The Read­ing Bar­rier

City should lead in ad­dress­ing adult lit­er­acy

The Dallas Morning News - - NATION & WORLD -

Ron Reney reads at roughly a fourth-grade level. He makes ends meet by work­ing two $11-an-hour jobs, wash­ing dishes and work­ing in a ware­house. But the fi­nances got more com­pli­cated in late May when he and his girl­friend wel­comed a baby girl into their fam­ily.

Be­tween those long hours at work and time with his new­born, Reney is tak­ing classes to im­prove his read­ing and writ­ing skills. It’s worth the work, he says, if it can help pull him out of dead-end jobs.

Reney, 27, is one of the many faces of the work­ing poor in Dal­las, a hard worker whose poor lan­guage skills hin­der his abil­ity to move up­ward eco­nom­i­cally. Friends and fam­ily have helped keep him afloat, but “I want to make it on my own,” he says.

Dal­las has more than 80,000 res­i­dents who, de­spite work­ing full or part time, are in poverty — and poor lan­guage skills is one of the rea­sons. By 2030, ex­perts pre­dict that about 1 mil­lion Dal­las County res­i­dents, nearly one-third of the pop­u­la­tion, will not be lit­er­ate in English.

A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber are peo­ple are like Ron, na­tive English speak­ers who lack the crit­i­cal read­ing and writ­ing skills re­quired to com­pete for bet­ter-pay­ing jobs. But Dal­las’ chal­lenge is ex­ac­er­bated by the large num­ber of non-na­tive English speak­ers. With Dal­las at­tract­ing more and more im­mi­grants, the lan­guage bar­rier is also a ma­jor bar­rier to ad­vance­ment.

About 25 per­cent of Dal­las res­i­dents are for­eign-born; at least 44 per­cent speak a lan­guage other than English at home. Span­ish is the pre­dom­i­nant lan­guage, but by far not the only one — at least 65 other lan­guages are spo­ken here.

You don’t have to be a so­cial sci­en­tist to rec­og­nize the rip­ple ef­fect on fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. Busi­nesses need English-lit­er­ate work­ers. Jobs that don’t re­quire ba­sic lan­guage skills are un­likely to pay any­where near a wage that can sup­port a fam­ily. A per­son who strug­gles with English also is more likely to have a brush with the cor­rec­tions sys­tem, rely heav­ily on so­cial ser­vices and suf­fer se­ri­ous phys­i­cal or men­tal health prob­lems. And their chil­dren are more likely to face sim­i­lar chal­lenges, cre­at­ing yet another gen­er­a­tion in cri­sis.

Lisa Hem­bry, pres­i­dent of Lit­er­acy In­struc­tion for Texas, which runs the adult lit­er­acy pro­gram that Reney at­tends, says fix­ing lan­guage lit­er­acy chal­lenges in Dal­las will re­quire an in­ten­sive in­ter­ven­tion with re­sources from the city and non­prof­its in a co­or­di­nated strat­egy that does not ex­ist now. Adult lit­er­acy and ESL pro­grams are un­der­funded, un­even in qual­ity and can be dif­fi­cult to track down.

Plus, there is a Catch-22 for the work­ing poor. Those with poor lan­guage skills might get by with a low-wage job when the econ­omy is strong but will find them­selves un­em­ploy­able and com­pet­ing against bet­ter-skilled, un­der­em­ployed work­ers in a re­ces­sion.

The city of Dal­las should take the lead to be­come a clear­ing­house for ESL and adult lit­er­acy classes, help­ing in­crease the aware­ness of op­tions so peo­ple know where to turn for help. The city also should en­cour­age, even in­cen­tivize, cor­po­ra­tions to bring ESL and adult lit­er­acy pro­grams to job lo­ca­tions.

Says Hem­bry: “Once a per­son learns how to read well, life changes for them. As we raise up the least in our com­mu­nity, we raise up everybody.”

Com­ing to­mor­row: So­lu­tions

David Woo/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Ron Reney, 27, takes a class at Lit­er­acy In­struc­tion for Texas at Ci­tySquare Op­por­tu­nity Cen­ter in Dal­las. He’s work­ing to im­prove his read­ing skills so he can get a bet­ter job to sup­port his fam­ily.

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