Plan ahead to aid low literacy issue

When making plans to fix the low literacy rate, the city and the Central Library need to consider the needs of the volunteers and the adult learners On Thursday, multiple media outlets reported depressing news

When making plans to fix the low literacy rate, the city and the Central Library need to consider the needs of the volunteers and the adult learners

On Thursday, multiple media outlets reported depressing news – a majority of adult Philadelphians can’t read the news, or any other document or publication, properly for that matter.joshua fernandez

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported one in five adults in Philadelphia has a literacy problem.

Philadelphia Weekly’s news blog, PhillyNow, reported almost 550,000 workers have difficulty completing simple workforce tasks like filling out forms because of this. The blog also says that a “full quarter of the city’s adult residents do not have a high school diploma.”

These findings from the Central Library Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library system have moved Mayor Michael Nutter to take action. To battle low literacy rates, Nutter has revived the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy.

“Low literacy is a major barrier to many Philadelphians looking for meaningful employment and has a real economic impact, not only on their lives but in the economy of the city as a whole,” Nutter said at a news conference, as reported in the Inquirer.

The commission, based at the Central Library, will provide interested adults help in learning basic reading skills, learning English as a second language and getting a GED.  In his PW blog post, Aaron Case wrote that Nutter had the following goals: Raise the Philadelphia high school graduation rate to 80 percent (it is currently at 57 percent, according to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook), and double the number of adult residents with a four-year college degree.

These are not impossible, but without proper planning, accomplishing these goals could be a bumpy ride.

During a recent phone call, my mother explained that the parents of a ninth grader in my neighborhood learned their child had a sixth-grade reading level. This student somehow managed to make his way to high school, while his reading level slipped through the cracks. My suburban hometown may not have the same situation as Philadelphia’s, but it remains that many kinks need to be worked out. The same goes for the Commission on Literacy.

Until the city and the Philadelphia School District, and any school district in the country, can alleviate this problem for youth, the commission needs to figure out how it can meet the needs of those with reading problems, without overwhelming the volunteers.

Michael Smith, an education professor, said one of the difficulties the commission could face involves volunteers.

“What’s a critical issue here is the nature of the support people will get and the training students will get to help adult learners,” Smith said.

Smith’s research focuses on adolescent literacy, but he says that in terms of this adult-literacy programming “one of the difficulties is to get a well-trained and long-term committed volunteer working force.”

He also emphasized that the instruction these adults receive needs to be multifaceted, including vocabulary fluency and comprehension strategies specific to adult-learners.

“Being able to read is more of a multifaceted issue,” Smith said. “The approach to working with any learner also has to be multifaceted and not just a [phonics-emphasis].”

“The instruction should be embedded in situations that make use of expertise and interest that adult learners already have,” he added.

Smith said students at Temple and at other universities in the area will be working with Philadelphia high school students for the “Philly Goes to College Initiative” to help aid them in college and scholarship applications.

Perhaps the city needs to work out an agreement with the local colleges and universities to provide credit or some other equivalent so that volunteers won’t burn out quickly, and benefit from this as much as adult-learners.

The commission needs to engage its training. Anyone can learn how to spell and pronounce words. It’s not beneficial for a student to learn how to pronounce and spell in French if they cannot comprehend it.

The same goes for those learning to read in English.
Josh Fernandez can be reached at

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