Literacy is fast becoming one of America's most read-about causes. First lady Barbara Bush is using her role to exhort us to become a nation of readers; the faces of celebrities such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Michael J. Fox grace pro-reading posters, and the nation's governors recently named universal adult literacy as one of their six goals at an education summit.
However, no worthy goals are without obstacles, and this one faces at least three.First, only a small portion of the illiterate population ever signs up for literacy programs; and of those who do, more than half drop out within the first few weeks.
Second, literacy programs are dominated by misguided teaching methods that do more to frustrate students than to teach them.
Third, an astonishing lack of accountability pervades the adult literacy field. Government agencies appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars for adult literacy, but, for the most part, have little idea of where their dollars are going.
Learning to read as an adult can be difficult, and it may take years just to attain a sixth-grade reading level. But those who truly want to learn, including many with severe disabilities, can become literate with proper instruction.
Unfortunately, too many literacy programs use confusing teaching methods that contribute to high dropout rates.
Despite 70 years of evidence against it, many programs still use the "whole-word" or "look-say" methods, whereby students memorize whole words, without extensive reference to the letters and sounds.
All research points to the superiority of phonics, which teaches students to break down words into identifiable letters and sounds. While phonics students can apply their knowledge of the alphabet and sounds to any word, whole-word students must memorize each word as an independent entity.
Poorly designed teaching materials also drive away prospective learners. Some of the more popular programs, including the Literacy Volunteers of America's series, tend to skip over introductory material about the alphabet and sounds. Starting off at too advanced a level, however, can intimidate beginning students.
In addition, many literacy programs squander funding on expensive workbooks and computer systems. Reading can be taught with almost any written material.
Most literacy programs, however, remain largely ineffective and unaccountable - even as they receive vast sums of money.
According to one report, the federal government, through 79 different programs, spent approximately $218 million in fiscal year 1989 on adult literacy. But, by the report's own admission, this number is inaccurate because most federal agencies have no idea how much they spend on literacy.
Despite the problems with existing federal literacy programs, both houses of Congress are expected to consider legislation to increase expenditures - without correcting the major flaws in the current system. Legislation in the last Congress, sponsored by Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., and Rep. Thomas Sawyer, D-Ohio, would have done little to increase accountability.
Accountability is what is needed most. While we cannot control an individual's desire to learn, we should insist that literacy programs teach those who are willing to learn.
The question should not be, "How much did we spend?" or "How many joined our program?" but rather, "How many people did we teach to read and write?"