Turning Pages changes lives through literacy
All across the Midlands, volunteer reading tutors meet students at public libraries, parks and other locations to help them improve their reading. The students are not in school, however. They are adults who, through a variety of circumstances, never learned to read well. The volunteer tutors are matched with learners by Turning Pages, a nonprofit organization formerly known as the Greater Columbia Literacy Council, that helps adults who have low levels of reading skills.
According to Interim Executive Director Lisa Cole, nearly 800,000 adult South Carolinians cannot read at a fully functional level. “If you’re heading to the grocery store, and you’re looking for signs to navigate where the food is, that’s a functional level,” she said. “If you’re filling out a job application, that’s a functional literacy level. If you’re handed a prescription by a doctor and you’re expected to read a medicine bottle for your child, and you have to figure out the appropriate amount of dosage to them. It you can’t read that, it’s not a functional level.”
Cole said not reading is a source of embarrassment to many adults, who develop tricks to hide that they can’t read.
“Physically going and paying in cash, like if you have a water bill,” is one device, she said. “And if you’re sitting in a restaurant, and the first thing they do is you’re handed a menu. And so they’ll sit there and they’ll glance at a menu, and they’ll pretend to read it, but then they’ll order something that they’ve always ordered, something that’s very familiar with them, that they know they’re gonna get right.
“Or they’ll order something that’s not listed on the menu, or they’ll ask, ‘hey what’s your special today’ and then they’ll take the audible advice of whatever the waitress says.
“If they need directions, and someone says ‘oh, write this down.’ They’ll claim ‘oh, I’ll remember it. I’ve got a great memory. I don’t need to write it down.’”
Some adults have even managed to hide their non-reading from their own families, Cole said. But Turning Pages has 25 compassionate and well-trained tutors who help learners overcome their fears with patience and a good teaching system. Retired nurse Arlene Burgos is one such volunteer.
“ It’s very well set up in terms of adding a lot of context so that the learner can kind of get it in more than just one way,” Burgos said. “So in other words, you can see the picture of a bird, and then associate that with the four letters that spell bird.
“We use flash cards, in…reviewing it, and a lot of repetition,” she added. “There are also words that are written, and then they’re put into sentences, and the student also has to copy them, say them after I say them. So there are different approaches for each particular word.”
The adults who come to Turning Pages are highly motivated to learn, said Cole. They come for many reasons, but there are three main ones.
“The top three reasons that have always given is, Number one: ‘I want to get a better job for my family.’ “Number two is ‘I want to be able to help my children with homework.’ No mommy wants to sit there and say ‘I can’t.’ And number three, especially with elderly learners, is ‘I want to be able to read my Bible for myself, and understand it.’”
Cole said many non-reading adults are highly intelligent people who somehow didn’t benefit from the standard way of learning reading while going through school. Burgos said an important way to help insecure adults to read is lots of encouragement.
“Encouraging is super important,” said the tutor. “You know, ‘you CAN do this.’ And also the fact that if you don’t know how to read, that doesn’t mean that you’re a stupid person. That maybe means that you haven’t had the opportunity to learn the way that you need to learn. We don’t all learn the same way.”
Most learners, who usually are referred to Turning Pages by relatives or other people they trust, are between the ages of 22 and 48, though the program accepts learners as young as 18. After an assessment to place them at the correct reading level, they begin their lessons, which is a 24 week commitment for both learners and tutors. Learners may continue beyond the initial commitment for more terms until they reach their personal goals. There is no point at which the learner must stop, and some have been with the program for several years. In addition, the program is completely free of charge.
Both Cole and Burgos said helping adults to read is extremely rewarding to both tutors and students, who sometimes form lasting friendships. Turning Pages has helped more than 6000 adults to read in its 54-year history, said Cole. But numbers aren’t the only measure of success.
“To us, success is when we look in the eyes of our learners and they are happy, they are growing, they are motivated and they are continuing. That to us is success. Another success marker for us is when we work with someone who is younger and they need to work with their reading skills to get a better job, and it happens. So we look at those type of markers. It’s all success to us.
Cole said while the program can’t change the world, “what we’re doing is changing lives. And to an individual, their life is their world. So we’re not changing the world, we’re changing a bunch of worlds, because we’re changing lives. And the successes they experience, that’s our successes, too.”
To learn more, contact Turning Pages at turningpagessc.org.