WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Approximately 32 million adults in America can’t read above a third-grade level. That means 14 percent of the adult native speaking population is considered functionally illiterate.

Cheryl Haeseker-Mikuliak is an educator with Literacy Volunteers and Advocates (LVA), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that provides reading, math, and other classes for adults who test at or below a sixth-grade reading level.

Since 1983, more than 10 million Americans reached the 12th grade without having learned to read at a basic level.

“lliteracy can mean numeracy, it can mean reading. It can mean trouble with numbers or it can mean trouble with reading,” she said. “At Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, we work only with adults who read at or below the sixth-grade level. What we have found through testing at LVA is that all of our learners read below that sixth-grade level, but 80 percent of them read at the first- or second-grade level.

“The test we use is called the Word Identification and Spelling Test (WIST). It really digs in very deeply into how well they know letters, letter sounds and forming letters into words.”

Since 1983, more than 10 million Americans reached the 12th grade without having learned to read at a basic level.

“I certainly don’t think it’s an issue of ability, because I do think they’re incredibly resilient,” Haeseker-Mikuliak said. “I think that they’re incredibly intelligent in ways that don’t involve decoding words. I would blame the D.C. school system before I would blame anything else.”


Circa/Ryan Eskalis
Cheryl Haeseker Mikuliak, an educator with Literacy Volunteers and Advocates in Washington, D.C., works with Monica Masterson. (Circa/Ryan Eskalis)

Unlike many adult learning programs, LVA prides itself on not turning away anyone who wants to learn.

“The students at LVA (are) really, truly, unique individuals,” Haeseker-Mikuliak said. “Some of them have finished high school. One of our learners went all the way through and got a diploma and couldn’t read the words on the diploma. His name is Willie Nolan. It’s part of the public record. You can look it up and see.

“When he tells a story today, he was in special education and they just passed them along. Basically, nobody wanted to teach him his basic skills but you couldn’t just throw kids out. They passed him along and he got his high school diploma, but he can’t read so he came back to us.”

“I felt like I was stuck right there, like maybe third grade where I couldn’t go no further without any help.”

Monica Matheson, former DC Public Schools student

Monica Masterson grew up in the District of Columbia and attended Eastern High School in Northwest D.C. before dropping out her senior year to take care of her son. She shared her story of being pushed along from elementary school through high school and the feeling of helplessness she felt along the way.

“The time I was in school, I felt like I was just pushed along where I learned some things, but I felt like we were just basically on the same worksheet … each year,” Masterson said. “I wasn’t getting something new to challenge me. It was like I was just stuck in one level, I guess, maybe of schoolwork.

“I felt like I wasn’t leveling up to where I improved more so I can feel that way and see it for myself. I just felt like all through school I was just pushed along, maybe because of my age, maybe. I felt like I was still on the level of maybe second- or third-grade reading.”

She continued, “By the time I got to high school, I felt like I might have moved up to maybe third-grade level, where it might be five-letter words or maybe up to eight-letter words I could probably read. I felt like I was stuck right there, like maybe third grade where I couldn’t go no further without any help.”

“I think that they’re incredibly intelligent in ways that don’t involve decoding words. I would blame the D.C. school system before I would blame anything else.”

Cheryl Haeseker Mikuliak, Literacy Volunteers and Advocates

Masterson says she tried asking for help, but by the time she reached high school she was still reading at a second-grade level and struggled to find teachers who were willing to help.

“I tried to learn just a few things on my own. My mother showed me that you can buy crossword puzzle books, word books where they teach you how to print,” she said. “I could do OK with reading, but if you just threw out a word, it’s hard for me to spell it, because I have to listen to it real clearly—the sounds of the words.

“It’s just strange that now that I can, like, read a sentence, but if you ask me to spell it, I don’t know why my mind gets blank and I just can’t spell it.”

Adult Literacy

Circa/Ryan Eskalis
Monica Masterson listens to her teacher’s instructions during her reading class at the Academy of Hope. (Circa/Ryan Eskalis)

In 2015, Masterson signed up for classes at LVA because she wanted to be able to help her son with his schoolwork.

“When Monica came to us she knew her alphabet, but what she couldn’t do was form words from letters. She could see C-A-T, but it didn’t compute to put that together as cat,” Haeseker-Mikuliak said. “Monica is so willing. She came in because she wanted her son to learn to read. She didn’t know her sounds of her letters but she applied herself and in three years at LVA, went up and went up and went up, along the way, got a job at Harris Teeter, which is an amazing story.

“Then, has just kept coming back, and she stays in touch, and she keeps re-enrolling, and she keeps moving up the ladder. Her willingness, I think, is the key to her success. She’s a person that says yes to life, to challenges, to situations and everything like that, and I think it’s key to her success.”

The deadly consequences of poor health literacy

People with low literacy are less likely to get flu shots, more likely to delay or forgo mammograms and other pre-cancer screenings, and are more likely to suffer from heart failure and diabetes.

“When I was in high school, they tried to teach us how to fill out applications for jobs or to fill out forms if you need to fill out your own name, address, things like that,” Masterson said. “I got familiar with the basics where I know where it says your name, address, phone number, stuff like that.

“But when it comes down to asking other questions, it was hard to even fill out forms, even go to the doctor’s office. It was like I had to ask someone to pull over and ask them a question or tell them maybe I couldn’t see it. I kind of lied about it, but it felt uncomfortable inside of me knowing that I didn’t know what it was. It was very hard.”

Health and medical information can be overwhelming even for people with advanced literacy skills. Being unable to read nutrition labels, prescription information, or informational pamphlets about necessary health screenings can have deadly consequences.

“When I was pregnant with my son, the doctor told me I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. For some reason, I didn’t believe it,” Masterson said. “I wanted him to explain it more to me. He tried to explain to me that he could take care of it by doing a biopsy or something like that, through surgery. But I didn’t understand what he was saying and when I told my family, they suggested I get a second opinion.

“I went to George Washington Hospital and they explained it to me clearly, word by word. I actually understood what they were telling me and was able to proceed with the surgery. It saved my life.”

Vulnerable to fraud and scams

It’s common for adults with low literacy to rely on the kindness of family and strangers to help them with daily tasks. Which, unfortunately, makes them vulnerable to people with bad intentions.

“A lot of them don’t have bank accounts. They do check cashing, which of course is a nightmare,” Haeseker-Mikuliak said. “They write money orders for things, or they take the money order to the clerk and have the clerk write it out. The bad side is that I’ve heard horrible stories about them getting ripped off, where a clerk at Pepco was pocketing their money order and putting “no payment” or a lesser payment on the bills and things like that. It’s really terrible stories.”

Masterson had one such experience.

“I was 14. It was a neighbor that used to live near me. She was trying to show me how I can deposit a check into my account. She told me to deposit it into her account to show me how it works,” she said. “I lost my money. It was, like, my first check. I didn’t understand why. I explained it to my mother and she said, ‘No. You never do that. You speak to me first. When you come home with your first check, I’ll show you how to deposit it into an account where it could be cashed.’

“Ever since then, I just feel like, ‘Wow, there’s people out there to really take advantage of me and not even try to help me.’ That was kind of scary for the first time.”