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Carolyn HowardJohnson

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Fighting Illiteracy with the Spoken Word
by Carolyn HowardJohnson   

Last edited: Saturday, August 09, 2003
Posted: Monday, March 03, 2003

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How do we reach people who can't read on our National Day of Literacy? The old-fashioned way. Read to someone special. Volunteer time to talk about literacy. At a library or (gasp!) at Wal-Mart!

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, award-winning author of
This is the Place and Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered

Fifty million Americans cannot read or comprehend above the 8th grade level.

50% of welfare recipients are illiterate.

75% of the unemployed are illiterate.

60% of those who are incarcerated are illiterate.

It is estimated that illiteracy costs American businesses $225 billion every year.

The really scary part of all of this is that existing literacy programs reach only about 10% of these people in need--at least in part because they can't read.

In steps Wal Mart and Sam's Club, retailers to the masses. These retail giants sponsored a grass roots campaign in 2003 to eradicate illiteracy in our country. Dubbed "Words are Your Wheels," it is designed to spread the message that literacy is the answer to many of our nation's ills. In addition to giving 9.9 million dollars in grants they have invited authors with an important message to share their stories with their local communities.

I shared my writing experiences at two stores in the Palm Springs, CA, area on Literacy Day. Wal-Mart is encouraging authors to volunteer to help spread the word about the advantages of reading--to those who don't read and to those who do. I plan to read a story from "Harkening" that explores the subject of tolerance and then talk a little bit about the joys of being taught to read by my mother who made our reading time into a game.

When I was small, my mother purchased a whole set of books called "Child Craft" from a door-to-door salesman along with a set of encyclopedias. I still have all 14 volumes. The covers are sturdier than the covers that come from today's publishers, but they're still a little tattered. The pictures are a visual road to nostalgia. An assortment of pictures adorned the cover of each volume.

My mother would let me choose the book I wanted to read and then she would cover one picture at a time with her hand and ask me to tell her what picture she had covered; it was a kind of memory game though I doubt she realized how important this kind of excercise is to learning to read. Then I would do the same for her. Sometimes she would "get it all wrong" and I loved that.

"I can't believe you missed that," I'd say.

"Well, even adults make mistakes sometimes," she'd assure me. It took the worry out of making mistakes for me.

Then my mother would read nursery rhymes--everything from Daffy Down Dilly to Henry Wordsworth Longfellow-- from the first volume or fairy tales from the fifth. Sometimes we would look at nature pictures from one of the addendums called "Science and Industry." When I got older I would read to her, but it was always an interactive experience. Not a test. Not a job. Not homework. It was only cuddle and fun time.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if every child had this opportunity? Wouldn't it be great we could make it up in some small way to those adults who didn't?

Authors and Wal-Mart made an effort to fill the gap. After all, it's never too late to share a love of words, reading, libraries and writing. Will they do it again? Perhaps all of us who participated learned much from this first effort. I hope they will try this again.
Contact Wal-Mart on the web to encourage them to make another effort in 2004. If there is no Wal-Mart near you or the reading times are filled, contact your local libraries. Many will have similar programs in April.

More information on Wal-Marts program to combat illiteracy is available at
or by calling 800-929-4458.

More information on the author is available at

Web Site: This is the Place

Reader Reviews for "Fighting Illiteracy with the Spoken Word"

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Reviewed by Reginald Johnson
I discovered your article, "Fighting Illiteracy with the Spoken Word", just recently, Ms. Johnson. However, it is still timely and exceptionally well done.

Warmest regards,

Reginald V. Johnson
Reviewed by m j hollingshead
thought provoking article
Reviewed by Roger Vizi
Great read Carolyn.
I will be at the Wal-Mart in Woodburn Oregon on that day talking about this subject as well.
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