Small Good News: Extra! Extra! (Help Someone) Read All About It.

Small Good News: Extra! Extra! (Help Someone) Read All About It.

Huffington Post: May 4, 2009 by Karen Stabiner

You can’t read this, and it has nothing to do with your computer. You can’t read your kid’s history report or the warranty on your cell phone or a medical history form or a job application.

If you can read this, imagine for a moment that I’m using the Cyrillic alphabet. A couple of letters here and there might seem familiar, and you might be able to guess a word or two. But mostly you’d be out of luck, which is how illiterate adults, one in seven Americans, feel all the time – 3.4 million of them in California alone.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 23% of California adults lack what the Department of Education calls “prose literacy” skills. They may be able to decipher prescription instructions or a DMV application, but they will not be reading their kids to sleep any time soon.

I mention California because we’re broke, hanging onto our statewide bank balance by the slimmest of threads, 5,000 teachers fired and counting, and under those circumstances it is depressing but not surprising that the state intended to eliminate adult literacy funding from the budget. And yet at the moment statewide programs are still alive, because advocates have fought back to make sure they got continued support — because people like Kristi Breisch feel that teaching adults to read is both an honorable and a practical thing to do. Breisch has worked for several regional offshoots of the California Library Literacy Services program, as well as for ProLiteracy Worldwide; for fifteen years she’s been involved in what is essentially a save-the-word campaign, to ensure that adults to want to learn to read can find a place to do so.

We could get all soft-focus and warm and fuzzy here, imagining the first time a mom or dad sits down to read “Good Night, Moon” to her daughter or son, or the moment when reading becomes a pleasure instead of a struggle, but Breisch and her co-workers are savvy enough to speak to politicians in a language they understand: finance. Adult literacy matching programs provide seven dollars for every one dollar spent by the state, a nice, dependable pay-out compared to the black-hole economics of, say, a Bernie Madoff. But the even more compelling truth is that an adult who reads can do more and make more than an adult who doesn’t read – and if we’re all about rebuilding the economy, wouldn’t it make sense to spend the equivalent of about twelve cents per Californian on building a stronger workforce?

As the reading mom of a reading daughter, I have to imagine that the children we’re so concerned about, the ones who don’t read soon enough or well enough, will profit if their parents read. Think of the disconnect: Your dad lectures you that reading is more important than anything, and yet he can’t do it. Now imagine that your dad says reading is more important than anything right before he sits down to do his reading homework. Makes all the sense in the world to me, and clearly to Kristi Breisch and her colleagues.

Adult literacy programs were almost dead, until a band of concerned Californians stepped up and said not yet. Long live reading and the people who still support it – and if you want to find an adult literacy program in your neighborhood, all you have to do is visit and plug in your zip code.


Karen Stabiner’s most recent book is The Empty Nest. You can visit or write to her at


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