John Corcoran achieved professional success without being able to read and write. After 48 years, he learned to read, and is now working to end illiteracy in North America through his California, USA, based foundation.Photo courtesy of John Corcoran
How Rotary is helping Johnny (and Jenny) read
John Corcoran prayed a lot when he was in Catholic grade school: “I used to pray, ‘Dear, God, when it comes my turn, please let me be able to read the words.”
Suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability, Corcoran sat in the back row, called the “dumb row.” But he was athletic and good in math. So Corcoran charmed, lied, cheated, and even bought his way through high school and college, eventually becoming a teacher and successful real estate investor. All without ever learning to read and write. It wasn’t until he was 48 that he learned to read through a community learning center.
Now, through the John Corcoran Foundation, based in Oceanside, California, USA, he works to end illiteracy in North America. And he’s even gone on to write two books, including a best-selling memoir, The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read.
When most North Americans hear about illiteracy, they think it’s a problem in other parts of the world. Given that every U.S. and Canadian child has the opportunity to attend school, literacy rates ought to be much higher, Corcoran and others observe. But poverty, undiagnosed learning disabilities, and sometimes even the education system itself are to blame for more and more children slipping through the cracks.
The effects of low levels of literacy continue into adulthood. The National Endowment for the Arts released a report last November that showed correlations between income disparity and the decline of reading. Adult illiteracy in the United States alone carries a $17 billion per year price tag in lost income and tax revenue, welfare, unemployment, crime, and training costs in business.
Mike Chittom, of the Rotary Club of Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, has seen the effects of illiteracy firsthand in a third-grade classroom at a local school, which his club supports through a mentoring project. “If every Rotary club could get involved with a school, there is no telling what we could accomplish,” Chittom says.
RI President Wilfrid J. Wilkinson, of Canada, has made fighting illiteracy an emphasis for Rotarians and appointed an RI Literacy Resource Group to encourage and support clubs in developing literacy projects.
“[Literacy is] the next progression of what the world needs,” Wilkinson says. “We know water is the key issue. Once they have good water, they can have good health. When they have good health, they can go to school, become literate.”
Wilkinson wrote the foreword to Corcoran’s forthcoming book, Bridge to Literacy: No Child or Adult Left Behind. Corcoran lauds Rotary’s efforts, calling them an “exciting development” and noting that “Rotarians are known for their commitment to humanitarian goals and their drive to achieve them.”
An ‘epidemic’ of illiteracy
The illiteracy problem isn’t new. More than half a century ago, Rudolf Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do about It. “In the years since, the malady revealed by Flesch has grown to epidemic proportions in which nearly one-third of all U.S. school children have serious literacy deficits,” wrote William J. Moloney, Colorado’s commissioner of education, in a USA Today editorial in 2006.
Poverty and illiteracy are ideal partners. The environment of poverty makes it difficult for children to succeed. And success, when it comes, is often short lived. The U.S. Department of Education found that even though reading skills improved modestly among fourth to eighth graders in the past 15 years – with the largest jump occurring, ironically, before No Child Left Behind went into effect – by 12th grade, reading scores fell and reading proficiency dropped as well.
The education system is failing many students, spouting a fountain of criticism: Colleges often fail to train new teachers to develop classroom programs that work and fit the needs of every student, and teachers aren’t given the support, resources, pay, or respect for the autonomy necessary to cope with their situation. Teachers need school settings where they are freed from a script that tells them what to do and say, says Susi Long, assistant chair of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Elementary Section Steering Committee. “Publishers who develop programs can’t possibly know children in each classroom and their needs,” she says. To many children, the material isn’t meaningful. Yet teaching from the text of prescribed programs is more prevalent now, Long says.
“Children are told it’s their fault they can’t learn,” Corcoran says. “The child feels the shame and gets the blame. It’s a form of child neglect and child abuse.” Rotary wants that to stop.
“So, how do we do that?” Wilkinson says. “We looked for ways to help in North America. Despite the fact that we have fine schools, we still need help.”
Impressed by the results of a pilot literacy project that linked Rotary clubs with Computer-Assisted Literacy Solution (CALS), Wilkinson negotiated a reduced rate for access to the online program. “It enables users of any age to quickly improve their English language and math skills in a measurable way. I’m encouraging other clubs to get involved [with CALS],” he says. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have other great [literacy] programs, but we are attracting new members with this one.”
Corcoran recognizes the potential. “I viewed Rotary as a sleeping giant, but I sense an awakening,” he says. Corcoran has spoken to many Rotary clubs on his lecture circuit. Rotary, in partnership with the International Reading Association, has created a new resource, called Every School a Star, to help Rotarians select and implement school-based literacy projects. Adopt-a-school programs vary in size and scope, but Rotarians in cities throughout North America dedicate themselves to tutoring, mentoring, and teaching to help lift children out of illiteracy.
As hard as it is to reach all the children who need help learning to read, getting them to keep reading is another quest. Book and dictionary drives, which some Rotary clubs are involved with, help provide age-appropriate books to children who live in areas that simply don’t have them. In Canada, England, and the United States, Rotary clubs are working with singer Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which buys books for each child born in participating communities. In Arizona, USA, the Rotary Club of Tucson’s Reading Seed program provides books and volunteer reading coaches to students in grades 1-3.
Is Corcoran optimistic that volunteer groups can bridge the gap? “The fires of illiteracy have not been contained, so I do get discouraged sometimes,” he says, citing the political and institutional barriers to literacy. But he remains hopeful that Rotary can make a difference.
“Many of these children have nobody but us,” Chittom says. Wilkinson says current global crises give him a sense of urgency. “A better educated and informed population can make better decisions,” he says. “Literacy is the final key to helping people help themselves.”
Jeff Cade is a freelance writer based in Phoenix.