Dallas Farmer always dreamed of owning his own auto repair shop. He has a knack for taking things apart, figuring out how the pieces fit together, and making them work. But when he couldn’t read auto repair manuals, he couldn’t pass the tests he needed for certification. And when Farmer realized his reading problems were also interfering with his ability to help his kids with homework, he decided to take action.
Farmer enrolled in an adult literacy program, where he struggled until a tutor introduced him to phonics. Suddenly, the workings of the English language made as much sense to him as a car engine. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Hey, that’s all I need. I’m a mechanic. Just show me how the dang thing is built, and I’ll go for it.” By breaking the language down into manageable parts, Farmer learned to sound out words, to spell, and to write. And to pass tests; today he owns his own repair shop in Memphis.
Like Dallas Farmer, Enrique Ramirez and Sheila Greene joined adult literacy programs to find better work and to become better parents. But the keys to learning for them were quite different from phonics. Ramirez learned to read by playing word games like Scrabble with his tutor. And Greene began to improve her reading retention when a tutor steered her toward material she found interesting—African-American stories and newspaper articles about people like her.
“The main reasons adults go back to school are to get a better job, to read to their kids, and to have an easier time dealing with everyday challenges like applications, leases, and car payments,” says Marian Schwarz, director of EDC’s Adult Literacy Media Alliance (ALMA). “Many want to read the Bible better. Others want to write their autobiography. Getting a high school diploma is very important. Ultimately, it’s about achieving dreams, and that is quite different from individual to individual.”
Farmer, Ramirez, and Greene tell their stories on episodes of TV411, the TV/video component of ALMA’s multimedia curriculum. TV411, which is now airing on public television stations across the country, is accompanied by print materials and a Web site designed for adults at the pre-GED level who are in need of reading, writing, and mathematics skills. TV411 is being distributed through broadcast and cable media, and on video cassette.
The video and related materials are designed for use by individuals in their homes, and in literacy classes, as well as in community settings such as libraries, health clinics, employment centers, churches, and banks in urban and rural regions throughout the country. ALMA materials are currently being used in more than 250 community “hubs.”
In addition to mixing media and settings, the curriculum uses a magazine-style format to mix the practical with the inspiring, the serious with the whimsical. Each episode of TV411 features a collection of fast-moving segments that cover everything from suffixes to percentages, songwriting to filling out immigration forms. Here are some sample segments:
- Three members of the Dallas Cowboys use percentages and probability to figure out who should take their field goal kicks.
- A group of adults in a job-seekers program work on their resumes.
- Viewers learn the definition of “foreshadow,” a word songwriter Michael Franti uses in a prior segment.
- A newly pregnant woman finds a resource book on pregnancy.
- Adult learners in a book club discuss Maya Angelou’s novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
- The Question Man, a recurring and extremely persistent character, quizzes a newspaper vendor on ambiguous headlines like “Police Can’t Stop Gambling,” and “Farmer Bill Dies in House.”
“Some people are surprised by how eclectic we are, how quickly the videos move from one topic to another,” says Schwarz. “But that’s our strength. People find different elements of the videos useful and relevant. And if they see something that’s not relevant, they know they can wait a minute or two and we’ll be on to something else. It’s also important to point out that we’re not trying to do the whole job here. We’re reaching out to people whose literacy skills are rusty or incomplete and giving them tools so that they can help themselves.”
Schwarz, who spent 10 years running the New York City Adult Literacy Initiative, also emphasizes the importance of building community-based approaches to literacy. She looks at every community setting as a potential ALMA classroom. For example, a hospital serving low-income families may have a strong vested interest in literacy if patients can’t read through long applications for free health insurance from the state. ALMA is connecting such hospitals to literacy centers that run workshops on filling out the applications. At the same time, the project envisions turning the hospital itself into a small literacy center with the ALMA videos running on the television set in the waiting room.
By making adult literacy both pervasive and inspiring, Schwarz hopes to bring the issue “out of the closet” and remove the stigma. “People still carry around a lot of shame when it comes to adult literacy. Too often they think it is their failure-when often they never had a chance to get literate.”
The transition from illiteracy to literacy and from shame to pride can effect positive changes on an entire family. “Children’s literacy levels are heavily influenced by parents’ literacy levels,” says Schwarz. “And improved literacy changes the ways adults interact with their kids.”
Ask Enrique Ramirez: “A lot of kids look at parents as superheroes. Invincible. My son looks at me as better than Superman. He saw I was willing to face my fear and learn to read and write. I did it for him, but also for me and my family. It made life a lot easier for all of us.”
Originally published on June 23, 2006