Local Literacy Tutor Shortage Persists

Jan 10, 2013

Maggy Steele tutors Fatma Uygun.
Credit Vinnee Tong

In California, almost 3.5 million adults can’t adequately read. Libraries help a some of them through literacy programs that rely on volunteer tutors , and locally there’s a shortage of tutors.

Walk past the checkout desk at the Monterey County library branch in Seaside and, on any given day, you might see people browsing bookshelves, clicking on computer keyboards or huddled together studying,  like Maggy Steele and Fatma Uygun.   Steele is a volunteer tutor in the Monterey County Free Libraries adult literacy program. For the past six months she has been tutoring Uygun.  The program provides free weekly sessions with tutors who work one-on-one on reading, writing and conversation skills. Uygun moved to Monterey from Turkey with her husband and daughter last year.  “When we first came here, I wasn’t confident when I tried to speak to people. I was always thinking I would make a mistake and people would stare at me,” said Uygun.   

Uygun is one of the lucky ones.  For years Monterey County has had a shortage of literacy tutors, and right now there are more than 100 people on the waitlist.  “It’s kind of an ongoing struggle,” said Cathy Andrews, the supervising librarian for the literacy program.  She says the shortage is frustrating.  She’s seen literacy tutoring change lives by giving people the skills to tackle things like a job application or reading a newspaper.  “So if you think about the kind of increasingly sophisticated, technological, and word- or data-driven world that we live in, if you’re functioning as a third-grader or lower, then it would be an extreme struggle,” said Andrews.

In Santa Cruz, a literacy program run by the Volunteer Center has nearly 200 students, with 70 people on its waiting list. 

Statewide, the availability of tutors varies.  Some areas have a shortage while others have a surplus.  To balance that out, the California State Library has been testing a distance learning program.  “We’ve been using some new technology that allows a tutor in one location and a learner in another location to actually not just see each other and talk to each other, but actually look at and see the materials they’re working on together,” said Carla Lane, Programs Consultant for the California State Library. The State Library helps fund local literacy programs.  Lehn says expansion of the project beyond the pilot stage is currently under review.

Back at the Seaside Library, Fatma Uygun says now that the literacy program has boosted her confidence, she can start getting a handle on other things like American idioms. “Take the bull by the horns, and let the cat out of the bag.  Straight from the horse’s mouth, horse around, and I love this one, cat got your tongue,” said Uygun. The next round of tutor training in Monterey County starts next week. 

The next two part “Orientation and New Tutor Training” will be held on the Peninsula. Attendance at both sessions is required.  Part I on Tuesday, January 15, 6:00-8:30 pm at the Marina Branch Part II on Wednesday, January 16, 6:00-8:30 pm at the Seaside Branch  For more information or to register for training, call 831-883-7597, or email andrewscs@co.monterey.ca.us or click here.  To become a tutor for The Literacy Program in Santa Cruz, click here.   

Correction January 16, 2014:The original version of this story said that 70 people were on the waitlist in Santa Cruz County.   The story now more accurately reflects that that waitlist in Santa Cruz was specifically for the Literacy Program at the Volunteer Center.