CU-Boulder Students Team Up With 'Learning To Read' Program

Published: April 27, 1998

Adult literacy students in the city of Boulder’s "Learning to Read" program are learning more than reading and writing this spring – they’re learning to send electronic mail and log onto the Internet as well.

A new service-learning project of the linguistics department at the University of Colorado at Boulder pairs CU-Boulder undergraduates with adult literacy students, augmenting the assistance provided by their regularly assigned tutors.

"We’re seeing use of the computer lab really increase as a result of the match-ups," said Diana Sherry, coordinator of the Learning to Read program at the Boulder Public Library. "Some of our tutors have shied away from the computers, but that’s not an issue at all for CU students."

About 20 CU undergraduates enrolled in Linguistics 1000, "Language in U.S. Society," earn one additional credit for participating in the service-learning component of the course. Their assignments, which require 16 hours of contact, range from working one-on-one with an adult literacy student to compiling a book of literacy students’ writing to helping track attendance data for the literacy programs at the Boulder County Jail.

"I think having the students have the hands-on experience is really valuable to them, and so is being a part of the community through service," said CU instructor Ellen Polsky, who teaches the linguistics service-learning recitation.

Initially funded as a pilot project with a $4,000 grant from the campus Service Learning Council, the project is an example of the innovative approach to learning and community outreach that is envisioned by the university’s Total Learning Environment initiative.

"It's one thing to read about the prevalence of illiteracy in the U.S., it's another to get out of the classroom and experience what being unable to read means to a real person," said Lise Menn, chair of the linguistics department, who credited Sherry and CU instructor Jule Gomez de Garcia with inspiring the program.

CU freshman Courtney Schenck has been tutoring Richard Skrdlant, 47, helping him practice his writing skills and learn about basic computer usage at the same time. After an introductory session, they mostly communicate by e-mail now.

Schenck said she enjoys helping other people and the experience helps her better understand the multitude of issues, social and political, that are involved in literacy and bilingual education.

"I know the literacy students are intimidated by people who are younger than them that can read, but overall I think it’s real positive for all of us," said Schenck, 19, of Loveland.

Skrdlant, who dropped out of high school after the ninth grade and now does janitorial work for a living, entered Boulder’s Learning to Read program to improve his job prospects and hopefully to earn his G.E.D.

"Anymore, it’s all computers," he said about the new skills he is learning. "I think it’s really interesting."

CU sophomore Ann Gardiner, said the experience has been fun as well as challenging.

The 20-year-old from Highlands Ranch has been tutoring a Laotian mother of eight in skills such as alphabetizing and using a phone book as well as using a computer.

"I’ve absolutely enjoyed it," Gardiner said. "She’s so wonderful. She loves to learn, and I’ve learned a lot about her life coming to America."