Using your skill set for the greater good.

Advice on how to make the world better.
May 5 2010 7:06 AM

Adult Education

How can I use my language skills to help illiterate people?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to

Teaching adults to read.

Dear My Goodness, I'm a newspaper reporter. Or I was a newspaper reporter until last year, when I took a buyout as a pre-emptive action before being laid off. I'm too young to retire; I feel as though my profession retired on me. I pay the rent by doing freelance technical writing, but I'd like to do some word work that is more meaningful. Someone suggested volunteering to tutor an illiterate adult, but I don't know how to start and I've never been a teacher.—Gary in Sacramento Dear Gary,

I can readily sympathize with your plight—given my experiences in journalism and volunteering. After years of being an editor of newspaper book review sections, I decided to go less literary and get out in the world. So I became the world's oldest cub reporter—as a national correspondent for the now-defunct Newhouse News Service. My beat there, called Doing Good, began with stories that defined some extremely serious problem and then profiled a person or group doing something effective about it. The subject expanded to include the politics of nonprofit groups, and then to what various people in power perceived as doing good. This was during that interesting time when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich was controlling the poverty and welfare agenda; in those olden days even Arianna Huffington, a Newt sidekick, was a conservative.


My next job took me back to school and then outdoors. My particular world-improving skill was making run-down public spaces prettier and cleaner. As a New York City Parks Department gardener, I supervised volunteers of varying ages, varying degrees of enthusiasm, and varying degrees of substance dependency. (It's much, much better to work with recovering addicts than with sulky teens.)

I wanted to share a bit about myself, since many readers will notice the My Goodness reins have been handed over to me from the very capable hands of Patty and Sandy Stonesifer.

First, don't worry. Most reading tutors have no formal teaching experience. They tend to be people who love reading and find it painful to think of someone whose life lacks that pleasure.

California, God bless it, does manage to squeeze out funding for literacy programs. (California, land of good intentions and not enough property taxes to fund them securely.) The state needs the programs. At the time of the last National Assessment of Adult Literacy Survey in 2003, 23 percent of adult Californians lacked basic literacy. The really bad news is that the previous survey, in 1992, found the number to be 15 percent. The problem is nationwide; one in seven adults in America can't read beyond the level of the most basic children's book. Close to half of the people in U.S. prisons are functionally illiterate; Kazakhstan and Cuba have better literacy rates than the United States.

The essence of volunteering is to look at a staggeringly large problem like this one and tackle it at a personal level. As a reporter you're used to talking to people who are different from yourself, and you're probably an alert listener. You're also likely to be good at explaining things clearly.

As a first step, take a look at the national volunteer site, as well as These sites list libraries and community colleges across the country that have adult literacy programs. Here is the California Adult Education Provider Directory—perhaps an even more direct source of opportunities in your area. Before you sign on to any one program, ask the volunteer coordinator for the names of two or three experienced volunteers you could talk to. Many programs require about 20 hours of training; then typically you'll meet with your tutee for an hour a week in a room at a library or school.

There are two main reasons adults come to a literacy program for help. The first is pretty obvious—they want to get a job or earn more at their current job. The second is a heartbreaker—they want to read to their children and help with homework. Tutoring takes empathy and patience. Adults with low reading skills are often ashamed and fearful. I figure your recent traumatic job experience has increased your empathy levels.

What's in this for you, besides feeling like a good person? You'll meet other people who share a concern about the effects of illiteracy and who love books and language. As Baby Boomers and those even younger find themselves involuntarily semiretired, nonprofit groups are making a big effort to capture the skills that are out there. When the economic fog lifts, you'll have a positive résumé item, and your supervisor surely will be happy to write reference letters.


Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to

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Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.



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