“Church Literacy Program Increases Its Reach,” Ensign, Jan. 2001, 78
If you’ve ever thought illiteracy is not a serious problem in today’s modern world, think again. The Office of Technology Assessment, an analytical arm of the U.S. Congress, recently found that at least 35 million adults in the U.S. alone have difficulty with common literacy tasks. In some countries, up to 75 percent of the population is illiterate.
“Theirs is … a world in which they are literally blinded from much of that which goes on about them. Now there is to be provided a means to open the doors of communication and let in the light of understanding,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley, speaking of the Church literacy program that was introduced in 1991 (see Ensign, Mar. 1992, 6).
Since that time, the Relief Society, working with the Church Educational System, has made great strides in teaching thousands of members to read.
Today, besides focusing on literacy, Relief Society leaders are also emphasizing the importance of teaching gospel literacy, meaning the ability to gain gospel knowledge through prayer, searching the scriptures, and writing down what is learned.
“It is thrilling for us because those who were illiterate are now learning the gospel as well as literacy,” said general Relief Society president Mary Ellen Smoot.
Other new approaches are also going forward. Ward literacy specialists are now encouraged to teach people in family groups in the home where possible rather than just as individuals. Besides strengthening families, this approach encourages children, who learn more quickly, to help their parents and relatives learn.
In a third new approach, those who are illiterate are taught not only how to read but also how to teach others to read. “No longer do we face the literacy program with the idea to simply teach the illiterate to read. It is more than that,” says Sister Smoot. “We are asking instead, ‘Who would like to instruct how to teach literacy?’ If one has an opportunity to teach, they receive a greater desire to learn.”
The Mesa Arizona Southern Estates Ward is experiencing success using this approach. The ward literacy specialists teach members how to read, then train these members to use the literacy materials to teach their families and others. The ripple effect has been powerful. Ward member Shellie Gibson tells of a 15-year-old boy who began attending literacy classes only because of his parents’ insistence, but he is now able to read and is teaching others to do the same.
“He loves the fact that now he can understand and really read the scriptures,” says Sister Gibson. “He now has a hope he didn’t have before. It is true: teaching someone to read can change their life forever.”
Relief Society leaders may obtain the Church’s literacy manuals, teaching charts, and training video free of charge through their local CES representatives.