UW Combined Fund Drive

August 26, 2021

Get Involved in Local Literacy Efforts

Seattle is one of the most literate cities in the nation, and yet tens of thousands of people in our region lack sufficient literacy for self-sufficiency.

According to Literacy Source, a leading local non-profit providing basic education to low-income adults, 1 in 6 adults in Washington don’t have the basic educational skills needed to earn a livable wage.

Nationwide, 36 million adults cannot read, write, or do math above a third-grade level, making them functionally illiterate. BIPOC groups, impacted more by barriers to education, are disproportionately represented within this total.

What exactly is literacy and why is it important? UNESCO defines it as “…a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

Page Ahead Children’s Literacy Program

Of course, it is not only adults who are impacted by illiteracy. Parents who can’t read are much more likely to have children who also struggle with literacy, continuing the cycle. Furthermore, families living below the poverty line, even if they can read, are far less likely to have books in the house.

September 8 is International Literacy Day, an opportunity “to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights.”

This definition is important; it shows that illiteracy is not a standalone problem, but one that often forms part of a larger cycle of academic failure, poverty, substance abuse, and welfare dependence. In fact, nearly half of those at the lowest literacy levels are living in poverty.

Kids Need Books

The landmark Becoming a Nation of Readers study concluded that “the single most important activity for building knowledge for their eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” Yet, many parents don’t or can’t read to their children due to lack of time, inability to read well, or lack of resources to buy books.

A neighborhood where the majority of children lack average access to books is known as a “book desert.” In Seattle alone, this applies to 22,000 children.

A Seattle Little Free Library / Page Ahead

To bring some literary greenery to such parched areas, Page Ahead has created the Book Oasis Project, installing, maintaining, and refilling Little Free Libraries in affected neighborhoods. The “take-a-book, leave-a-book system” encourages young readers to try out new books on a regular basis.

This year’s International Literacy Day celebration focuses especially on the intersection of literacy and digital connectivity and skills brought to light by educational responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many initial response plans lacked focus on literacy, while many existing literacy programs faced disruptions to their normal methods of instruction. As local children return to school, some still in hybrid or virtual programs, this remains a crucial issue.

Get Involved

Although illiteracy is a worldwide problem, there is also much that can be done locally to help ongoing efforts. Consider making a one-time gift or setting up monthly payroll deduction through the UWCFD to one of our member organizations actively working to address illiteracy: 

Literacy Source provides instruction in reading, writing, and math to equip people to work, gain citizenship, or thrive in other ways. Volunteers are crucial to their success, providing tutoring, teaching, or administrative support.

Page Ahead Children’s Literacy Program, also based in Seattle, relies on donations and volunteers to fulfill its mission of providing new books and developing reading activities that empower at-risk children.

Local libraries are a lifeline for many unable to afford books, although the services they provide extend far beyond just access to literature. Volunteer activities are currently disrupted by the pandemic, but once restored, options include helping kids with homework, tutoring, and facilitating book discussion groups. The Seattle Public Library Foundation (charity code 0329910) invests in innovative programs that change lives.

The author’s son reading to “Rover” / Simon Reeve-Parker

Is your child able to read, but hesitant to read aloud? Or is she struggling to learn? Reading with Rover, a Redmond-based nonprofit, helps break down these obstacles by encouraging children to read to specially trained and friendly canines, as well as providing numerous other pet therapy programs.

Record yourself reading stories for kids! Neighborhood House seeks volunteers to read a favorite children’s book on video to be shared with participating families. Volunteers who speak other languages are especially needed.

Tutor underserved K-12 students online one or more hours per week in math, science, reading or writing.

Help Me Read is a joint project between the Washington Reading Corp, the Fremont Public Association and Page Ahead.


Contributed by Simon Reeve-Parker