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Local Agencies Work to Improve Literacy

By Will Barclay


In 1961, Ruth Colvin, a resident of Central New York, read an article in the newspaper claiming that more than 11,000 people in her town were unable to read. 

Shocked by this information, Ms. Colvin decided to take it upon herself to do something about it. It was a defining moment for Ms. Colvin and her life’s work. She pioneered Literacy Volunteers of America, a program providing literacy tutoring to adults. Her decision to act was also a defining moment for the literacy movement in our country as well as around the globe. Fifty three years later, the need to improve literacy still exists in our country and our community.

According to ProLiteracy, more than 36 million Americans cannot read above a third-grade level. Low literacy rates have serious implications for families, communities, and the economy. It impacts all aspects of an individual’s life — from his health, employment opportunities, financial decisions, and his quality of life. Studies have determined that low-level literacy rates help lead to higher health-care costs, higher unemployment, and economic instability. A person’s literacy ability can mean the difference between giving a child the correct dose of medication or following proper safety procedures while on a job. It can also determine your financial stability. According to recent statistics, 43 percent of those who have low literacy skills lived in poverty. 

Clearly, literacy is empowerment. A person’s ability to read can change the trajectory of his life and those around him. Fortunately, there are adult-literacy programs throughout our region that provide services for those in need and also advocate and raise awareness about its importance. One place where people can often find classes or programs are at your local library. Libraries are no longer just places to read and take out books and other materials. They have transformed into educational centers and many offer a variety of classes to assist adults with computer and financial literacy, job applications, or other needs. 

If a person needs more specialized attention to improve his/her reading skills, there are organizations such as Literacy Volunteers of Oswego County, Literacy of Northern New York, and Literacy CNY. These programs match tutors with adults and they work on individualized literacy goals. This one-on-one approach works. I have heard many stories from individuals who received services. While each story is unique, they all have the underlying theme of how reading has transformed their lives in powerful and profound ways. 

In addition to the efforts being made to improve literacy rates among adults, there are many initiatives that are focused on improving literacy among our children. Encouraging children to read at an early age helps build a lifelong love of learning and reading. The link between literacy levels and a person’s quality of life are closely intertwined. That is why getting our young people engaged early is so important. 

Our schools and libraries do a great job promoting reading and offer many reading incentives and challenges throughout the year. Because literacy is important to me, I sponsor an annual Summer Reading Challenge. Studies show that students who read leisurely over the summer months perform better in school when they return in the fall. This year’s theme — “Fizz, Boom, Read!” — focused on science and technology and children had to read 15 minutes a day for 40 days throughout the summer to complete the challenge. To celebrate all my participants, I held a Summer Reading Challenge party at the Oswego Public Library a few weeks ago to celebrate their accomplishment. I enjoyed hearing from the kids about their favorite books and meeting the families. The children were visibly proud of their accomplishment and it is great to reward them for a job well done. This is the goal of this program — building lifelong readers, one at a time.        

William (Will) Barclay is the Republican representative of the 120th New York Assembly District, which encompasses most of Oswego County, including the cities of Oswego and Fulton, as well as the town of Lysander in Onondaga County and town of Ellisburg in Jefferson County. Contact him at, or (315) 598-5185.

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