In Central Arkansas, one out of 10 adults struggles to read. These Arkansans often have a tough time paying bills, understanding street signs, and completing basic tasks because of an inability to comprehend written words.
For many, this can be an embarrassing secret to live with. However, one organization and its affiliates are taking steps to improve adult literacy in the state.
On the fifth floor of the Main Library in downtown Little Rock are offices for Literacy Action of Central Arkansas, a nonprofit that offers free tutoring to adults who need help with reading skills.
“When you’re illiterate people look at you different and I’ve had a lot of people that wouldn’t even want to talk to me after they found out I couldn’t read. That always angered me because I’m still the same person,” said 65-year old Sammy King from England, Arkansas.
He’s in a nearby study room getting help from a tutor. King says learning to read has been a lifelong struggle and he has faced many obstacles.
“My daddy couldn’t read and write. He couldn’t even write his name, but he worked all his life and he raised me and done a good job,” King said, after closing his study book. “Back when I was a kid, we didn’t have no help. My momma got killed early so daddy [taught] me how to work, be honest, and survive.”
While growing up in rural Arkansas, King would fail classes, but teachers would still let him pass to the next grade level. King eventually dropped out of school and later thought he would get some assistance with his reading problems, along with an education, when he joined the Army.
“I asked them for help in the service and the Drill Sergeant looked at me and said ‘King, you’re going to [Vietnam] you aint’ going to have time to learn how to read. You better learn how to stay alive.’ Thank God I learned how to stay alive and I survived the war. Of course, the Drill Sergeant calls me out in front of 250 guys and embarrassed me in front of them and I had to go back in the barracks and live with those people… it was pitiful,” King remembered.
“Then I was [in a relationship] with a teacher when I got out of Nam, went with her for six years, and asked her to help me she said she wasn’t going to teach me how to read because she was afraid I was going to leave her. I left her anyway and thank God my wife came into the picture and I’m on the right track now.”
After closing his study book at the tutorial session, King takes off his reading glasses and admits that for many years being illiterate didn’t stop him from achieving certain professional goals.
“I had two [businesses that I ran] for 30 years. I had a roofing and tree [trimming] business and I did some painting,” King said. “My biggest problem was filling-out the paperwork to get [employees] paid and doing insurance papers… thank God I found a few people who would do it.”
Though he managed to navigate through daily life without too many hiccups, not reading well has caused some awkward social situations for King.
“When you go into crowds of people, like when my wife would always want me to go to these art things, I always felt uncomfortable because everybody was in there reading and you feel like everybody is looking at you. I don’t know if that’s guilt, but you’re just uncomfortable. It’s bad to go into a room and feel like you’re already down…,” King recalled.
Sammy King decided to secretly get help with reading from Literacy Action about nine months ago. Failed attempts with other tutors and programs in the past made him leery about this new attempt and he actually went to the library parking lot three times on different days before finally deciding to enter the building.
For the first six months of tutoring, King would not even tell his wife about the sessions, because if his efforts were unsuccessful he did not want her to be disappointed.
“Sammy, like all my students, came in wanting to learn to read and it has been very fun to help him because he has plenty of intelligence and he just had fears,” said King's tutor Pratt Remmel.
Remmel was in the process of retiring when he decided to join Literacy Action and help adults learn to read.
“My job has just been to work with him and word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, and sometimes letter-by-letter show him that he is capable of reading these things and help him learn the things that he could have learned had he had proper teaching,” Remmel said.
Since he started working with the organization nearly two years ago, Remmel has tutored seven adults and he says the student and teacher handbooks have been terrific resources for helping learners, like Sammy King, progress.
“Just because you can’t read doesn’t mean you can’t think and that’s one of the common misperceptions that we have in our society,” said Remmel.
Nodding his head in agreement, Sammy King admitted sometimes people just don’t understand.
“People really think that when you can’t read you just don’t have enough sense to do this or to do that and that’s just wrong,” King said.
Across the hallway, Neil Jones, the executive director of Literacy Action of Central Arkansas, says illiteracy is a silent problem that negatively impacts many Arkansans and Americans.
“We have almost 92 million adults in the United States who read just on a basic level and in [Central Arkansas] we have about 30,000 adults who struggle with literacy every day,” said Jones. “[These adults] need to have the skills to do simple things like read the newspaper, go to the internet, or help their kids with homework…so this is really important to a lot of people in our community.”
Jones says there was a noticeable increase in the number of adults seeking help during the recent economic downturn.
“We’ve seen a lot of people come in who’ve actually been out of work and they’ve realized that time has passed them by and they don’t have the basic literacy skills to find new jobs and compete in the marketplace,” Jones noted.
Back in the study room, Sammy King says his tutor Pratt Remmel is humble, patient, and makes learning fun. He says, at first, it’s hard to admit that you’re an adult who has trouble reading, but you have to be willing to take the first steps to get help because it can pay off.
“I get goose bumps just thinking about the feeling like I can look down at a book now and some words I still can’t make out, but at least I can read good enough to get by,” said King. “My wife is real tickled and she’s pleased and it’s just a different world…it’s just like your eyes are opening up.”
After trying to get help for over 40 years, Sammy King says he’s thankful for all the support he’s received from the Literacy Action program and his tutor.
King admits he still has a long way to go, but realizes how much his reading skills and overall confidence have improved in a short amount of time.
Nine months ago when he first arrived at the tutoring sessions, Sammy King was reading at the First Grade Level and now he is already reading at the Fifth Grade level.
Click here to learn more about an upcoming fundraiser to support adult literacy programs in Central Arkansas.