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Brokaw and 'Dateline' open the book on illiteracy

August 08, 2003|Scott Sandell | Times Staff Writer

Imagine buying medicine but not being able to comprehend the instructions. Or trying to ride the bus without knowing how to decipher a timetable or a street sign.

For an almost unbelievably large number of Americans, reading is an elusive skill. According to the last Department of Education survey on the subject, done in 1992, 21% to 23% of adult Americans fell into the lowest level of literacy skill -- meaning they were essentially functionally illiterate, unable to comprehend basic written materials that are part of daily life. An additional 25% were found to be only marginally literate.

Though those statistics have come under dispute over the years, some things are undeniable: Adult illiteracy carries a huge amount of shame, and learning to read at an older age requires a big commitment.

That's the focus of tonight's edition of "Dateline NBC," titled "Tom Brokaw Reports: A Loss for Words," airing at 8. Brokaw and his team of producers followed four New York students struggling to learn how to read over the course of eight months.

As befits this slickly produced report, each student represents a different facet of adult illiteracy in the U.S. today:

* Henry Hills, a 56-year-old electrical worker, grew up in the South, where sharecropping rather than schooling was the lot of many an African American child like him in the 1950s. His goal: to read a book to his granddaughter.

* Joyce Rossi, a 51-year-old woman from Brooklyn, thought she didn't need an education and became a truant. Years later, she wants to write letters to her son, a Marine deployed to the Persian Gulf.

* Lata Dass, a 32-year-old caregiver, grew up in Guyana but stopped attending school at age 10. English is her native language, but she can't write well enough to pass the exam to become a U.S. citizen.

* Irene Thompson, a 26-year-old mother from New York City, was deemed to be learning disabled as a youngster and believes her parents and the system gave up on her. Now she wants to read well enough to earn her high school equivalency degree.

In each case, making progress toward the goal doesn't follow a straight path. But it's the promise of a better life through literacy that keeps the students from falling through the cracks this time.

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