10 Things that Literate People Can Take For Granted

It’s a safe bet that if you clicked the link to visit this post, you’re able to read. Learning that people aren’t able to read and write is usually a shocking experience. For many of us, reading and writing is something that everyone is able to do, something that is as natural as breathing. However, statistics show that this is not the case. Almost 30% of Mid-Southerners are unable to read at a 3rd grade level.

Even if someone reads at or above a third grade level, they can still face problems–most things that we read in our daily lives are written for intermediate or advanced readers. As a literacy organization, part of our work is to create understanding between those people who are able to function as literate citizens, and those who are not. So today, we’ll be listing the top 10 things that literate people can take for granted. This is not a list to shame people for being able to read. Instead, think of it as a spotlight that shows some tasks and activities that are difficult for the people that we serve.

reading black woman1. The Joy of Reading for Pleasure

How do you feel when you hear that your favorite author has written a new book? Or when you snap open a newspaper and settle down to read the news? For low literate people, reading for the sheer pleasure of reading is difficult to impossible.

2. Navigating Roads and Cities

It took us by shock when we realized how dependent we are on street signs, text-based landmarks, and our navigation systems to navigate roads and streets. Low literate individuals have to rely on coping strategies such as visual markers and route memorization.

3. Ordering Food From a Text-Only Menu

When a restaurant menu is text only, it can be difficult for low-literate adults to figure out what certain foods are, or what their ingredients are. This can cause a problem with enjoying food or with low literate adults who have food allergies, among other things.

4. Researching Information Online

While low literate adults can possess some savviness with mobile phones and technology, that skill is limited by their reading ability. When it comes to finding information about important things online, low literate adults can face significant difficulties locating information and understanding the information that they are able to find is a problem as well.

5. Working in your desired field

Literate individuals have the ability to search for jobs that they want and the educational qualifications to actually stand a chance at getting jobs that they want. Low literate individuals, however, are most often relegated to service careers which, while important, tend to be temporary and unfulfilling.

homework help

6. Helping Children With Homework

One of the most frequent goals of the low literate adults that we serve is the desire to help their children with their homework. Without the ability to read at an adequate level, many low literate adults are unable to help their children complete their homework assignments, which also has an effect on their children’s educational attainment.

7. The Ability to Pursue Niche Education Opportunities

Speaking of education, one of the cool things about the these days is that literate people can pursue all kinds of nontraditional educational opportunities, like online education, auditing university courses, and education via mobile apps. Low literate people are frequently unable to take advantage of these educational opportunities.

8. Voting

Voting is a massively important tool for creating social changes. And while low literate adults can gain understanding about candidates and issues via conversations, their reading ability can block them from gaining that deeper understanding and reaching truth about the stances of candidates and how issues affect them.

9. Receiving Birthday Cards

Even though a birthday card isn’t a complex work of literature, it can still be a difficult task to read the short messages on birthday cards. This can ruin the enjoyment of receiving them. Fortunately, you can always put money in birthday cards.

Vernetta and Boris10. Agency in Interacting with the World

Ultimately, one of the biggest privileges that literacy grants people is the ability to obtain enough information to choose their course in life. Whatever course a literate person decides to take, as long as they’ve bothered to inform themselves on it (and it is something that they can actually control), they have agency in the direction that they’ve decided to go. For low literate adults, much of the agency that information via literacy would provide to them is lost. Therefore, it is important for literate adults and the literate society at large to attempt to change things for the better. Without our help, low literate adults face countless difficulties in navigating our rapidly evolving worlds. And without the ability to make sense of the information presented around them, they lose out on pursuing and attaining their dreams.

Literacy Mid-South provides literacy resources to Mid-South learners of all ages and backgrounds. Our vision is 100% literacy in the Mid-South. Visit our website to learn more about our programs and mission. 


Rethinking Homework Help


Many of our elementary, middle, and high school experiences have given us fond (perhaps not so fond) memories of homework. Ideas that we had been introduced to in the classroom were ideally reinforced with assignments that we were expected to complete during the time we weren’t at school. We were told that we were assigned homework because it was necessary, because it would instill in us a work ethic and study skills that we’d need to be productive adults–and that’s to say nothing of how effective homework was at helping us to grasp the complicated nuances of the subjects that we were learning in school. We needed the extra practice, right?

Well, perhaps not.

Some researchers are beginning to question the validity of homework as a tool that actually helps students. First, a focus on homework completion is potentially regressive–that is, it hurts students from vulnerable populations. Think students struggling with poverty, students lacking parental support, students with learning needs, and students from racial groups that have been long neglected by our educational systems. Additionally, there is research that shows that there really is no correlation between homework and student academic performance, at least for most elementary school students. Homework’s impact on academic performance increases for middle and high school students.

There are other issues as well. Many students from those targeted or marginalized populations attend schools that give students large homework loads, assuming that the homework will reinforce skills learned in classrooms. But the teachers aren’t always available to assist students with homework, and the parents or support systems aren’t always available for these students. The issue becomes that these students cannot comprehend their homework assignments, and thus, can’t complete them–or if the homework is complete, it’s not necessarily correct.

homework help

Many community organizations are attempting to remedy this by offering homework help to the students that they serve. Their aim is to help the students and reduce the amount of time that the students will have to spend on homework while at home, freeing up students’ time so that they can spend it relaxing or with their family. For middle and high school students, this homework help can be very valuable. However, as we said above, complete homework isn’t necessarily correct homework, and struggling students who receive help that is incorrect or learn ineffective habits can actually exacerbate their achievement problems.

Also, there’s evidence that many organizations just don’t have the staff necessary to ensure that every child receives an equal amount of homework assistance. When the ratio of staff to student is 1 staff member for every 25 students, there isn’t really any hope of individualized help, which means that homework–and homework help–can become a game of completion rather than a tool that eventually helps students become more proficient in their areas of study.

Is there a solution? Not a simple one.

A focus on building comprehension skills in children, and encouraging them to engage with their work in different, more meaningful ways can go a long way toward positively effecting student achievement. Especially in the case of young children, there is not so much a need for help with specific homework assignments as there is a need for children to increase their ability to read and comprehend texts.

Young learners also would benefit from improving their communication ability. This includes their use of oral language in addition to comprehension. If they are guided toward improvement of these skills, they will gain skills necessary to meaningfully engage with their work and be empowered to communicate about not only their academic expectations, but any misunderstandings that arise.

If our goal is to make sure that our students are truly engaged readers and critical thinkers, then we have to make sure that we focus on assisting them with essential skills that will serve them throughout their academic careers–and those skills are developed from targeted reading and literacy instruction as well as homework help.

Want to help us achieve our goal of a 100% literate Mid-South? Consider donating to Literacy Mid-South, or spread the word. And follow our blog for more updates.

The fifth annual Literatini, our book and martini focused event that is “straight up fun for a good cause”, is June 10th at 6pm!Click here to buy tickets.

The Relationship Between Incarceration and Low Literacy

Incarceration Low Literacy

Politicians and journalists often claim prison planners use third grade reading scores to predict the number of future prison beds needed. While it has been found this claim is mostly urban myth, there is in fact a strong connection between early low literacy skills and our country’s exploding incarceration rates. Compelling statistics underscore this connection:

Early Signs in Adults                                                                                            

Pro Literacy

A low level of literacy is not a direct determinant for a person’s probability to be convicted on criminal charges, but correctional and judicial professionals have long recognized a connection between poor literacy, dropout rates, and crime. The educational level of the prison population differs significantly from that of the household population being over-represented with individuals having below average levels of education. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a 4th grade level, “meaning they lack the reading skills to navigate many everyday tasks or hold down anything but lower (paying) jobs.” Data supports that those without sufficient income earned by work are the most prone to crime. Paul Romero, a correction official once noted, “With legal means of succeeding in society narrowed, illiteracy is heavily implicated in the crimes landing many behind bars in the first place.”

The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” When inmates who left school before receiving a high school diploma where asked the main reason they dropped out of school, about one-third reported they lost interest or experienced academic difficulty.

Early Signs in Children

KidsAccording to a special report, Early Warning, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “…the process of dropping out begins long before high school. It stems from loss of interest in middle school, often triggered by retention in grade…and that, in a great many cases, is the result of not being able to read proficiently as early as fourth grade.”

Reading on grade-level by the end of third grade is one of the most critical milestones in education. Studies show that 74% of 3rd graders who read poorly still struggle in ninth grade, and third grade reading scores can predict a student’s likelihood to graduate high school. Donald Hernandez reported in Double Jeopardy, children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers. While those with the lowest reading scores account for only a third of students, this group accounts for more than 63% of all children who do not graduate from high school.

Factors That Contribute to Third Grade Reading Proficiency

The connection of causes of many societal ills, including poverty, violence, crime, and incarceration in most instances correlate to high school completion rates and literacy skills education for primary grade students. There is an urgent national call for collaborative efforts to ensure children are prepared for college and career through achieving grade-level reading by the end of third grade. Warning Confirmed outlined the following factors effect third-grade reading success:

  • Readiness for school in terms of the child’s health, language development, social-emotional skills and participation in high-quality early care and learning programs.
  • Chronic absence from school must be mitigated.
  • Summer learning loss must be prevented.
  • Family-oriented stressors such as family mobility, hunger, housing insecurity and toxic stress should be addressed.
  • Quality of teaching the child experiences in home, community and school settings.

Education in Tennessee Prisons

  • Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) school system provides offenders with comprehensive academic programs, vocational programs, and library services to prepare offenders for the socioeconomic and occupational environment they will encounter upon their return to the community.
  • The adult basic education and high school equivalency (HSE) programs improve competency in basic learning skills, occupational aptitudes, and general reading/literacy levels.
  • In 2013, 618 HSE Certificates and 3,672 Vocational Certificates were earned in Tennessee prisons.
  • College programs leading to an associate’s degree are also offered
  • Vocational training is offered in: Automotive, Mechanical Technology, Barbering, Carpentry, Cosmetology, Construction, Culinary Arts, and HVAC & Refrigeration

 Education for Adults in the Community

Most low literate adults need to be connected to literacy education programs that assist them with developing the literacy skill necessary to obtain and keep gainful employment, as well as maintain positive lifestyles.

  • In community-based literacy programs there are more than 240,000 learners and 94,000 tutors nationwide
  • These programs provide instruction in basic literacy, GED prep, English, citizenship, job readiness, financial literacy, digital literacy, health literacy, drivers license prep, and other areas of study that interest learners.

Literacy Mid-South’s programs work to improve literacy outcomes for Mid-Southerners of all ages and backgrounds. Our work in the Third Grade Reading Collaborative Action Network directly addresses the need for early elementary literacy proficiency. Our Read Memphis Project has replicated our Adult Learning Program within the Shelby County Department of Corrections, in order to assist as many low literate incarcerated individuals as possible. Learn more about our Third Grade Reading Collaborative Action Network by clicking here. And if you’re interested in our Read Memphis Project, learn more about that by clicking here.

Let’s Talk About Adult Literacy

adult literacy

Hi reader! Thanks for stopping by. I heard that you had some questions about adult literacy, and specifically about the work we do around adult literacy. So let’s talk about it. We don’t necessarily think that you don’t know what literacy is, but there is a lot more to it than just the ability to read. So, without further ado, let’s talk about literacy.

Okay, I’m here. So, what is literacy, exactly?

Literacy is “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” This is a fancy way of saying that literacy is the ability to make sense of written words, and in our case, words that are written in English. Our country is full of words and an individual who is low literate will have a harder time making sense of written words than one who isn’t. Think about it: if you had difficulty with reading, everyday things like utility bills, instruction manuals, prescriptions, job applications and books of all shapes, sizes, and genres could be a blank slate for you.

Wait a minute. “Low literate”? You mean “illiterate” right?

You could say that. But we are a society that places a lot of value on the ability to read, and the descriptive term “illiterate,” in our view, has some pretty negative connotations. We don’t use it to describe people if we can help it.

Besides, research has proven that literacy isn’t a static value–that is to say, the days are behind us where we think about literacy as: a person either definitely can or definitely cannot read. Literacy is best measured on a continuum, and individuals who are low literate vary between the inability to understand the most basic of words to the ability to read at a level equivalent to a middle school student. Those are the people we’re helping, and according to our research, the majority of the people that we serve have the same amount of reading ability as an elementary school student. But that measurement still doesn’t account for the ability to do things like fill out a deposit slip, find the time of an event on a flyer, or perform other simple tasks, which many of our learners can do.

Another term that people use is “functionally illiterate.” You can learn more about that term by clicking this link.

So how do people end up low literate?

The reasons are many and varied, but there are some universal markers: people of specific racial/ethnic groups, people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and people whose first language is not English are more likely to be low literate than other groups of people. This is very much due to the fact that people from these groups are walking around with a weighted knapsack strapped to them, so to speak: the disadvantages that they face as a result of social marginalization makes educational achievement difficult, even if they try really, really hard.

However, even controlling for this, there is still no one concrete reason for low literacy in adults, and to categorize literacy ability as achievement is wrong of me: Many of these adults terminated their high school career before they completed it, but many still have high school diplomas, and some have even completed college courses.

Even though we have difficulty discussing the reasons why people have a hard time developing intermediate or advanced literacy skills, we are very certain on the factors that DO NOT result in low literacy for adults:

  • Laziness
  • Lack of Intelligence
  • Ancestry
  • Ethnicity
  • Innate Ability
What do illit–I’m sorry, low literate adults look like?

Like you and me! I’m not joking. The most recent statistics report that about 14% of individuals in the United States of America are unable to read at a basic level. That’s more than 30 million folks, split up among all kinds of ethnicities, genders, religions, and walks of life.

More than 100,000 of those people call the Mid-South their home. And they’re a varied bunch of people, any of whom you could be interacting with on a daily basis. We’ve assisted aspiring novelists, business owners, and scholars. At Literacy Mid-South, we recognize where our adult learners have been, but we also focus on where they want to go.

Okay, okay. I’m sold. Low literate adults need help. But how can I help? I’m just one person!

There are a few ways that you can help. Advocacy is important. Tell your friends the truth about what low literacy in adults looks like. Spread the word on the effect it has on people’s lives. Dispel myths, rumors, and misunderstandings about low literate people, and point people in the direction of information and assistance.

If you want to be more active, consider volunteering with Literacy Mid-South. The dedication, time, and energy of our volunteers allows us to directly assist low literate adults across the Mid-South. Tutors not only assist adult learners in directly improving their literacy skill, they also help learners create confidence in their ability to achieve. Even if you aren’t able to tutor an adult, you can help at Literacy Mid-South’s special events, which help foster a joy of reading among Mid-Southerners. You can click this link for more information on volunteering.

If you are someone who is constantly on the go and can’t dedicate time, you can always assist with a financial donation. Donations provide Literacy Mid-South with the flexibility it needs to provide top of the line instruction and training to tutors, as well as assisting with other programs that directly impact the literacy ability of adults in the Mid-South, such as our Read Memphis project. Click this link for more information on donating.

Wow, okay. That’s a lot of information, but I think I got it.

Cool! I’m glad you stopped by to chat. Thanks for being so open minded about this and remember, you can stop back by here anytime if you have more questions!

People of Literacy Mid-South: Meet Antonio


Antonio’s narrative is similar to that of many of our learners. During high school, he found his classes difficult and he didn’t always understand what was going on. Academically frustrated and with real world financial issues looming, Antonio started skipping his classes. He began selling drugs and “stayed out in the streets.” He looks back on that time with regret, saying that if he could do high school all over again, he would.

Antonio eventually obtained his forklift certification and began to work in warehouses–he worked at one job for fourteen years before being laid off. He’s driven forklifts at his new place of employment for six years, but he’s always known that he wanted to do more with his life. A few years ago, Antonio figured that it was time to start working on his reading and writing so that he would be able to help his then four year old daughter with her homework.

Antonio’s wife told him about Literacy Mid-South in 2013. He reached out to the organization, and soon he was working with a tutor. The two of them started out by meeting every week, and they used audio recordings and reading passages in their sessions.

Antonio is now one of Literacy Mid-South’s most dedicated learners. He has been meeting with a Literacy Mid-South tutor consistently since he signed up in 2013. His latest tutor, Robert, meets with him as often as they can, and they spend their time reviewing vocabulary lists, using the computer, and checking reading comprehension by reading passages from the Harry Potter series of novels.

Despite the twenty plus year age difference between the two men, they get along really well.

“I was scared when I first started with him,” Antonio said, recalling their first session. He didn’t know what to expect from Robert, but he knew that he was dedicated to continuing to improve his reading and writing skills. The two of them spent their first tutoring session getting to know each other. “Robert asked me a lot of questions,” Antonio said, “but he’s cool.”

Together, Antonio and Robert are making enormous strides toward helping Antonio achieve his ultimate goal: obtaining a GED. Now, Antonio’s vocabulary has drastically improved. He feels more confident in his ability to read and understand his daughter’s homework. And those passages from Harry Potter? He can read those very well now.

“If there was anyone out here who was thinking about learning to read, I’d tell them to come and join me,” Antonio said.

“He’s making a lot of progress,” Robert said, smiling. “Every day is positive, and he’s improving little by little. He teaches me too. I’m learning patience and understanding by working with him.”


Literacy Mid-South is here to help those who want to improve their reading and writing ability. If you know of someone who needs help, they can reach us at (901) 327-6000.

If you’re interested in helping someone who wants to improve their reading and writing ability, give us a call at the number listed above or visit us online to fill out our volunteer application.  

Happy New Year, and a Hearty Welcome!

Blog Title 1

Happy New Year! Like so many of you, Literacy Mid-South made a New Year’s resolution. Our resolution: find new and innovative ways to spread our message throughout the community.

To that end, welcome to the new and official blog of Literacy Mid-South! We intend for this new space to help in our efforts to educate and inform the Mid-South about the valuable work that we do, the important issues our community faces, and the faces of those who are actively engaged in changing the literacy rates in Memphis.

In Shelby County alone, 14% of adults read at or below a 3rd grade level.  The reading proficiency rate is only 32% among 3rd grade students in Shelby County Schools.  Those numbers are depressing.  The good news is that there is a lot of energy around literacy and lifelong learning in the Mid-South, with organizations like Literacy Mid-South, Books from Birth, story booth at Crosstown Arts, Memphis Teacher Residency, and Seeding Success making headway for children and adults.  We also have amazing events like the Mid-South Book Festival.

In our blog we’ll be:

  • Profiling Literacy Mid-South employees, students, board members, and volunteers
  • Providing information and updates about our Mid-South Book Festival
  • Discussing important literacy issues that impact our workforce, families, and schools
  • Providing useful tips for creating a new generation of lifelong learners

We look forward to hearing your feedback.

Want to more know about our impact, volunteers, and mission? Check out our Annual Report and visit us at www.literacymidsouth.org.