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Reading is a precious gift you can give


© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 28, 2001

It is hard to imagine being unable to read and write. Reading is an essential part of life, not just for books and newspapers, but simply to function. The illiterate cannot read menus, letters or phone books. They cannot fill out forms or write checks. They are denied Pickles and Peanuts.

The written word has been around for a long time. Libraries existed in Egypt from the third century B.C. The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that in the fifh century B.C. ". . . an active book market existed in Athens." I hear that ancient Aztec temple symbols are finally being translated.

Virginia Gildrie of the Literacy Council of St. Petersburg says about 20 percent of today's population is functionally illiterate. Another 49 percent are able to read, but not well. Only 20 percent of those who can read, read for pleasure.

I went to one of the twice-weekly evening classes taught by volunteers of the Literacy Council of St. Petersburg. Classes are held at Lakewood Community, Northeast and Dixie Hollins high schools. In St. Petersburg, about 80 students are taught one-on-one, each with a personal tutor. The phonetic Laubach method is used. Gildrie calls it a "miracle method."

"It works!" she says with joy in her voice.

Sitting in the classroom, I could not tell the students from the tutors, sitting in pairs at their separate study tables. All were smiling, courteous adults. One tutor is a grade-school teacher who volunteers to help adults learn to read. Another was an Eckerd College student who uses a wheelchair. She comes twice a week to help her student.

One student is a cross-country truck driver. He said he gets oral directions for his journeys. His wife is a college graduate, but he says that he is better at finding his way than she is. I learned that a driver's license test can be taken orally.

Gildrie says people manage their lives without being able to read "Because they are so darn smart." It takes intelligence, survival skills and a good memory to survive in the modern world and keep their secret. They often have a good job, but when they are offered a promotion and will need to be able to fill out forms and cannot, they come to the literacy council for instruction.

I heard once of an illiterate man who was a warehouse supervisor. He memorized the entire warehouse inventory because he could not read.

Gildrie, an accountant, has worked with the 25-year-old council since 1973, when she read an article in the St. Petersburg Times and decided to volunteer. She is 80.

"Literacy is my life," she says. She devotes herself to helping people read because she loves to read and ". . . can't stand it that somebody else can't read!" She has held many positions, some on the national level. Currently, she is treasurer for the local group.

She laughs as she tells me about her son. In first grade, he brought home a copy of Dick and Jane. He read the whole book perfectly. His mother put the book aside and wrote down some of the words on a piece of paper. Her son did not recognize a single one. She said, "You were not reading the book; you memorized it."

"I can read it," he said. "I can read it without even opening it," and he proceeded to recite the entire contents. That did it. Gildrie promptly began teaching him to read with the phonetic method.

"There is no such thing as an average student," Gildrie says. "Tutors can work with people at any level, whether they cannot read at all, or if they can read some. We find the problem and go on to good foundations."

High schools are not equipped to teach reading. That should have come earlier, but some students still cannot read. With special arrangements, high school students are tutored by the council.

Another problem is that the illiterate cannot read this information to find out that classes are available.

Tutors attend a 10-hour workshop to learn the teaching method. The council needs more tutors and welcomes volunteers. This is a wonderful way for seniors to contribute something for those whose lives are difficult because they cannot read. Gildrie welcomes calls from anyone interested; call (727) 521-1117.

- Write to Niela M. Eliason in care of Seniority, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731; or send e-mail to

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