For most, it’s part of their everyday life.
People read menus, billboards, magazines and social media every single day.
But for many adults, it’s not that easy.
More than 43 million adults across America cannot read above a third grade level, according to Prosperity for America.
In Orange County, it’s estimated that 1 in 4 adults, or 400,000 adults, read only at a basic or below-basic level.
For many, local adult literacy programs like the county government’s library program – OC Read – can help.
Yet you won’t find these librarians using terms like illiteracy or illiterate, says David Lopez, OC Public Libraries’ Marketing & Communications librarian.
“No adult who enters the program is truly ‘lacking’ or without skills,” he said. “Adult learners have a lifetime’s worth of talents, abilities, and interests that form a bedrock on which to grow their reading and writing proficiency.”
The reality, Lopez said, is that many people struggle with “low literacy,” meaning they find it challenging to pick up a book and read it with little to no effort.
The aim is to reach adults and families that for whatever reason didn’t pick up the skills at traditional places like school and now struggle with low literacy.
“Oftentimes, these adults were never exposed to extensive phonics instruction as children, resulting in them being unable to ‘decode’ the puzzle that is reading,” Lopez said.
“They have often come up with various strategies to navigate our text-heavy world, relying on strengths like memorization, understanding of context, and tech-savviness.”
Many find it especially hard to ask for help.
“Most learners come into the program carrying a lifetime of shame due to their lack of reading efficiency,” said Stephanie Anson, OC Read supervisor.
“Because of that,” she added, “many don’t tell their family or friends that they are meeting with a tutor. Some don’t even want to talk to us.”
There’s currently about two dozen adults working to improve their literacy skills through OC Read with the help of volunteer tutors.
Meet Tim Elmore
Tim Elmore, has spent the last four years volunteering with OC Read.
When he is not working with his OC Read mentee, Elmore works as an electrical engineer.
“In my work, I’ve done a lot of teaching and training just as part of the job, and I’ve always loved doing that,” said Elmore, who lives in Cypress.
“And I thought to myself, ‘What can I do moving toward retirement to do something like this on the side?’ What better thing than to help people with their reading.”
Elmore noted that once he discovered that OC Read did not require a teaching credential and provided all literacy training in-house, he decided to become a tutor.
Elmore said that it is “a little challenging” to teach someone to read for the first time, mostly because it involves lesson planning in advance.
“Tutoring takes a bit of careful planning. I have to put a lesson plan together each time, but it goes relatively slowly. You’ll spend two or three sessions on the same topic,” he said.
Elmore tutors his current mentee virtually through Zoom meetings. Currently, he is working with only one mentee, but has worked with one other mentee in the last four years of volunteering.
Tutors at OC Read are encouraged to meet with students at OC Public Libraries for tutoring sessions, but some prefer the flexible format that Zoom offers.
Many OC Read mentees need assistance with “everyday reading,” such as road signs and newspapers.
“It’s one thing to do the academics, like ‘Ok, I can read this or read that,’ but being able to read YouTube or road signs is most important,” Elmore said.
Elmore has been using sample driver’s exams in his tutoring sessions with his current OC Read mentee, as they are interested in getting a driver’s license.
“Most people take these things for granted,” Elmore said. “It’s surprising how many people can’t do these simple things.”
Meet Barbara “Barb” Hochgesang
Barb entered the program in November 2019 with a teaching background.
“I think I have a teaching gene,” Hochgesang said. “My dad was a math teacher, my mom was a teacher, and I have a daughter who is a math professor.”
The first half of Hochgesang’s teaching career was in the midwest. There, she taught 4th grade and 6th grade. She worked as a substitute teacher for 13 years, and afterwards began teaching single subject English for 7th and 8th grade.
Upon moving to California after a 2-year stint in Germany working as a substitute teacher, Hochgesang, who lives in Mission Viejo, began teaching adult basic education in the San Juan Capistrano district.
“It was a one-room classroom, and I got students that had all different levels of reading levels. That’s how I first heard about OC Read,” said Hochgesang.
“I had a student, a young man who was 28, he was a carpenter… managing life very well, and he couldn’t read the sight words of first grade,” Hochgesang said. “He was amazing in math… someone gave me one of these brochures that introduced me to OC Read. I helped sign him up.”
After learning that OC Read was lacking volunteer literacy tutors, she decided to sign up after her retirement from teaching.
In her time as a tutor, Hochgesang has collected really fond memories of one of her most recent mentees.
“She is a very bright woman trying to figure out our crazy English language,” Hochgesang said of her mentee, “It’s been wonderful seeing her blossom, she is so driven.”
Her mentee is from Iran, university trained, and a mother of two, working on enhancing her skills speaking English.
Ahead of interviewing with the Voice of OC, Hochgesang assigned her to write a paragraph about OC Read as homework.
“Encouraging a person to join OC Read classes is quite easy. First, the classes are private and this increases the learning efficiency. You can do much homework with your teacher. Another reason could be that it is free because private classes are usually expensive. The last reason is the flexibility of the class time; you can be changed by agreement. For example, if a problem occurs, the class will not be canceled. It will be rescheduled,” she wrote on April 20, 2023.
She has since graduated from the OC Read, as of April 2023, and is continuing her education at Saddleback College.
Hochgesang has said that she has found teaching adult basic education and tutoring with OC Read to be a deeply inspiring experience.
“Even when I was working with the GED and adult basic education students, they inspired me because these were people who usually were working during the day, they had families, and still showed up to class,” Hochgesang said.
Although achieving higher levels of literacy can be a challenge for students, Hochgesang noted that it can also be a celebratory experience.
Meet Cynthia Traino
Cynthia also entered OC Read with experience in education.
Traino, 64, worked as an educator for 38 years prior to becoming an OC Read tutor. After retiring from education in 2018, she sought out volunteer work.
“I had always wanted to teach adults how to read,” said Traino, who lives in Brea. “I found OC Read, and decided to go through the training to become a volunteer adult literacy tutor.”
Traino has worked with three different mentees in her 5 years volunteering at OC Read.
“Two of my learners have been older, senior citizens, which means they have lived 60 or 70 years without being readers,” said Traino. “It was a lot of time and habits to overcome in teaching. One learner had a lot of learning disabilities, which also came with its own set of challenges. There is a lot of struggle to overcome.”
Traino meets her current mentee in-person at the La Palma Library, and administers lessons based on the Wilson reading system, a research-based language instruction method.
“The learner I have now is great, he works hard everyday. It’s very rewarding to see his progress, she said. “His enthusiasm is most inspiring, he does not give up when things are challenging. He’s so motivated, and that motivates me.”
She noted that she finds the progression of learning to be one of the most satisfying aspects of volunteer tutoring.
Traino is currently working on encouraging her current mentee, and all that will listen, to read more books.
“If you haven’t read your whole life, you don’t ever pick up a book, as common as it is for others,” she said.
Adult literacy learners need books that are simple to read, she explained, but many do not have the desire to read children’s books, which are less complex.
“The more you read, any book, the better you will get at reading,” Traino said.
How OC Read Works
OC Read is part of a broader network of proliteracy networks working to assist those with low literacy, including the National Institute for Literacy, Learning Disabilities Association of America, Children’s Literacy Initiative, and many others spread throughout the United States.
These services don’t get any local county general funding but are instead funded through a state grant from the California Library Literacy Services.
Total spending for these services amounts to about $130,000 with just under $60,000 allocated to adult programs and about $70,000 for the family programs, Lopez said.
Through the Adult Basic Literacy Skills program, participants or “learners” can build basic skills that would allow them to read to their children, read a newspaper or book, register to vote, and do other essential literacy tasks.
The Families for Literacy program, which was established in 2020, builds on this momentum by incorporating connection-building activities for whole families.
The connection between literate parents and literate children is one that is greatly emphasized in OC Read.
According to OC Read, children of parents with low literacy skills are 72% likely to have low reading levels. Moreover, approximately 47% of children in Orange County are considered “not ready” for kindergarten based on their literacy skills.
“Family is a critical component of improving literacy, not just for the adult learner but for the whole family, and has been proven to help to break the cycle of intergenerational low literacy,” said Lopez.
Literacy coordinators with OC Read work to gain a holistic understanding of the learner’s family, including their parents, siblings, spouse, and children in order to provide tailored support for each member.
Literacy tutoring with incarcerated people has historically been a priority, but has been placed on hold over COVID concerns.
The View From The Other Side of The Book
One OC Read mentee, who requested that her identity remain anonymous, told Voice of OC that she decided to take charge of her literacy skills in 2022.
“Growing up, I always had a learning disability, mainly with reading. I always found it difficult. Not having the best teachers around me supporting me and catering to my needs, made me not want to read at all. I thought that I would never learn, and could never learn. That was my mindset,” the mentee said.
She has been a part of the Adult Basic Literacy Skills program at OC Read since 2022. Similar to many other OC Read mentees, she was not surrounded by teachers that supported her.
Despite feeling intimidated, she reached out to OC Read in a leap of faith. “I wanted to better myself,” she said. “I contacted them, and they were so nice and helpful, the opposite of my teachers back in the day. They made me feel comfortable to meet with Kris and all the other staff. She made me feel comfortable, and made me think ‘Okay, maybe I can do this.’ I realized that this can be a possibility for me.”
All of the programs within OC Read are strictly confidential, protecting the identities of mentees and their educational journey. Volunteer tutors within the program uphold this confidentiality, despite the 1-on-1 nature of the study sessions.
The mentee’s tutor, Kris Anderson, has worked with her individually for a little over a year. Anderson, who lives in South Orange County, was trained to become a tutor with OC Read in 2017.
“At the time I decided to contact OC Read and go through the training process and tutor, I was looking for some way to contribute,” she said. “It felt like our environment nationally was getting so fraught. There was a lot of antagonism around people, and I wanted to do something positive. As someone who believes that reading and writing are empowering skills, it seemed like a good way to contribute.”
“I really enjoy working with people like [the mentee], I am so lucky to be able to meet and work with such terrific people,” Anderson said. “I am inspired by them.”
The mentee traveled to Japan alone in April, something she felt would not have been possible without OC Read. She cites the encouragement from her tutor, Anderson, for motivating her to continue her literacy studies.
“OC Read impacted every aspect of my life,” she said, “doing something that I thought I could never do has shown me that there is nothing I can’t do.”
If you or a family member want help learning how to read, or are interested in becoming an OC Read tutor, please refer to ocread.org.
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