The average literate person can easily associate the word “tree” with a trunk with branches and leaves. But imagine seeing the word as a string of unrecognizable symbols.
Around 1 million Wisconsin adults cannot read at the average level and qualify for the services that the Literacy Council of Superior and Douglas County and other organizations offer, according to the 2000 U.S. Census and the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey. Around 10 percent of these adults are actually seeking and receiving help.
Joe Thomas, 67, is in this 10 percent. He says his reading level was at “rock bottom” a year ago, but since then he’s been going to lessons every Wednesday in Superior with Sue Hendrickson from the literacy council.
“The biggest problem I had was spelling,” Thomas said. “I couldn’t spell the word I was trying to pronounce.
“It went all the way back when I was in high school. I was sick all the time, so it was an excuse not to go to school. Plus, I was bullied all the time when I went to school, so I dropped out.”
Thomas dropped out his sophomore year of high school. It wasn’t until last year that he decided to give the literacy council a call.
“I’d been talking to my wife about it for the last five years. I’d really like to see if I can get my GED,” Thomas said. “I just want to see if I could do it.”
Thomas’ wife helped him with words and other problems he’d have at home, but some of his friends weren’t as supportive.
“Whenever I’d talk to my friends they’d say, ‘Why do you need to have your GED? You’re too old to be doing this.’ The more they’d say it, the more I’d want to do it,” Thomas said.
Hendrickson formed the Literacy Council of Superior and Douglas County in 1992. Since then, she has mentored around 50 illiterate adults.
“People are sort of motivated when they have children. All of a sudden, they want to read to their kids, and they realize they aren’t where they want to be,” she said.
Hendrickson said achieving a GED is another common motivator for adults to seek help, as well as simply being able to read the newspaper. Thomas said he was held back from “everything,” but now he can “at least read the newspaper.” Joe is now at a point where he has the endurance to read the newspaper pretty leisurely.
“Before I even started (the lessons) I’d look at the newspaper, and I’d read maybe two or three lines, and that’d be the end of it,” Thomas said. “Now it’s like I’m gravitated towards the paper. I have to know what the whole story’s about.
“When I come across a word and I can’t pronounce it, I’ll work at it and work until I sound it out, and then I know what it is.”
He does not know how much longer he will continue his lessons, but he’s happy with his progress so far.
Hendrickson was trained to be a high school teacher, but she realized that she enjoys teaching adults even more.
“They are really motivated. They have a reason. They have a goal,” she said. “They understand the need to do lessons before the lesson.”
The literacy council is a non-profit organization of 11 members. All are volunteers, and four are trained tutors. Hendrickson said the council usually has three to six students at a time, commonly 9th or 10th grade high school dropouts. Though they do accept students who have simply called for help, like Thomas, most of the students they receive are referred to them by the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC).
“WITC has been a real good partner for us,” Hendrickson said. “If they (applicants) can’t read at a 5th-grade level, they are really not ready for WITC.”
Taking the next step to get to an appropriate reading level is up to the adult. Hendrickson said the council receives around 10 referrals from WITC each year, and only around 3 give her a call to start lessons.
“You hope you have made an impression, and you usually form a nice bond with someone,” Hendrickson said. “It’s a good experience. Volunteers feel needed, and that’s important, and you feel helpful. You hope you’ve helped someone move on.”
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