When Benito Alpizar's wife was sick, he was afraid he wouldn't be able to communicate with the doctors well enough to understand what was happening. As a native Spanish speaker he couldn't ask the necessary questions or understand the answers, making a difficult situation even harder.
However, with the help of Read to Learn, Alpizar was able to create a list of questions for the doctor. With his one-on-one tutor, Marcia Perkins, he practiced asking them in English. They role-played to practice situations he might encounter at the doctor's office and in other parts of his daily life.
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After three semesters with Read to Learn, Alpizar has improved his reading skills several grade levels, gotten a promotion at work and been able to communicate better with his son's teachers at Elk Grove High School.
Alpizar is one of about 700 students in the Northwest suburbs benefiting from the Read to Learn program this spring semester. The literacy program is run by District 214 Community Education in cooperation with District 211,
Adult students are paired with a volunteer tutor for free, weekly sessions during a 10-week semester, and many return for more semesters to keep learning, Program Coordinator Lesley Goldberg said.
"The program helps me improve my English and understand more," said Alpizar, who lives in Des Plaines. He and his family came to the U.S. in the 1990s, first to California, where Alpizar said he was able to work and handle his family life without perfecting his English.
Read to Learn is one of many free literacy programs throughout the suburbs, all of them working toward common goals -- improving lives and minimizing the persistent issue of adult illiteracy.
According to ProLiteracy, a nonprofit international literacy organization, 63 million adults over the age of 16 cannot read above an eighth grade level and 30 million read at a fifth grade level or lower. Also, 43 percent of U.S. adults with very low literacy live in poverty.
Since Read to Learn began, nearly 10,000 students have enrolled in the program across the suburbs and more than 5,000 tutors have helped them reach their goals, Goldberg said.
Last fall, at least 70 students were waiting outside the Schaumburg Township District Library on the day registration opened. Sessions are held at 12 sites across the suburbs, including Schaumburg, Palatine, Wheeling, Rolling Meadows and Mount Prospect. A 13th site will open next fall due to demand.
"We want them to feel successful," Goldberg said of the goals tutors set with students. Those include being able to make their own doctor's appointments, participating in conferences with their children's teachers, helping their kids with homework, getting a better job or just being able to talk with their neighbors.
When the program began, it was for native English speakers. Some could not write or wrote poorly, while others had learning disabilities. Some were recovering from strokes or had other medical issues that compromised their ability to read, Goldberg said.
However, as the suburbs have grown more diverse, the program has shifted almost completely to support English language learners, with a few native speakers mixed in.
Officials said it isn't that native English speakers no longer struggle with illiteracy, but that they may be scared to come forward after hiding it for so long.
"Americans, if they did slip through the cracks, may be embarrassed about it," said Kelly Barinholtz, site supervisor for the chapter of the program at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. Her section of 40 students spoke at least 10 different languages.
Pairing an English speaker with someone who primarily speaks Russian, Polish, Spanish or another language is a challenge, but Goldberg said tutors overcome it by drawing pictures, acting out words and role-playing, such as when Alpizar and Perkins played doctor-patient.
Goldberg said it takes creativity -- like drawing pictures of foods before making a grocery list or acting out a conversation with a child's teacher -- but that the mutual desire to communicate bonds students and tutors closer together as they try to understand and help one another.
"We have many immigrants looking to learn and they've given up a lot to come here," said Perkins, who lives in Arlington Heights and is in her third semester as a tutor. "I have so much admiration for these students and their commitment. To see them make progress is really gratifying."
When Lucy Stout left Russia for America 15 years ago, she was so busy raising her daughter and building a life, she didn't have time to learn English as much as she would have liked.
Stout, of Wheeling, is still working on her English skills, but she's come a long way. She passed her U.S. citizenship test last fall and she tells her granddaughter to read as much as possible.
Goldberg said students and tutors often form bonds that extend beyond the classroom.
"At the end of the day we're all just trying to make our lives better and hoping for the best for our children," Perkins said. "We all have those same goals."
Skills: 'At the end of the day we're all just trying to make our lives better'