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Editorial: Long Islanders can give the gift of literacy

Willie Nunn, 61, who took part in literacy

Willie Nunn, 61, who took part in literacy tutoring two years ago, reads with his grandchildren at their home in Roosevelt. (Aug. 1, 2012) Credit: Linda Rosier

If you can read this, consider yourself lucky. A surprising number of adults can't, and that condition colors practically every aspect of their lives.

The most recent numbers, compiled in 2003 by the U.S. Department of Education, showed 160,000 Suffolk County adults (14 percent) and 105,000 Nassau adults (10 percent) lacked basic literacy, meaning they read below a sixth-grade level.

Statewide, the number was 3.3 million, or 22 percent of adults. Those results showed adult illiteracy up from a 1992 study. Literacy organizations say the increased need they're seeing now indicates the statistics will be even worse when a new study is released this fall.

A bad economy acts as a triple whammy on groups such as Literacy Nassau and Literacy Suffolk that teach adults to read. More people want to improve their skills, to raise their chances of finding work in a tough market.

Some volunteers no longer have time to help those who need it, as tutors are forced to re-enter the labor market or work more hours to make ends meet. And contributions dry up.

Suffolk Literacy has a waiting list of 500 people for free tutoring. Nassau Literacy's list holds 125. Those in need include immigrants learning English as a second language, and born-and-bred Americans who never got their reading on track.

Adult illiteracy is a shame anywhere, but on Long Island -- where the first impressions are of prosperity and high education, and where our school districts are a point of pride -- it's a travesty.

We have a lot of retirees here, and plenty of others with free time. We have college students who could get a jump-start on teaching careers and colleges that might find partnering with adult literacy groups would reward their students in a variety of ways. The teaching mostly takes place in libraries, and space shortages have become an issue of late. That's a need that schools, colleges and other organizations could help resolve.

Literacy is a tremendous gift, one that most of us take for granted. We need to band together and give this gift to all who seek it.