NewsNational NewsTwo Americas


We all agree literacy is critical. But little attention is paid to literacy in adults

Posted at 1:05 PM, Mar 01, 2022

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Reading is the key. Reading is fundamental. Take a look – it’s in a book. This is what we drill into children’s minds: that learning to read is extremely important to their future success. But we don’t put that same urgency on adults, even though fewer than half in America can read above a 6th-grade level.

Learning those skills requires multiple levels of support.

Take, for example, the three hours every day in a Louisville community center.

Ardo Ahmed and Yurilia Manzanares are among the dozens sitting in classrooms and listening to teachers, for the same reason most parents do most things.

"I need to help my child," said Yurilia.

"I need to help my children," said Ardo, "for their school, for hospital, everything. That’s why I need to learn English.”

These three hours are about learning English. Yurilia came to the United States from Mexico, Ardo from Somalia by way of Ethiopia. This year, they’re in a program in Louisville, fighting one of the overlooked issues in America.

Meagan Lamb teaches English as a second language classes offered through Jefferson County Public Schools.

"This is one of the most diverse zip codes in America," Lamb said. “And everyone is coming here to learn English, to have the same kind of support for their children.”

Literacy among adults, specifically among moms, is a concern that spans far beyond Louisville, far beyond immigrant communities. A Barbara Bush Foundation study found fewer than half of American adults can read beyond a 6th-grade level. A study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health declared “a mother’s reading skill is the greatest determinant of her children’s future academic success.” But that NIH study took place in 2010. The latest National Assessment for Adult Literacy took place in 2003.

"There's a stigma there," said Felicia Smith, the new head of the National Center for Families Learning. “There’s quite a bit of funding that goes into literacy for K-12, because we believe that young people should learn in school how to read and write well. But if they’re not successful during their schooling years, there’s just less attention."

These three hours, every day, make a difference. But they’re only possible because the community center where they take place, Americana World Community Center, provides child care while the parents learn English.

The children are learning English, which creates even more stimulus for the parents to learn as well.

"[The kids] are speaking English in school every day," Lamb said. "And then they go back home, and little by little Spanish doesn’t feel like their native language. But back home, Spanish is their native language."

It’s why, in the last of these three hours, Yurilia and Ardo attend "Parent Time." It’s where they practice not just the language but how to apply it.

“I want to understand my doctor, my children's doctor, and also my teacher and my children's teacher," Ardo said. "I want to understand everywhere."