Literacy for Life: Teacher can relate to students' reading problems

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

Jan Whitemore taught reading for more than 20 years, but always struggled with the skill herself.

It wasn't until she was 57 and volunteering as a literacy tutor that she discovered she was dyslexic.

"I was a reading specialist and never learned anything about dyslexia," she said. "Isn't that crazy?"

Now serving as the director for the Carson City Literacy Volunteers, she helps others learn to read or improve their skills.

"I know what they're going through," she said. "I lived in terror of being called on to read out loud. It was awful."

Although a constant battle, Whitemore continued her education in hopes of improving her reading skills, and eventually learned to read well, if slowly. She took a job as a physical education teacher in El Cajon, Calif.

But a bout with skin cancer made her switch to an indoor job. She decided to become a reading specialist teaching history, English and English as a second language.

Her confidence grew and she could read aloud most days to her students, but there were times, she said, she just couldn't do it.

"Even now it's tiring for me to read," she said. "Some days, I just have a hard time."

Whitemore began working with the literacy volunteers when she moved to Nevada in 2002 and became director in 2006.

The program has 60 students enrolled, with about 15 people on a waiting list.

The most recent study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2003 concluded 13 percent of people living in Carson City were illiterate.

Whitemore estimates the number is probably higher than that.

"No one wants to admit they can't read," she said. "It's a dark secret."

Exact statistics are hard to come by.

The most comprehensive national study, the National Adult Literacy Survey, was conducted in 1989 by the Department of Education under the direction of Congress.

It concluded that 21-23 percent of Americans performed at the lowest literacy level, such as being unable to locate an intersection on a street map.

Results from that study link illiteracy to higher rates of poverty and crime, lower income levels and increased dependency on welfare.

Studies suggest that two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.

The latest statistics available to Nevada are from 2003. However, the Nevada Literacy Office is looking for a new director, and, officials say, compiling data from the 2010 U.S. Census will be one of the first tasks to be completed.

And the solution is just as complicated, Whitemore said, often coming down to money.

Relying only on a one-time $20 fee charged to students and $25 assessed to trainers, along with some donations from businesses and churches, there is little funding for advertising.

Whitemore said it is hard to publicize the training sessions held twice a year for new tutors and to educate the community about the constant need.

It's also hard, she said, for those looking for help to find the resource.

"We always hear people say they made 100 phone calls before they found us," she said.

She said she'd like to remove the stigma from reading issues. Like anything else, she said, it takes practice.

"The only way to do it is to do it."

Often students who perform well at their jobs are unable to advance in their careers because they can't pass the written tests.

By teaching them to read, she said, it's more than giving them a skill.

"It's an opportunity at life."


You Can Help

WHAT: Become a Carson City Literacy Volunteer

WHEN: The next training for tutors is 6-9 p.m. Sept. 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, and 24

WHERE: Nevada State Library and Archives Building, 100 N. Stewart St.

Volunteers are certified nationally in ProLiteracy America.

CALL: For more information, call Whitemore at 885-1010.

Basic Facts about Literacy

• There are 774 million adults around the world who are illiterate in their native languages.

• Two-thirds of the world's illiterate adults are women.

• In the U.S., 30 million people over age 16 - 14 percent of the country's adult population - don't read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at the eighth grade level or fill out a job application.

• The United States ranks fifth on adult literacy skills when compared to other industrialized nations.

• Adult low literacy can be connected to almost every socio-economic problem in the United States:

• More than 60 percent of all state and federal corrections inmates can barely read and write.

• Low health literacy costs between $106 billion and $238 billion each year in the U.S. - 7 to 17 percent of all annual personal health care spending.

• Low literacy's effects cost the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.

- Source:

The impact of low literacy

• Poverty: 43 percent of adults classified in the lowest level of literacy live in poverty.

• Welfare: The likelihood of being on welfare goes up as literacy levels go down. Three out of four food stamp recipients performed at the lowest literacy levels.

• Income: Adults at lowest literacy levels earn a median income of $240 per week, compared to $681 for those who test literate.

• Crime: Seven in 10 prisoners perform at lowest literacy levels.

- Source: National Adult Literacy Survey


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