Leamos: A Noble Cause

El Centro Latino for Literacy gets ready to roll out the Leamos campaign

By Richard Koffler
Published on LatinoLA: December 18, 2008

Leamos: A Noble Cause

Back in September I wrote how I got involved with el Centro Latino for Literacy. We liked each other so much, that I immediately accepted their invitation to join their board of directors. I feel honored and privileged to help them.

So let me give you the short version of what el Centro is all about.

Since 1991 our mission has been to teach the most basic level of literacy to the two million adult Latinos living in the United States who can't read or write.

They are the most marginalized among those who already live on the margin. Their illiteracy condemns them to a live of poverty, and creates a spiral of need and underachievement that extends to their children and grandchildren.

But as our work shows, this sad problem is neither difficult nor expensive to fix.

Take Isabel Abac. She came to the US twenty years ago without ever attending school in her native Guatemala. Her early attempts to learn English quickly failed because she couldn't read written instructions.

Life was not good for Isabel until a friend brought her to us. In three months she could read and write in Spanish. A few days later she enrolled in her English class, which she completed successfully. Soon thereafter she was promoted from janitor to team leader because she could write lists of supplies needing replenishment. Most importantly, she could now help her daughter with schoolwork and read her bedtime stories, blessings that most of us take for granted.

It is virtually impossible to teach English to students who can't read or write in their native languages. The usual outcome is that they quickly drop out, frustrated and demoralized.

Teaching Latino adults to read in Spanish requires 100 hours of tedious repetition that must be practiced at least four times per week, ideally every day.

The typical teaching method is to use instructors in classrooms, which at $1000 per student makes it economically impossible to reach more than one or two percent of those who need it. And even if we could find the two billion dollars needed to teach the two million non-literate Latinos nationwide, we still wouldn't reach most due to barriers created by geographic distances and scheduling difficulties.

So four years ago -- after determining that existing self-paced computer, audio and video programs were deficient ÔÇô in partnership with the UCLA Graduate School of Education we developed an Internet-based course that teaches how to connect oral Spanish to its written words.

The course is called Leamos, Spanish for "let's read". Students use headsets to listen to instructions, and the mouse to navigate pages and take quizzes. Computers don't mind the tedious repetition or tracking results. Students schedule time at the computer at their convenience, pace their own progress, and review previous material without bothering anyone. Classroom staff is much less expensive than qualified instructors.

After a successful track record teaching several hundred students with Leamos and measuring that it costs $40 per student, in early 2008 we made it available to institutions like schools, churches, libraries and community centers throughout Los Angeles county. A handful started using it, but most were stretched too thin just doing what they already did.

As we thought about how to overcome this major obstacle, we kept getting calls from people begging us to let their relatives and friends use Leamos.

And then it dawned on us! We needed to go directly to those eager to help their loved ones even I they don't have much time or knowledge to do so. The numbers work in our favor because for every non-literate Latino there are eight literate relatives and friends who could potentially be the student's tutor.

So we invented a model to mobilize, train, equip and support tutors. It works like this:

Julia, a high school junior, hears a Leamos radio commercial and decides she wants to help her aunt Lupe. She finds on our website that Leamos is available at public computers in libraries and community centers, or it can be studied at computers in private homes or workplaces. She then chooses the best venue for both of them, enrolls her aunt, pays the $40 tuition or gets a scholarship, and receives one hour of tutor orientation through the Leamos website.

Julia doesn't need teaching skills, only how to be supportive of and patient with her aunt. In the beginning, she must motivate her aunt and help with simple tasks like logging on, using the mouse, and answering occasional questions that are very obvious to literate people. And our staff at el Centro Latino are always available to support her if she needs encouragement or technical assistance.

Which brings me to asking for your support.

Our campaign calls for deploying Leamos throughout Los Angeles county starting in early 2009 and nationwide during 2010, with a goal of teaching one million students by the end of 2011.

This is ambitious but very doable if we get just a little help.

As we reach the end of 2008, we have written a comprehensive and well thought out business plan, almost completed development of the new and improved version of the Leamos software and website, began producing the campaign's marketing and tutor recruitment program in conjunction with the Metamorphosis Project at the University of Southern California, started creating the tutor-training materials, and been blessed with generous grants from private foundations and the California Emerging Technology Fund.

But we still need a substantial amount of funds to complete the campaign's production and deployment in Los Angeles county, and pay the $40 tuition for those who can't afford it. And by the middle of 2009 we'll need even more funds to deploy nationwide.

Which is were you might come in. Please contact el Centro if you wish to be either a generous sponsor of funds or a volunteer -- or both, por supuesto. Every precious dollar and minute of volunteer time counts.

Think of it: just $40 immediately starts liberating one non-literate adult Latino from a life of poverty and underachievement.

About Richard Koffler:
Richard, un peruano en Los Angeles, is CEO of LatinoLA alongside his compadre, Abelardo.
Author's website

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