2017-08-09 / News

For some, reading can change everything


At the READ Center, a Richmond-based nonprofit, adults with low-level literacy receive one-on-one reading instruction. For many, it’s a powerful learning experience. 
ASH DANIEL At the READ Center, a Richmond-based nonprofit, adults with low-level literacy receive one-on-one reading instruction. For many, it’s a powerful learning experience. ASH DANIEL Sitting in a classroom at Philip Morris’ plant on Commerce Road, Floyd Winfield raised his hand.

Long an employee of the tobacco giant, Winfield had just finished listening to an instructor give a refresher on how to operate the company’s cigarette packing machines. Following the presentation, the instructor asked if anyone had any questions.

The instructor called on Winfield, who explained that if he could be taught with a machine in front of him, he’d continue to be one of the company’s best operators. When the instructor asked if anyone else in the class felt the same way, every hand went up.

For adults who struggle to read, it’s a familiar story. At the time Winfield learned to operate the packing machine, he couldn’t read very well. By being instructed with the machine in front of him, Winfield could memorize how to work the machine without having to decipher the booklet that was part of the presentation. Techniques like this are how people who have trouble reading function in a world of words.

“It’s like a blind person,” explains Winfield, a 69-year-old Chesterfield resident whose learning was hindered because he had to help his father farm crops while growing up. “You start to listen to your ears.”

Winfield, who worked at Philip Morris for three decades before retiring, is one of 37 county residents to participate in classes offered through the READ Center this past year. The Richmond-based nonprofit offers programming to help native English-speaking adults with low-level literacy improve their reading skills through small classrooms and one-on-one instruction throughout the region. Classes have a maximum of 15 students, with one paid instructor and a handful of volunteer tutors.

“Our mission is to help adults with literacy issues achieve their literacy goals,” says Karen La Forge, executive director of the READ Center. The acronym stands for Reading Education for Adult Development.

The majority of READ’s students read at or below the fifth-grade level, with nearly 47 percent at or below the second-grade level. Seventy percent self-identify as low income, and 89 percent self-identify as African-American. Most of the nonprofit’s students live in Richmond, but as poverty continues to spread into Chesterfield and Henrico, La Forge says they’re seeing growing demand in the counties.

Prospective students can find out about classes by calling the READ Center ahead of time to register. The classes are free to all students.

The nonprofit’s classes usually follow the public school calendar, but to fight the loss of reading retention over the summer, the READ Center is currently offering its first-ever book clubs. Winfield is one of the first participants in the book clubs, taking part in his group’s meeting last week at Meadowdale Library.

Holding a biography of Nelson Mandela, instructor Chanel Lewis began the session with a discussion of what students already knew about the former South African president. The students then took turns reading, stopping after each page to discuss what they’d learned in an effort to build reading comprehension.

To take part in the book clubs, students have to have previously been enrolled in READ Center courses. The center tries to keep students and instructors of the same reading group together to foster camaraderie.

“My class was very excited about doing this,” says Lewis of the book club. “This is all about having fun, but they’re still learning.”

When they reached the part of the book that explains that Mandela’s birth forename was Rolihlahla, meaning “troublemaker” in the Xhosa language, there was discussion over how to pronounce it. Student Andretta Long pulled up a YouTube video on her phone to clarify.

A Chesterfield resident and Monacan High grad, Long works with special needs children in the school system, and sees improving her reading skills as a way to advance her career. Before she began taking courses at the READ Center, Long estimates she had the reading comprehension of an eighth-grader. Now, she says she’s more in the range of a 12th-grader.

That Long graduated high school with lower-level reading skills might surprise some, but La Forge says about a third of the center’s students have graduated high school, have their GED, or have attended some college.

“Having a high school diploma does not mean that you are on the reading level to participate in life,” La Forge says. “That always intrigues people. Schools can’t house students forever. From [kindergarten through third grade] you learn to read, and then after third grade, you read to learn.”

La Forge says third grade is the dividing line for learning to read; if people haven’t learned to read by that point, they’ll likely struggle for the rest of their lives. She lists a variety of reasons that people don’t learn to read, including having an undiagnosed learning disability, illness or trauma. The latter may be especially relevant for those who have lived in and around Richmond’s public housing projects, where gun violence and gang activity is more common.

“We’re seeing a lot of trauma in [Richmond’s] East End because of shootings,” La Forge says.

A number of the READ Center’s students come with specific goals in mind, like being able to get a better job or learning to read road signs for driving. La Forge recalls one man whose goal was to be able to read the Bible aloud in church. For some, learning to read suddenly becomes a matter of life and death. A diabetic, for instance, needs to be able to read food labels and medication instructions.

In addition to the book clubs, the center is developing in other ways. The nonprofit initially focused solely on the written word, but has morphed to include digital literacy and basic math skills. The READ Center is also looking to change its class schedule to include a summer semester next year, and will continue to offer book clubs during the summer.

La Forge stresses that poor literacy skills don’t necessarily correlate with intelligence.

“Our students are not dumb,” La Forge says. “These are students who manage their lives without the ability to read well. You’ve got to be a pretty smart person to figure this out.” ¦

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