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Need for Literacy Tutors Is Urgent, Cal State Dean Says

September 22, 1986|BILL BILLITER | Times Staff Writer

Orange County has at least 200,000 adults who are functionally illiterate--unable to read or write at an eighth-grade level--and these people suffer in their everyday lives, a Cal State Fullerton dean said Sunday.

Don A. Schweitzer, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, told a university and community meeting in the Cal State Fullerton library that volunteers are needed to help tutor the county's illiterates so that the quality of their lives can improve.

"Their whole lives change after they learn how to read and write," said Schweitzer, who is chairman of the advisory commission for the California Literacy Project.

Being unable to read even the simplest words can have serious ramifications for health and safety, Schweitzer said.

As one example, Schweitzer held up a prescription container. The label, typed by the pharmacist, has instructions on how many pills to take a day, and when to take them, he noted. But an illiterate person cannot read the typed label.

"He has to try to remember what the doctor or the pharmacist told him," Schweitzer said.

Moreover, the dean said, when the pill container goes onto a shelf with other prescription medicines, an illiterate person faces another danger. "How do you distinguish this container from all the others on the shelves?" he asked.

To illustrate another dilemma faced by illiterates, Schweitzer held up two cans of Campbell's soups. The can labels were identical except for the names of the soup contained in each can.

"If you can't read, how do you tell the difference between two kinds of soup?" Schweitzer asked.

"One woman who can't read told us, 'It was always a surprise at supper time. I never knew what was going to come out of the can.' This woman has literally played pot luck every night."

Schweitzer, in addition to being on the state advisory commission for combatting illiteracy, is chairman of the board of the Placentia Library unit of Literacy Volunteers of America. He said the Literacy Volunteers of America recruits and trains tutors who work with illiterate adults on a one-on-one basis. Tutors have to be dedicated for they must not only volunteer their time, he said, they also must pay $10 for training material.

The need for tutors is urgent, Schweitzer said, because neither the state nor the federal government can afford to pay for all the teachers needed.

In California alone, he said, there are an estimated 4.8 million adults who cannot read or write at the eighth-grade level. All 4.8 million, he added, are legal residents--either native U.S. citizens or persons who have legally emigrated to the United States. The many thousands of illegal immigrants who cannot read or write are not included in the literacy census, he said.

Nationwide, there are at least 17 million legal U.S. residents who are functionally illiterate, Schweitzer said. "That's 13% of the (U.S.) population, and that's the low estimate," he said. "Other estimates say there are 76 million illiterate persons in the nation, or about one-third of the population."

Some illiterates cannot read or write at all, he said. But for many, the problem is being unable to read or write at the eighth-grade level. A person is considered functionally illiterate if unable to master those skills in mass communication and instructions in travel and commerce, such as reading a newspaper or bus schedule, which are usually taught by the eighth grade.

Some resident illiterates are people who emigrated legally from other countries, but have not been able to learn English, Schweitzer said. But he added that the majority of illiterate U.S. residents are native citizens who simply have failed to learn to read and write.

In some cases, it is because of poor schools, but he said a major reason for illiteracy is that students simply drop out of school. He said the high dropout rate for Latino students in the United States is a big factor in many of them becoming functional illiterates.

Schweitzer said information about being a tutor for illiterates may be obtained from the Placentia Library or from most other libraries in Orange County.

The Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) is a nationwide organization with 15,000 tutors. But because so much instruction must be one-on-one or in very small groups, Schweitzer said, the LVA currently is reaching only 21,000 illiterates nationwide. "That's a real drop in the bucket," he said.

Volunteer tutors, Schweitzer said, do not have to be college graduates. "The only degree you need is a degree of caring," he said.

His speech was sponsored by the Patrons of the (Cal State Fullerton) Library, a community group that raises money and helps with projects for the campus' library.

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