Diversity & Outreach Columns ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services


September Was Adult Literacy Awareness Month

By Lynne A. Price, Adult Literacy & ESL Coordinator, Benicia Public Library, Benicia, CA.

September is always a busy month! Children (and adults) are returning to school; teachers and professors prepare to see their charges again. In the midst of getting backpacks, pens, pencils, and back to school clothes is another special event – Literacy Awareness Month!

In 1986, the United States Congress, by Senate Joint Resolution 358, designated September as Adult Literacy Awareness Month; they authorized and requested that the President of the United States issue a proclamation. On August 27, 1986, the late President Ronald Reagan did just that.

“I call on the American people and organizations of every kind to observe the month with activities to increase awareness of the problem of adult illiteracy and to encourage involvement in programs to help eliminate illiteracy and functional illiteracy among adults in our nation.”

In northern California, a coalition of adult literacy library programs known as BALit (Bay Area Literacy) provided a calendar of facts and activities designed to raise awareness in the cities and surrounding communities. I wish I could share how all programs celebrated, yet I’m proud to share what we did in our adult literacy program! I hope to provide literacy programs with ideas for future celebrations, and give you a chance to share your ideas as well.

In the city of Benicia, CA, Mayor Steve Messina issued a proclamation to the Adult Literacy & ESL Program, letting the community know that September 8th was Literacy Awareness Day in Benicia. At the Benicia Public Library, our staff – both library and adult literacy program staffs – worked together to create a special day for the public and the adult literacy program participants. We sent fliers to our volunteers, learners, tutors and donors; we notified the local paper, which helped publicly announce the special day, and invited everyone to participate in activities planned for the day.

As patrons entered the library on September 8th, they stepped into another world – “A Life Without Literacy”. The concept was to encourage people to think of what their life would be like without the gift of literacy. Main signage in the library was covered with signage of unreadable and unintelligible words. ALA READ posters were turned into banners, and decorated by adult literacy learners. The banners were hung throughout the library and contributed to the festive atmosphere. Facts on adult literacy and ideas (taken from the BALit calendar) on how to celebrate were placed on all reading tables and counters. Book Buddies were available to read to children throughout the day. Later in the evening, a Scavenger Hunt was held; the participants were primarily adult learners and tutors. Each participant had to write down their responses, ask questions of staffers, and learn how to navigate the library (not to mention meeting and learning more about the library staff). Winners of the Hunt were given gift certificates to Bookshop Benicia, our local bookstore.

The day ended with a computer raffle for adult learners enrolled in the program. Lupe, a relatively new learner with our program, won the Macintosh computer along with software and diskettes. I felt especially gratified that she won; her reading and comprehension skills are just above the second grade level, and she has 12 children (her eldest children encouraged her to come get help for her literacy skills).

Our planning for this special day paid off. The unreadable signage created the desired effect: patrons couldn’t read them. They had to ask for directions – they needed the help of others. Many immediately understood the impact literacy has in their lives, commenting to library staffers that this small experience had really made them consider how a life can significantly be altered when literacy is absent. Tutors and learners loved the involvement, and everyone felt the significance of the day.

The United Nations has declared 2003 – 2012 the Decade of Literacy, and the Adult Literacy & ESL Program at the Benicia Public Library will make sure to inform the community of the needs of those that continue to struggle with low reading, writing, comprehension and conversational skills. (For more information, go www.unesco.org.)

What did you do?  How did your program celebrate? Did you celebrate for a particular day, or for the entire month? What activities did you provide? Share your stories and experiences, and we’ll be sure to post them here!