Marsha Tait, executive director of LiteracyCNY, helps Theresa Holden, 52, with a challenging word during the pair's weekly tutoring session. | Shweta Gulati, Staff Photo

Boosting Adult Literacy

Local agency helps grow readers with one-on-one tutoring

With a mission to not only teach adults who can’t read how to read, but to help non-English speakers learn the language, LiteracyCNY works to strengthen the community by increasing adults’ proficiency skills.

With a wait list averaging 85-100 deep, this local agency — which is the legacy holder of literacy pioneer Ruth Colvin’s local work, wants to ensure it can continue helping those in need well into the future. In honor of Colvin’s 100th birthday, the board will throw a celebration Nov. 18 to honor her work and establish an endowment.

“All of our instruction, and this goes back to Ruth’s initial pedagogy, is very student centered,” said Marsha Tait, executive director of LiteracyCNY. “That’s why we continue the one-on-one tutoring and keep our classes very small.”

Twenty years ago, Tait began working at the national office of Literacy Volunteers of American as the president, later serving for several years as senior vice president of ProLiteracy, which is a national association of local literacy programs that resulted from the merger of Literacy Volunteers of America and Laubach Literacy International.

Tait left the nonprofit sector in 2006 to earn a public diplomacy degree, thinking she would move to Washington D.C. after graduating. Instead she accepted a temporary position to lead the local agency for a few months. That was six years ago.

In 2010 when she first took on that role, she remembers Colvin’s advice.

“Taking my hand, she looked into my eyes and said: ‘You’re gonna love this kid. This is where the action is,’” Tait recalls with a smile. “Ruth’s passion has always been at the local level in the actual magic that happens between the students and instructors. And with her advice, she was right, because that’s exactly where the action is.”

And Tait’s favorite moment each week is continuing that student-centered work.

Marsha Tait, executive director of LiteracyCNY, listens as Theresa Holden, a student with the agency since 2011, reads aloud during the pair's weekly tutoring session. | Shweta Gulati, Staff Photo
Marsha Tait, executive director of LiteracyCNY, listens as Theresa Holden, a student with the agency since 2011, reads aloud during their weekly tutoring session. | Shweta Gulati, Staff Photo

“As executive director, it’s not typically something I’d do,” Tait said about directly taking on a pupil. “But this student was persistent. Now it’s the highlight of my week.”

Each Wednesday, she sits down with Theresa Holden, 52, who has been attending classes through the agency since 2011, when it was known as Literacy Volunteers of Greater Syracuse (LVGS). The agency changed its name to LiteracyCNY in 2014.

At that time LVGS was housed at Beauchamp Branch Library, in the same neighborhood where Holden lived. The agency resided there from 1985 to 2012. This location allowed the nonprofit to reach a greater number of Syracuse’s adult learners in need. In 2008, LVGS partnered with the SUNY Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) to help students gain skills necessary for admission to job training programs.  The agency then relocated to share space at the EOC in 2012, allowing for seamless referrals between the two centers.

“Now students can literally step across the hall,” Tait said, noting before each agency lost people in the required shuffle from one location to the other.

Holden has attended classes at both locations and is happy to recommend their services to anyone in need. She has even promoted the work of LiteracyCNY at public speaking engagements and was named a Student of the Year in 2012.

“At one point she marched into my office and told me: ‘If you want me to keep talking for you, then I want my own tutor,'” Tait remembers.

Because the agency had a wait list of students and Holden was then enrolled in a class, Tait could not assign Holden a second resource. But because of Holden’s persistence, Tait decided four years ago she’d tutor Holden herself.

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-10-59-55-amWhen she came to LVGS, Holden was reading at a second-grade level. This year, she’s enrolled in a high school equivalency course and meeting with Tait to build vocabulary and critical thinking skills. She’s already passed two of the five sections on the Test Assessing Secondary Competency (TASC), which replaced the GED, and is awaiting results on her second attempt. Once all five areas are passed, Holden will receive a New York State High School Equivalency diploma.

She then wants to attend Onondaga Community College and train to work as a surgical assistant.

Holden dropped out of school in the eighth grade to join her mother and grandmother in the tobacco fields in Georgia, also harvesting corn, beans and even hoeing out the grass to harvest peanuts. “Every season we had something to do,” she said. “During that time, we needed to survive; we needed food and money. I wasn’t thinking I needed to stay in school and better myself. My only thought was that I needed to help my mom.”

Holden didn’t move to Syracuse until 1989, when she relocated with her husband and five children. She worked for one year at Coyne Textile Services and then for 19 years with a book binding company. When she was laid off in 2008, she tried to register with BOCES for job training, but scored too low in her testing. A referral to LVGS brought her to the agency she continues to utilize today.

She now finds joy not only in picking up a book and reading, but in reading to her six grandchildren, something she could not do with her own kids.

“Now my grandbabies come over, and I can read books to them,” she said excitedly.

According to calculations by LiteracyCNY based on national figures, an estimated 60,000 adults have extremely limited literacy or English language skills here in Onondaga County. In addition to dropping out of public school, another contributor to poor literacy is access to books in the home. A 2003 study published in the “American Educator” found children from high-income families are exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. This results in significant discrepancies in children’s knowledge and variety of words.

“Theresa’s limited vocabulary is a prime example,” Tait said, noting a major component of their weekly lessons is increasing Holden’s recognition and pronunciation of words she comes across.

“Part of our pedagogy, is when you are working with students whose skills are very limited, you have to give them material that they can master, but you also want to keep challenging them,” Tait added.

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-11-17-43-am“She’s hard,” Holden says of her tutor. “The words … college level words.”

During a recent one-on-one session, Holden started to sound out the syllables, saying she often has to break down individual words she gets stuck on. Her current challenge is to skip over words she doesn’t know.

“She doesn’t believe me that readers don’t know all the words they come across,” Tait reassured, advising her to keep reading and use the surrounding words and sentence context to figure out the skipped-over word and its meaning.

“I listen real close to hear the different sounds in the letters to be able to spell it,” Holden said, thinking back to the last word that stumped her – considerate. “Con,” she starts by sounding out the first syllable, then reciting the letters: “C-O-N … sid … S-H … er .. is it E-R? Or R-E?” she asks Tait, continuing on until correctly spelling out the entire word.

“When I’m stumped, I’ll completely stop reading to try and figure the word out,” Holden said. “With practice, I try to keep going.”




— Article by Ashley Kang, The Stand director

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