How to Volunteer with the Illiterate

The most common way to volunteer in literacy is to become a tutor, working one-on-one with a student or a group of students.
The most common way to volunteer in literacy is to become a tutor, working one-on-one with a student or a group of students.
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Frank Laubach believed the ability to read and write was essential for lifting people out of oppression and poverty. While working as a missionary in the Philippines in the 1930s, Laubach started a literacy tutoring program, "Each One Teach One," that would take him to 103 countries in the next 40 years [source: Laubach Literacy Ontario].

In 1955 the "Apostle to the Illiterates" founded Laubach Literacy International, which became the largest volunteer-based literacy organization in the United States. In 2002, it merged with Literacy Volunteers of America to become ProLiteracy America, which has 1,200 affiliates in all 50 states [source: ProLiteracy].


Laubach and other literacy pioneers have made significant inroads in teaching the world to read. But the need for tutors remains. Despite the thousands of literacy programs in the United States, the inability to read, write and solve basic math problems continues to be both a national and global problem with no end in sight.

In the United States alone, 14 percent of the adult population can't read well enough to understand a newspaper story or fill out a job application [source: ProLiteracy]. Especially in today's struggling economy, those skills are absolutely necessary. More than 60 percent of prison inmates are illiterate, and the United States ranks fifth in adult literacy among industrialized nations [source: ProLiteracy]. No doubt there's clear room for improvement -- lucky for us, outlets are in place to help that happen. It's simple to seek help, and the opportunity to assist those in need is easy as well.

To learn more about how you can help fight illiteracy across the United States and the globe, head to the next page.

The most common way to volunteer in literacy is to become a tutor, working one-on-one with a student or a group of students a couple of hours a week to help them learn to read and write. Literacy tutors typically work in programs sponsored by community-based organizations, libraries, prisons and churches.

The quickest way to find an outlet in your area is go to an online literacy directory, enter your zip code and search for a program in your area that works best for you [source: America's Literacy Directory].

ProLiteracy, now the largest volunteer-based literacy group in the United States, also has an online directory that allows you to search by zip code [source: ProLiteracy]. If you're interested in working overseas, ProLiteracy partners with a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that run literacy programs in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

There's a long list of other organizations that offer literacy training and volunteer opportunities -- including the National Institute for Literacy, the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, BookPALS (Performing Artists for Literacy in Schools), the National Center for Family Literacy, the International Reading Association and the Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy.

Some volunteers get started early. SCALE (Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education) is an organization based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that supports college-campus-based literacy programs across the country. In these programs, college students provide literacy tutoring, GED preparation, advocacy and activism in their communities.

Read on to find out what kinds of things you can do as a literacy volunteer.

Before you start sounding out syllables with a student, most literacy organizations require you to go through an orientation and training program that lasts 12 to 21 hours. The training and materials are usually free and offered on weekends.

The training program will include topics like sensitivity training, designing lesson plans, goal setting, dyslexia and the most effective methods for teaching word identification, vocabulary and writing.

Because most illiterate adults have spent years trying to cover up the fact that they don't know how to read, the sensitivity training is designed to help you deal with any shame, frustration or negativity about school that comes up during your tutoring sessions.

The instruction on lesson plans will give you an idea of how to structure a tutoring session, including what workbooks to use depending on the student's reading level or learning disability and how to keep your lessons lively and fresh.

Before getting started with a new student, it's important to set goals by asking what the student wants to accomplish by improving his or her reading and writing. In some cases, it may be to take a driver's test. Others may want to be able to fill out a job application or be able to help their children with their homework.

You can incorporate those goals into your tutoring sessions by spending some time every meeting working on that specific project, such as spending 10 minutes reading the driver's license manual to prepare your student for the test.

You'll also learn techniques for teaching things like phonics, sight words, vocabulary and comprehension.

Read on to find out what requirements you need to meet to become a literacy volunteer.

Requirements for becoming a literacy volunteer vary depending on the organization. But most require you to be at least 18 years old, to have a high school degree or the equivalent and to read and write English well.

Having teaching experience is typically not required, since most organizations require their volunteers to participate in a literacy training program before being assigned to a student.

Most organizations ask you to commit to tutoring a minimum number of hours a week for at least six months to a year. You may also be expected to prepare lesson plans, keep a record of your hours, submit monthly reports on your student's progress and attend a refresher workshop once a year.

You can usually choose when you meet with your student, whether it's in the morning, afternoon, evening or over the weekend. Most tutors meet at a public place -- the literacy center or a library, school or church.

To teach literacy, you'll need an abundance of patience, flexibility, creativity and sensitivity to people from different backgrounds and countries. A passion for reading would also be an asset.

In the end, you can find some way to help even if you don't fit the requirements of a local organization. If there are no organizations that can accept you, think of other ways you can do your part, such as helping children read at your local library or school. There are independent options for those willing to pursue them.

You don't have to be a tutor to help the illiterate. On the next page we'll learn about more ways to help.

Besides tutoring, there are many ways to help spread literacy. One of those is becoming a literacy advocate to shape public policy and raise awareness about illiteracy in your community.

This could involve making a list of media contacts, writing press releases to get publicity for your local literacy program, sending letters to legislators to get more funding for reading programs and inviting elected officials to literacy-related events.

You can also start a committee that tracks literacy programs in your area, including how many students are enrolled, how many students complete the program and how many people are on the waiting list, and send periodic updates to local officials to secure funding and additional support.

Other options are joining groups that track literacy-related legislation, organizing letter writing campaigns, testifying at special hearings and grilling candidates running for local, state and national office about their stance on literacy issues.

Or, if you prefer something more behind the scenes, you can always donate money, materials or equipment to a literacy organization, serve as a board member, work as a recruiter or provide clerical support.

As we mentioned, there are always options for those willing to put the time and effort into finding them. If you can't work with an established organization, look for other ways you can help on your own.

For more information, visit the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


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  • Curtis, Mary and Kruidenier. "Teaching Adults to Read." National Institute for Literacy. (Accessed 5/26/2009)
  • Get Caught Reading. "Literacy Facts." (Accessed 5/26/2009)
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