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The Bliss of Being an Adult Literacy Volunteer

Teaching students has helped them and helped her, too

By Ronni Gordon

Every day while driving to my job at the newspaper where I was a reporter, I passed a billboard with a photo of an elderly man saying how wonderful it was to finally learn to read. It made me want to volunteer for the program where he was a student (or one like it), but I didn’t have the time.

Then I got laid off in my late 50s. I wasn’t happy about it, but the job loss gave me the opportunity to look into this kind of volunteer work using the skills I had honed as a writer. And it’s something I recommend you consider doing, too.

Finding a Program to Be an Adult Literacy Volunteer

By the time I was able to start teaching adult literacy, the billboard was gone. But I searched online for “adult literacy programs” and found at least half a dozen in my part of Massachusetts. (You can find these types of programs near you by connecting to America’s Literacy Directory and putting your ZIP code in.)

I chose the The Literacy Project, where free classes range from beginner level to preparation for the high school equivalency test. I’m now going into my third year of tutoring one morning a week, which gives me plenty of time to work on my freelance writing and other activities.

Technically, I’m in what’s now known as the field of Adult Basic Education or ABE. It’s become the umbrella term for adult literacy and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). In the past, it was called English as a Second Language or ESL. The name was changed because many of the students already know more than one language.

Another volunteer and I help the instructor while she teaches reading, writing, math and, to a lesser extent, science and social studies. We either float around and answer questions or sit with students in small groups, sometimes even one-on-one.

Getting Back as Much as She Gives

Soon after I began volunteering, I learned that I’d get back as much as I gave.

While the students learned basics such as how to read a street sign, and shared success stories about getting jobs or discovering the joy of reading, I made new friends and felt good about being useful after feeling bad about getting laid off.

And here was my big surprise: the students taught me, too. As a former English major, math had been a long-forgotten skill. But a man who was reading picture books in the class reminded me how to do it. He also helped me out on an icy day when I couldn’t get the key to turn the lock on my car door, wiggling it back and forth gently.

When the teacher asked students to describe something they did that made them proud and the man couldn’t think of anything, I reminded him about the time he helped me get home. He smiled and wrote about it. Without setting out to do it, I had helped build self-esteem, which in turn reinforced my own.

This kind of volunteering is greatly appreciated. “We rely on tutors to give the one-on-one help that students need,” said Judith Roberts, The Literacy Project’s executive director. “We wouldn’t be able to do the work we do without our volunteers.”

Making a Difference

The volunteering I do is also making a difference, which makes me proud.


“Ninety percent of our students are below poverty level,” said Roberts. “We’re focused on education as the vehicle out of poverty. Many are refugees, some had a trauma that interrupted their education, and some were denied an education.”

According to the Literacy Project Foundation, 50 percent of adults in the United States can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level; 45 million are functionally illiterate and read below a fifth-grade level.

Roughly half of Americans read so poorly that they are unable to perform simple tasks such as reading prescription drug labels. A middle-aged man in the beginner class where I tutor said he got pushed through high school without knowing how to read and wanted to finally be able to read the newspaper.

Who Are the Literacy Volunteers?

Because they must be available one day a week in the morning, my fellow volunteers tend to be late-career or retired people coming from all walks of life..

Roberts started out as an ABE volunteer after spending 30 years in sales. She returned in a leadership role after getting a master’s in community-based education. Michael Chernoff, now a board member, started volunteering after a career in business and fundraising.

Volunteer Cathy Reid has a background in education, most recently as director for Smith College’s Campus School. Said Reid: “I find it satisfying to see the students progress. A lot are not in easy situations and it feels good to create opportunities for them.”

To become a literacy volunteer, all you often need is an ability to speak English fluently and a passion to help others. Said Director of Volunteers Margaret Anderson: “We also want great listeners — tutors who will pay attention to what students are saying and respond as needed.”

Volunteering as a Springboard

My literacy volunteering has become something of a springboard for me. Since I learned that you may be able to earn more substituting as a teacher in these types of programs than in public schools, I got on sub lists in several organizations near me.

I also took an online course offering an overview of adult education and attended a free professional development class, Foundations for New Staff: The Art of Teaching. I figured it would give me more confidence when I get called. Who knows, I might even find myself in a new career.

Ronni Gordon
Ronni Gordon is a South Hadley, Mass.-based freelance writer and editor and a former newspaper reporter. She has written for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the alumni quarterlies of Smith and Vassar and elsewhere. Read More
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