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Santa Clara City Library

The Gift of Literacy

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 A True Story

I have a friend who comes from Ethiopia. In her language, Amharic, her name, Hiwet, means "life". And she is full of life and laughter. Hiwet is in her twenties and works as a caregiver for adugift of literacylts with autism. She has told me this is her vocation, there is nothing she wants to do more. She speaks four languages fluently, including English, has great facility with numbers and is quick to read people and pick up skills, like learning new software.

Three or four years ago you might have seen her in a store, picking up a box of noodles and not looking at the package, but at people around her. New to this country, she was listening for clues to tell her what she was holding in her hand. Packaging can be misleading: have you ever opened a box of cereal to find fresh fruit inside?

 Hiwet could not read or write.

  Daily Challenges


When she first started work in the US, Hiwet would take home any paperwork that needed to be completed. One of her friends would fill it in for her. At the end of her shift when she had to make notes about her clients, she would painstakingly copy from other entries the words she knew described what she needed to say. If it was her turn to answer the phone, she said she wasn't comfortable taking messages for other people. She knew she would have to write them down.


For people in Hiwet's position, days are defined by overcoming obstacles to simple and complex things. Two bank tellers behind the counter, both busy. Each has a sign with writing on it. Which teller is available? How to fill in a deposit slip? What do the different numbers on a pay slip relate to? How do you know if a piece of mail is urgent? And yet people manage. They get help in roundabout ways: a man says he has left his glasses at home and can't quite see. A woman doesn't have time to fill in the paperwork but promises to return it completed. In a restaurant, a girl might smile shyly and wriggle a little in her seat. Finally she will say to her companion, "Why don't you choose for me? You know what's good here."

Because of her needs, Hiwet developed a prodigious memory and so can absorb and retain information she hears. With this skill, and because of other little subterfuges, for a long time no-one outside her circle of friends realized she needed help with literacy. One of her friends saw information about the Read Santa Clara program, told Hiwet about it and helped her to join. Hiwet's community is a close and supportive one. Her friends have come to this country to make a new life and together have learned new customs and new ways of doing things. Reading and writing English for Hiwet has been a part of that, as difficult as that challenge proved to be.

But what about people born and raised in this country who, for various reasons, have been unable to complete their education? Or those who have managed to finish their schooling, yet are still unable to read and write? It seems unbelievable that something like that could happen. But it does.

Functional Literacy 


Imagine for a moment you have graduated high school but still cannot read or write. Perhaps you can't do math. It might be that your dyslexia or other learning disability was not recognized or diagnosed. Or perhaps there were too many pupils and too few staff to properly attend to every student in your class. Maybe you had to leave school to help at home or to go to work. Whatever the reason, you are now in a world where the quantity of information is exploding and somehow you have to keep up. But you are "functionally illiterate".

This term is defined in a variety of ways depending on location and community, but a good description would be "the skills to manage daily living and employment tasks that require more than basic reading and writing". In the modern world, this goes beyond interpreting signage and filling in forms. Computer literacy depends on recognition of an alphabet and numbers and the ability to read and write. Texting is dependent on recognition of letters and their combinations to form a message. Drawing money from an ATM, understanding road signs, directions on medicine, cooking instructions on packaged food: all these are part of daily life. And when everyone around you can read and write, do math and work on computers, how do you get over the embarrassment (or even shame) and ask for help?

Signs a person might need help reading and writing:

-Uneasy body language, facial expressions or embarrassment when asked to read or write

-Humor or other distraction is used to change the subject if reading or writing comes up

-School experiences are rarely mentioned. If they are, it is in a negative light

-When expected to read or write, excuses might be: ‘I forgot my glasses,’ ‘I’ve hurt my hand,’ ‘I don’t have time.’

-Person appears unable to follow written instructions

- Reluctance to fill in forms or asks to take forms home 

-Paperwork is filled out incompletely or incorrectly.

-Sudden loss of interest in a task/pursuit if it involves reading or writing

It might be up to a friend or colleague to offer help – without making you feel even more uncomfortable. After all, we are all "illiterate" in certain everyday things: how many of us can understand legalese or financial jargon, read the stock market or understand a foreign language, for instance?

A Tactful Approach


One way of offering information in a tactful way is as part of a conversation. For example, a discussion about a variety of community services in the area could include details about the local adult literacy program. Perhaps you are motivated to become a volunteer tutor for adult literacy. Your enthusiasm for your work (and for its confidential nature) can be an opening for someone in need to ask you for help joining the program or information.


Not every adult is ready to ask for help directly. Sometimes the best assistance is to notice the tell-tale signs that words and numbers are difficult for someone. You can be the friend who doesn't draw attention to someone's discomfort.

Small kindnesses will go a long way: you might read a menu out loud as you make up your own mind what to order. When paperwork needs to be filled out, you can offer to do it together. If new instructions come through at work in written form, discuss them. In time, a trusting relationship will develop. You will become the person who can help.

 Last Word

Hiwet wasn't able to finish schooling in her own country. She was taken out of school when she was barely 10 years old. When she joined Read Santa Clara, one of her greatest motivations was that, when she had children, she wanted to give them the education she was denied. And, she said, she wanted to be able to read stories to them, help them with their homework.

As an adult, it has been difficult and frustrating for Hiwet to learn what most of us take for granted: the alphabet, what vowels and consonants are, how to spell, how to read. These are things we absorb while we are children with no grown-up worries demanding our time. To learn these fundamentals as an adult while juggling work and home responsibilities is an achievement indeed.

Three years on, Hiwet has passed examinations at work to get to the next level in her job. She has also just given birth to a beautiful baby boy. He is a few weeks old, healthy, and a blessing. The day she confirmed her pregnancy, Hiwet bought her first book, a baby book. "Now," she said, "I will be able to read to him."

- Catherine Schikkerling


If you or someone you know needs help or would like to volunteer as tutor, call Read Santa Clara, the adult literacy program of the Santa Clara City Library at (408) 615-2956 or email

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