One Word at a Time

updated 09/26/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Angela Wade-Law recalls the shame she felt years ago when it was time to tuck her young daughter Cassie into bed. Cassie would ask for a bedtime story, but Angela never read her Goodnight Moon or Green Eggs and Ham—or any book for that matter. The simple fact was she couldn't read. "We'd sit on the bed, and I'd cry and she'd cry and she'd say, 'That's okay, Mommy,' " says Angela. "It broke my heart."

Her inability to read had nothing to do with a lack of will or energy. Now 38, Angela has held several jobs—babysitting, house cleaning, driving a van for a senior center—while successfully raising two daughters. But although she made it through part of the ninth grade, she had never been able to read. "Everybody knows that you can't read," she says. "But the teachers pushed me through school. I felt cheated." Later in life, Angela could recognize some words in context (she knew the "m" word on the carton was "milk"), but she couldn't decipher a soup label. Her mother, Roseann, picked up the slack, reading for Angela and filling out her job applications. But that was far from an ideal solution.

Angela was hardly alone in her plight. Studies of adult literacy are few and infrequent, but the most recent available, published in 1992 by the National Center for Education Statistics, showed that, while fewer than 5 percent of adult Americans cannot read even their own names, more than 20 percent have severely limited literacy skills; many cannot fill out a simple form in English or read a children's book. In Angela's semi-rural hometown of Vineland, N.J.—in Cumberland County, which has the state's lowest per capita income—the latter figure jumps to 28 percent. New national statistics are expected out later this year.

Like so many low-literate adults, Angela was getting by. But when her mother died in 2001, she was on her own and soon felt isolated. "I realized I had to get help," she says. Last year she cold-called the Cumberland County Literacy Institute, a free program founded in 2001 that pairs volunteer tutors with those who want to learn to read. Privately funded and administered by Cumberland County College, CCLI is one of hundreds of programs in the country helping to improve the literacy skills of adults who either never finished high school or managed to graduate without reading well.

After a preliminary meeting with CCLI's then-director Jennifer Terrigno Sheppard, who talked with Angela about her educational history and goals, she was matched with tutor Margaret Johnson. The pair initially met at the college library to see if they were compatible and would be able to work well together. Margaret was impressed. "Angela came through the door motivated," she says. It was an accurate first impression: "She's never missed an appointment," says Margaret. Angela was equally inspired by Margaret who, while working at Wal-Mart and attending college, made time to volunteer. "We talked about her family—she had people who didn't know how to read well," says Angela. "Just talking to her made me feel, 'I can be successful' "

Still, Angela would need all the motivation she could muster. Early on, with Margaret's assistance, Angela hand-wrote a "mission statement" in which she said her goal was "to get my GED so I can get a better and more challenging job and more stuff for my family." So far, says current director Karen Arenz, only 2 of CCLI's 110 participants have moved on to a GED-prep program, a goal of the more than half who never completed high school. No one is required to reach the GED level—many have the simple goal of reading a Bible or writing a letter to a child—but they are asked to commit to one year's worth of tutoring sessions. Even then, only about half honor that. "These students are adults with other responsibilities," explains Sheppard. "It's easy to get discouraged."

Angela has made progress, but it has been a struggle. She knew letter sounds and a few basic grammatical rules but still couldn't read even small words like "the." "It's different from teaching a child," says Margaret. "A child doesn't have ingrained habits." At one session she patiently coached Angela through an exercise in past tense endings. Reading aloud from a workbook, Angela's voice was soft, tentative, occasionally questioning: "Burn? burned?" she asked, taking a few stabs at the word.

She later froze at the word "color" and fidgeted with the many rings she wears on six fingers. Margaret urged her not to be embarrassed to sound it out. Angela did, and one could hear in her voice the moment when a foreign sound transformed into familiar meaning.

Next on the lesson plan: an astrology column in the local newspaper. "I like reading my horoscope," says Angela, a Gemini. That day's insight: "Your insecurities maybe keeping you from seeing the truth of the situation." "What did you get out of that?" asked Margaret, testing Angela's comprehension. Angela's reply: "Just because something don't appear to go your way, it might."

One thing that has definitely gone her way recently is her friendship with Margaret, 39, who had her own challenges to overcome. Once dragged down by alcoholism and crack addiction, she fought back, returning to school to earn degrees in criminal justice and sociology and training to become a volunteer at the literacy program as a way to "give back" to society. "I was a statistic; I shouldn't even be sitting here," Margaret says of her more desperate days. Her volunteer work is also a tribute to her mother, Dolores, who, despite limited reading ability, rose to the job of foreman in one of Cumberland County's many now-defunct glass factories. When her factory closed, finding work meant reading proficiently. "She was determined," says Margaret.

She says she feels particularly lucky that Angela turned out to be her first pupil. "I was hoping that I would get someone who really wanted help," she says. "I was fortunate." Angela repays the compliment: "You don't find many people like her. She's like a big sister."

Like family, they celebrate each of Angela's triumphs. Having once relied on public assistance, Angela now works part-time as an aide to the elderly, adding proudly that when she goes grocery shopping for one of her clients, "I can read the list." And her daughters' lives have also improved. Books now fill the trailer the three share (the girls' father lives in North Carolina). Index cards with vocabulary words for Michelle, 7, line one wall, and Angela's Bible can frequently be found open on the kitchen counter. The days of awkward bedtime story negotiations behind them, Angela reads with Michelle almost every night. Reading has also become a bond between Angela and Cassie, 17, who just tackled a summer reading list of classics like H.G. Wells's The Time Machine and who now recommends titles to her mom.

Cassie remembers being Michelle's age when she learned about her mom's inability to read. "At first, I wouldn't want people to know, because they would think badly about her," says Cassie. "She's not a bad person. This has nothing to do with who she is. I wanted so much to help her."

With her masklike eyeliner and a hoodie pulled around her like armor, Cassie seems to be at that stage of adolescence in which having a mom who couldn't, say, snoop in your journal might be an advantage. "No. I've never said it was good that she can't read," she says. If there ever was an upside, it might be that her mom's troubles pushed Cassie to do well academically. "It motivated me," says Cassie, a high school junior who has placed on the honor roll. "Not being able to read would be like being in a foreign country where you don't speak the language. It has to be uncomfortable."

Angela is getting more comfortable. For practice between tutoring, she reads aloud to a homebound neighbor, Joyce Fury, 72. Their first selection is a romance novel by James Patterson, Sam's Letters to Jennifer. It's slow going, as she marks each word with a pencil dot as she reads it. "I'm proud of her," says Fury, a retired taxi dispatcher who amuses herself listening to a police scanner when Angela isn't around. "I like to see somebody push ahead."

Despite her strides, Angela has a long way to go. Earlier this year she took a job placement test, which included both reading and math but did poorly, particularly on the latter. Margaret says they'll just have to keep at it: "I'm planning on sticking with Angela."

Angela herself is optimistic, buoyed by small victories. Some months ago, when her hand-me-down Volvo idled in front of a billboard advertisement that asked: HOW MUCH DO YOU NEED? "I just saw it and thought, 'I need a whole lot!' " she says, laughing. It took a moment before she realized the significance of what had happened: She had effortlessly processed the written word and, she says, "it felt so good."

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