Facing the Page
Learning to Read at Age 41
It was June, 2006. The place was the Adult Learning Center at the Aguilar branch of the NYPL on 110th Street near Lexington, where more than a hundred students and twenty-five volunteers met regularly to study together. Around a table, small groups of students met with one or two volunteers for four hours each week, and built their reading and writing skills together in a relaxed, informal setting.
Awa* was 41 years old. She had five children aged 4-13, and she was born in Gambia, in West Africa. She walked into the Aguilar Adult Learning Center and said to the Site Advisor, “Can you help me? I want to learn to read.”
Awa’s spoken English was poor, but her desire to learn was clear. She had had only a few months of education in Gambia before coming to the US to start a new life here. Catholic Charities had helped her with housing, food, and schools for her kids, and then sent her to the library so she could learn how to read. They knew that her low literacy put a ceiling on her prospects to survive in NYC.
At Aguilar then, learning to read using computer software was the first step for new students, so after learning how to use a mouse, Awa worked independently listening to sounds, clicking on pictures, and repeating words. She was frustrated. Often she couldn’t understand what the computer was asking her to do. She didn’t even know the alphabet. Holding a pencil was difficult, writing with it was even harder. She was “in a hurry,” and she wasn’t happy trying to do what she couldn’t do. She was ready to give up.
Feeling a similar frustration, was one of Aguilar’s volunteers, Elizabeth, who wanted to help adults learn how to read. Elizabeth had been trained in the 1990s by Esther Sands, Phyllis Bertin and Linda Brown (all experts in the field of reading), and later she took courses offered by the Reading Reform Foundation, which uses proven, phonic-based methods, to teach reading, writing, spelling and comprehension.
Elizabeth was spending time working with a small group of beginning readers at Aguilar, but was frustrated when students were absent, because a linear phonics program required students to be present for the daily lesson, and when students missed a day, they would fall behind in their skills’ practice. Elizabeth was not happy leading a group of learners, and she felt it just wasn’t working for her. She was ready to give up.
So what does the Site Manager do with a student and tutor both ready to give up? Match them together, of course: a volunteer who understood the importance of a step-by-step process in teaching phonics, and a bright middle-aged woman motivated to read on her own!
A match made in heaven.
And so began a seven-year long relationship, learning together for four hours every week at the Aguilar Library!
Every week for the next seven years, Awa and Elizabeth met at Aguilar twice each week (and sometimes three times each week) for two hour sessions to study together. Awa worked from lesson to lesson, from book to book, from 0 level of reading to grade 5, and even higher! With Elizabeth’s help, she plowed through all the phonics readers, using the skills she was learning each week.
At home, she started encouraging her children to read. When the youngest was in pre-school, she read the books to him at home, after she practiced reading them over and over with her tutor. Later she began helping them with their homework, and then she began picking up AM New York and reading headlines! As that got easier, she began reading more and more of the stories below those headlines.
After a few years, Awa had the confidence to look for work as a home attendant. In 2010, she landed her first job, having passed the reading test the agency required. As she studied and learned more skills she could use in her work, she gained additional certification. Her current client, who is 79 years old, writes her notes, writes her shopping lists, and asks her to read letters that come in the mail. Awa reads everything she needs to read.
Motivated each day by her growing skills and her increased confidence and with the help of her (now) grown children, A studied for many months for the citizenship test and then took the test in October 2015. The test included 100 knowledge questions and many sentences of writing and reading. When she got word she passed, she was thrilled! With her passport in hand, she will return to Gambia to visit her family this summer, after an absence of 23 years.
Awa talks about getting a nursing certificate, but she’ll need to enroll in college for at least one year in order to get it. She is looking into the program at Hostos Community College.
And what about Elizabeth? Elizabeth came to the Aguilar Adult Learning Center each week for 2 full days, meeting with Awa 4 hours a week and then other students for the rest of the time: always one on one, because that’s the only way E likes to teach reading—individually! But as time moved on, and traveling became more difficult, at age 87, Elizabeth decided to stop teaching reading, and she retired in March 2014. The other volunteers and staff threw her a party, celebrating her work at Aguilar.
What does Awa remember about those seven years with Elizabeth?
When Awa and Elizabeth met for lunch in December, Awa said, “She changed my life—totally, and I cannot thank her enough. Every time we got together, she would give me presents for my kids for their birthdays, like memberships in museums or book store certificates. I can travel on the subway without asking anybody anything! It’s like magic. I use the GPS on my phone when I have to walk places.
It makes me cry sometimes, just thinking about all the attention she gave me. I get emotional when I think about Elizabeth.”
This summer the two women and the kids celebrated Awa’s 50th birthday together. Elizabeth gave her a family membership to the Museum of Natural History.
Both women say the same thing: “I am really happy we met that day in June…”
*Names have been changed.