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Literacy News

An Advocate for Adult Literacy: Cora Wilson Stewart

by Literacy Volunteers and Advocates on 05/14/15

Back in the early years of the last century, a young Kentucky elected official, Cora Wilson Stewart, met a young man who sang a moving ballad. She asked the young man for a copy of the song, only to be told that he could not produce one because he could neither read nor write.

Incidents such as that spurred Wilson Stewart, the Superintendent of Public Schools for Rowan County, to take action.

Advocates of Adult Literacy and Adult Education will find Cora Wilson Stewart: Crusader Against Illiteracy by Willie Nelms, M.A., M.S.L.S., to be an interesting and, at times, thought-provoking read.  The book is a reminder that, despite all that has changed in the century since Ms. Wilson Stewart started her literacy crusade what has not changed is the toll that illiteracy takes on people, regardless of whether they live in mountainous Appalachia or inner-city DC or Baltimore.

Illiteracy among the US population in 1910 was estimated to be at 7.7% by the US Census Bureau. Back then, the Census Bureau considered a person to be  illiterate if he or she could not write their name in any language. "This rudimentary definition meant that the actual number of people who did not have literacy skills adequate to function in society was much higher," insists Nelms.

Appalachia was a laggard in development, but there were those public officials, such as Wilson Stewart, superintendent of schools for the eastern Kentucky county of Rowan, who realized that the world was changing and Appalachia would need to change to keep pace. Nelms writes,"[F]amily disputes often escalated into feuds that placed entire areas under the threat of violence. Because of the isolation of the area, civil leaders came to reflect family rivalries and local politics mirrored these disputes."  Kentucky historian Robert Ireland even compared the feuding to medieval times, citing the similar lack of respect for civil authority and reliance on assassinations.

 The memory lingered of the feuding when Wilson Stewart, aware that a more advanced, demanding, and commercialized world was making its presence felt, even in Appalachia, realized that action must be taken to help the region and its inhabitants to catch up. Wilson Stewart saw illiteracy and its impact in more personal terms too, recalling people such as the man who could create songs but not write the lyrics. As Wilson Stewart later wrote about such incidents:

                               "I interpreted them to be not merely the calls of individuals,

                              but a call of the different classes; the appeal of illiterate

                              mothers, separated from their absent children father than sea

                              or land or any other condition than death had the power to

                              divide them; the call of the middle-aged men, shut out from

                              the world of books and unable to read the Bible  or the news-

                              paper or to cast their votes in secrecy and security; the call

                              of illiterate youths and maidens who possessed rare talents,

                              which, if developed, might add treasures to the world of art,

                              science, literature and invention."

Wilson Stewart was inspired to start the famous Moonlight Schools to begin teaching Rowan County adults with below basic literacy skills how to read and write. From that, she became a recognized crusader for Adult Literacy and Adult Education in her state, then the nation, and ultimately, internationally. Ironically, Wilson Stewart, smart and ambitious as she was, eventually saw her views conflict with those of Adult Educators who had more formal educational credentials.

At LVA, we harness the best of both. The energy and altruistic commitment that volunteers offer to help our adult learners to master basic skills in individual tutoring sessions as well as the professionals who are credentialed, possess classroom experience in teaching, and share that energy and concern.

It bears noting that most adult learners in DC lead relatively conventional lives, caring for their families, involved in the community and church, often holding jobs or retired from long years of work. Right now, tens of thousands of DC residents lack strong basic literacy skills, hindering their ability to effectively care for their families and to succeed in life. Sometimes lurking behind the violence that has afflicted inner-city neighborhoods is illiteracy and thwarted potential to advance one’s position in life.

Nelms book is a reminder that there is still a great deal of work to be done to erase the literacy inequality gap that afflicts our city and many others. It also is a reminder that illiteracy does not just impact cities but also rural areas. The Appalachian Poverty Project in discussing poverty in Pike County, in an undated blog entry, paints a picture that should sound familiar to DC advocates for Adult Education and Adult Literacy:

                               "Less than 62% of adults in Pike County, Kentucky have

                              high school diplomas and less than 10% have college

                              degrees. This number is skewed by the fact that the

                              county has a prosperous town with a hospital, doctors,

                              lawyers and merchants. The difference between the

                              haves and have nots is extreme."

If there is a lesson about the work of Stewart Wilson, it is that Americans should feel a sense of urgency in combating this national problem which hinders the potential of so many Americans to succeed. That sense of urgency needs to be balanced by patience and perseverance because many adult learners must struggle to master lessons that can be daunting and challenging. Yet, people do succeed and it is with pride that LVA can point to many examples of how we have helped DC residents to more fully enjoy the promise of American life.

Literacy Advocates who would like to read this book can obtain it through the DC Public Library


by Literacy Volunteers and Advocates on 04/07/15

A recently released report from the US Department of Education's Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education demonstrates why the work that LVA and LVA volunteers do is so important.

"Making Skills Everyone's Business" details the need for "upskilling" America's workforce.

At LVA, many DC adults come to us to improve their basic reading and writing skills in the hope that it will help to provide them with a better foothold in the job market. The "foundation skills" of literacy, numeracy, and basic workplace protocols is extremely important. Unfortunately, too many DC -- and US -- adults are lacking in such skills and the result is not only poor employment prospects for those adults but even basic living skills.

Many Americans would be surprised to learn that, according to the 2012 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) survey, 17.5% of Americans ages 16-65 have low literacy. Even in DC, often heralded as one of the nation's most literate cities, the most widely cited data from the last decade found a similar percentage of DC adults with low literacy skills.

What's the cost?

The report notes the intergenerational problem of low skills.  Low skilled adults are likely to have parents with similar low skills. Even though many have completed high school they are often working for low wages.

 "Making Skills Everyone's Business" states:

U.S. adults with low levels of education who have parents with low levels of education are 10 times more likely to have low skills than are those who have higher-educated parents. This intergenerational link is much stronger in the United States than in other countries and suggests that skill gaps in childhood persist into adulthood.


Many low skill adults are in poorer health and do not believe that they have a say in their government.

Helping to improve the skills of those adults with low skills can not only improve their lives, it can help to set their children on a better path. The report states:

Several studies have found that when mothers with low education levels complete additional education, their children appear to have improved language and reading skills. These quasi-experimental studies have found these effects of increased maternal education only for mothers with a high school education or less who have participated in a variety of education and training services, including high school credential completion, occupational training, and college.

Given the concern expressed by many in DC about income inequality and lack of social mobility, more DC residents need to speak out about the need to ensure that adult literacy and adult education organizations are well-funded and serving the many people who desire to improve their basic skills.

That is why LVA works in partnership with other adult literacy and adult education organizations to ensure more DC adults can receive the education they need to improve their basic skills and improve their lives.


by Literacy Volunteers and Advocates on 10/31/14

Ms. Martha Phillips and her fellow LVA learners recently visited DC City Council, participating in Adult and Family Literacy Advocacy Week organized by the DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition (DC-AFLC). 

Ms. Phillips, a native Washingtonian, had never visited the city council before. She participated in a meeting with Councilmember Muriel Bowser that emphasized the importance of keeping DC adult literacy programs funded. While Ms. Phillips did not speak during the meeting, she does have a story worth hearing and it is one that policymakers need to recognize. 

"I just thank God that I have a second chance. A lot of people think not being able to read is the end of the world. They make excuses for not being able to read. All they have to do is say, 'I need help' and doors will open."

Ms. Phillips was raised by parents who could not read. She dropped out of school even before entering high school. With her employment prospects limited by her inability to read, Ms. Phillips worked for a cleaning company before joining the housekeeping crew at Washington Hospital Center. 

Before her late husband became sick, Ms. Phillips had been participating in LVA's classes at the old YWCA building. By the time, she was able to resume classes, LVA had moved its offices to Edgewood St., NE. Thanks to help from a social worker at Washington Hospital Center who was able to locate LVA at its current address, Ms. Phillips is now participating in classes, honing her reading and math skills by attending classes four days a week at LVA's Wardman Court site. 

"Now I have improved so much," says Ms. Phillips, who is already setting her sights on obtaining a GED. "I just want to better myself."

Ms. Phillips wants city policymakers to realize that "reading is important for a whole lot of reasons" and that is why it is important that DC City Council will provide strong funding for adult literacy programs. 

She says literacy is the key factor in determining whether  a person can work in a higher wage position or one that pays low wages. It can be the difference between a person taking medication correctly or making a costly visit to the emergency room because they could not read the instruction label correctly. 

Despite the hard work put forth by LVA and other DC adult literacy programs, there are still tens of thousands of DC residents who lack basic proficiency in reading and math. That lack of basic skills hinders not just job prospects for those residents but also exerts a negative impact on their health care, financial security, and family relationships, and their own children's experiences with education. Many people with low literacy levels end up being incarcerated. 

Adults who are literate are better able to become responsible and productive members of our city. Funding adult literacy programs is really about making sure that people have the basic tool -- literacy -- that can help them and their children to lead better, more fulfilling lives. It's an investment that reaps dividends. 

LVA is proud to participate as a member of the DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition. The third week in September is Adult and Family Literacy Week in Washington, DC.  


LVA is thrilled to announce that two of its learners have
been featured on NPR (88.5 WAMU) as part of a five-part
series on Adult Education called Yesterday's Dropouts. The interview can be found by clicking the WAMU link below. We are so proud of our learners and their dedication to literacy.