Literacy is an indispensable skill in today’s society, but for too many adults in the United States, it is a skill that they lack. Studies have shown that millions of adults in this country demonstrated low levels of literacy skills. With reports that 17,000 residents lack reading skills, the Oswego County statistics mirror that of the U.S., but several local organizations are hoping to change this harsh truth.
The term literate is often hard to define, and it becomes more problematic because the United States has no official language. Organizations such as The National Institute for Literacy emphasizes in all of its studies and research it focuses on literacy of the English language and is aware that large partions of the population, typically immigrants, are literate in other languages. In the latest and largest study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), literacy is defined as “the ability to comprehend and use written information.”
The NAAL found that approximately 40 million to 44 million of the 191 million adults (data from 2003) in the country demonstrated skills at the lowest level of literacy, Level 1. Level 1 involves being able to perform simple tasks with brief and uncomplicated documents such as a bank deposit slip. The study also found that out of the adults that fell under the category of Level 1, 25 percent of the respondents were immigrants who may have just been learning English and 62 percent never finished high school.
The Literacy Coalition of Oswego County reports that 17,000 adults in Oswego cannot read above a fifth-grade level. This level is different from the way it is measured by the LINCS or NAAL, but in comparison, the numbers would still fall into the NAAL lowest level, Level 1. The Literacy Coalition of Oswego County also reports that one in every five residents of Oswego cannot read at all.
It was for this reason that the coalition was formed in 2009. LCOC President Jon Spaulding explained that the non-profit organization consists entirely of volunteers and that depends on the efforts of the community as a whole.
“We are a growing coalition of almost 40 local organizations dedicated to improving literacy in Oswego County,” said Spaulding, who is also the publisher for the local newspaper, The Palladium-Times. “Our mission is 100 percent literacy through 100 percent community engagement.”
Spaulding became president in 2011, but The Palladium-Times was one of the original members of the coalition since its inception. He explained that the coalition works with programs in the following areas: basic literacy, workforce literacy, computer literacy, health literacy and financial literacy. The LCOC recently held an annual literacy event at the Mexico Elementary School to showcase the many services and providers within LCOC. Some of the organizations involved are the Alliance Bank, Literacy Volunteers of Oswego County, Oswego YMCA, Cayuga Community College and the Oswego Public Library, among others.
According to Spaulding, the LCOC plans to get more information on the literacy statistics in the county.
“We have recently secured a grant from the Shineman Foundation to complete a research study to see just how effective the programs we’re offering in the county have been in improving literacy statistics,” Spaulding said.
Meg Henderson, the coordinator for the Literacy Volunteers of Oswego County, agrees that more data on local literacy levels is needed. With this grant, Henderson believes the coalition will be able to improve their services.
“One of the issues is there’s a lot of data from K-12, but adult literacy there really isn’t,” said Henderson, who has been working in the human services field for over 20 years.
The Shineman Foundation was unavailable to comment on the grant.
According to Henderson, the LVOC provide free confidential one-to-one tutoring to persons 16 and older that are not enrolled in school. Students take yearly assessments to determine their skill levels and growth throughout the year. Students also make learning plans with specific goals such as getting their GED (high school diploma equivalent) or enrolling in college. Anyone can become a tutor, but they must complete a 12-hour training.
Henderson explained that in the fiscal year of July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013, the efforts of the LVOC have proved important in the community. According to Henderson, the LVOC took in 45 new students, had 65 student-tutor matches, 20 people retained employment and seven people obtained employment. There was also a 97 percent success rate from pre-test to post-test, one individual gained their GED and two individuals gained U.S. citizenship.
The Oswego Public Library has been involved with the literacy efforts since the establishment of the coalition. The director of the library, Carol Ferlito, was also involved with the formation of LCOC. She said that the library, aside from creating their own programs, provides space and a computer lab for different agencies and organizations to use.
According to Ferlito, programs to help the community are established on a need basis. These programs are discussed in a monthly meeting.
“This last meeting that we went to, they were announcing what different employers are coming into the area…whether or not their literacy level was at a point where it needed to be,” Ferlito said. “Some of their language skills were not very strong, so now we have a new ESL class.”
The Oswego Public Library hosts a summer reading program, a story hour program for children and a variety of classes from resume building to Microsoft Office assistance.
“It’s difficult for some adults who don’t read. They can’t read to their kids or they might not be able to read prescriptions correctly, which is dangerous,” Ferlito said. “Our biggest problem is getting the word out to people that we’re here and they need to contact us and we’ll help them find an agency that can help them do things.”
To get involved or seek help, visit co.oswego.ny.us/literacyco or call 315-342-8839.