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Local organizations help adults learn to read

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Zoe Anderson reads for Blair Lanning, volunteer coordinator at Opportunities Industrialization Center, in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Zoe Anderson reads for Blair Lanning, volunteer coordinator at Opportunities Industrialization Center, in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015.

For decades, when Zoe Anderson opened a book, her instinct was to look at the words from right to left.

If she examined those words for more than a few seconds, her eyes strained and she blinked. But rubbing her eyes brought Anderson no relief, and her frustration rose as lessons were cut short. Working through a single sentence was too agonizing.

For Anderson, reading was a fraught endeavor she was determined to accomplish. In 1989, she enrolled in a program in Dallas and was told she was dyslexic; tutors instructed her to resist her instinct and read from left to right. Despite her persistence, progress was nonexistent. Anderson’s dyslexia was just one of her troubles.

“I just couldn’t pass book one. I couldn’t get it,” Anderson said. “I would stop going, but I’d go back. Again, I didn’t get anything out of it. I didn’t understand a lot of things. I did that for about 10 to 15 years.”

Now, in a dimly lit room, Anderson clears her voice, flips open a work book and quietly whispers a reminder to read from left to right. To establish a line of sight, she places a bookmark under the first sentence. She then begins to read about Tom and his car. She slowly lowers the bookmark as she reads. At the end of each page, she lifts her head out of the book to face Blair Lanning, the volunteer coordinator of Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of Oklahoma County. Lanning’s supportive demeanor greets Anderson’s smile.

Zoe Anderson's certifificate for successfully finishing the first book in the program at Opportunities Industrialization Center, in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Zoe Anderson's certifificate for successfully finishing the first book in the program at Opportunities Industrialization Center, in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015.

“This worked for me,” Anderson said of her visits to OIC.

About two years ago, Lanning conducted Anderson’s first reading assessment. Anderson shared she was dyslexic, but Lanning noticed her new student exhibiting signs of visual stress syndrome, a light sensitivity condition that inhibits vision in even moderately lit rooms. Once she turned off the overhead florescent light, Anderson no longer felt the need to excessively blink and rub her eyes. They conducted the rest of the assessment as warm sunlight illuminated the office.

It was a simple fix that paved the way for Anderson to read, an extremely difficult skill that adult learners strive to overcome when they enter the OIC office at 3033 N. Walnut Ave.

“To see her go every weekend to the library and overcome her frustration encourages me,” said Lanning, who works with Anderson along with a volunteer tutor who meets with Anderson at a public library on Saturday mornings. “I don’t know what I would do if I were in her position.”

Not alone

Angela Spindle, director of Oklahoma Literacy Coalition, said it is difficult for many Oklahomans to imagine the experience of illiteracy. A day in a non-English-speaking country is the closest many will get to living in a world in which they can’t read street signs, maps, menus, bus schedules, prescriptions or receipts.

“It is not something people think about unless it touches their lives directly,” said Spindle. “It leads to a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions that illiterate people are lazy or couldn’t do it. There are so many factors.”

The reality is that many children grow up without learning how to read. Approximately 32 million U.S. adults can’t read, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute for Literacy. In Oklahoma County, around one in every five residents read at or below basic literacy level. Basic literacy is described as a first- or second-grade reading level, according to OIC.

Leslie Gelders, a literacy coordinator for the Oklahoma Literacy Resource Office, said it is difficult to measure literacy levels. In 2003, the state participated in the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which found 12 percent of Oklahoma County residents lacked basic reading skills. Eleven years earlier, that same survey reported the same results.

In recent years, no data has been released to closely examine illiteracy, leading groups and organizations to turn to U.S. Census data, reports on high school dropouts, poverty, employment and health for indicators.

“You are just making a very best guess,” Gelders said. “For example, my grandfather never graduated from high school but was perfectly literate. We know others that graduate from high school and can’t read.”

Community Literacy Centers is a nonprofit organization that has helped 37,000 people improve reading skills since 1987. Yet, there is still work to be done, as the group reports that 140,000 Oklahoma City residents are considered functionally illiterate.

Spindle points out there are free programs across the metro and state designed to help adults with literacy.

“It is hard to reach out to these people and let them know of the places where they can go,” said Spindle, “where they will be welcomed.”

The literacy leaders say adults never learned how to read because of a variety of reasons, such as dropping out of school, moving in and out of school, experiencing trauma or an undiagnosed learning disability. Some adults attended overcrowded schools, and struggles in the classroom went unnoticed.

When an adult approaches a literacy program, an intake assessment is performed to identify each student’s reading level and determine where to begin, said Gelders.

“What we try to do is help the adult learners reach their goals,” Gelders said. “Part of the challenge … is helping them have realistic expectations. One way of doing this is helping them identify their goal and the steps for them to see the progress.”

Help needed

At OIC, the student sets the priorities. At some sessions, a tutor might help a student complete a job application, read a chapter book or look over utility bills.

As more Oklahomans come forward, asking for help, the need for volunteer tutors increases. Tutor training sessions take place this fall. Newly trained tutors will be matched to learners on an already-existing OIC waiting list.

The OIC tutor workshop is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, and a follow-up session will be Oct. 10. Call 235-2651 to register.

Oklahoma Literacy Coalition and the Oklahoma Department of Libraries recognize the efforts of learners at the annual fall conference at the National Center for Employee Development in Norman. On Sept. 27, adult learners will pen their names inside the newest volume of Celebrating Our Journey, a collection of short tales of learners overcoming illiteracy.

Anderson wrote about her desire to read with her grandchildren and the goal she set to read in front of her congregation at Hillwood Missionary Baptist Church in Spencer.

“The things in life that people say you couldn’t do or you wouldn’t do. Look at me now,” Anderson said. “It is still a journey for me every day.”

Print headline: Lighting literacy, Many Oklahomans struggle to read, but aid awaits.

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