Bruno, who is about 1 year old.

Today, she can not only talk to her doctor but goes to parent-teacher conferences with Brian and helps him with his homework.

“I’m able to do so many things for my family and myself now, and I still have goals to reach,” Lopez said, adding that she is in the process of getting her GED.

Debbie Simon, chair of Literacy Delaware, said the nonprofit doesn’t exclusively serve immigrants or English language learners, though they do make up a large percentage of its students. Some of the adults are in the country illegally.

“We do not ask about their (immigration) status,” Simon said.

About 2 million immigrants come to the U.S. each year and about half of them lack a high school education and proficient English language skills, according to ProLiteracy.

About 41 percent of Hispanic adults in the United States have below basic literacy skills, according to the National Institute of Literacy. The rates for other demographic groups are as follows:

  • Black – 24 percent
  • White – 9 percent
  • Other – 13 percent

Simon, who used to work for Head Start, said many of the preschoolers’ parents, regardless of their race, want to get their GED and cannot read well enough to do so.

“If you’re reading below the fifth-grade level, you have a lot of pre-work to do,” she said.

That’s one of the reasons she helped create the tutoring program, which is now in its sixth year.

This fall, Literacy Delaware is also kicking off a pilot program for parents with kids at Shortlidge Academy and Warner Elementary School, which has some of the lowest test scores in the state.

Last year, about 27 percent of third-graders at Warner were proficient in English, according to state test scores. About 6 percent of students there are English language learners, while 17 percent are Hispanic/Latino and 76 percent are African-American. About 83 percent come from low-income families.

Creating a healthier community

Helping adults improve their literacy skills can also create a healthier community, Simon said.

Many immigrants, like Lopez, have a hard time communicating with doctors when they first come to the United States and cannot make appointments for themselves or their children.

Simon remembered one mom in the Parents Learning English at School program who, after hearing from a guest speaker on breast health, shared concerns about a lump on her chest.

“It ended up being benign, but she called and made an appointment, in English,” Simon said.

Financial health is also a big focus of the program, and those who cannot read and do math often have higher rates of unemployment and earn lower wages than the national average.

Low literacy costs the U.S. at least $225 billion each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment, according to the National Council for Adult Learning.

Esneyder Lopez, whose grandson, Jacob, is in Head Start, joined the Parents Learning English at School program because he wants to find a steady job.

The 52-year-old and his family fled Columbia for the United States about seven years ago after he and his sister were kidnapped by a drug cartel and held for ransom. They were successful business owners there and had a clothing factory, but had to leave everything behind.

Though Lopez has an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, he has struggled to find a job because of his limited English skills. He worked as a cleaner for several years, but suffered nerve damage in a fall and is now completely numb on his left side.

“I need to learn English,” said Lopez, who lives with his husband, daughter, and grandson in Elsmere. “I need to find a good job.”

“It’s good for communication. I don’t know how to say many things. First, I think it in Spanish, then I translate into English, and then I talk.”

Judy Crescenzi is helping Lopez and like all of the program’s specially trained tutors, volunteers her time to do so.

“What I like is he’s serious about learning,” she said, adding that many of the parents and grandparents in the program also learn a fair amount of English from their children, who tend to pick it up more quickly.

“He is one of the most advanced, but still wants to improve.”

Link: Delaware Online