Noe Valley Voice May 2005

Teach a Man to Read...

By Lee Hopkins

In a book of essays owned by his younger contemporary William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne wrote that reading prepares us for life as well as death.

But what if you cannot read?

This problem is widely perceived by the public as one of disadvantaged children, or those who are foreign-born. But it is a pervasive and serious situation that affects the whole social spectrum of San Francisco.

The San Francisco Public Library's Project Read estimates that 80,000 adults, or one out of eight in our city, have some difficulty with basic reading and writing. Since 1983, Project Read has provided free one-on-one tutoring, workshops, and ongoing instruction for English-speaking adults who seek to improve their literacy. The program has trained more than 4,000 volunteers to assist an equal number of students, to increase their reading and writing skills, set goals, and enhance their lives. Each year, Project Read volunteers contribute more than 10,000 hours to this worthy cause.

One of these volunteers is Wade Acton, a 72-year-old resident of Noe Street. Acton is a Stanford graduate, a Navy veteran, and a retired corporate communications staffer for Standard Oil of California.

He signed up with Project Read about four years ago, after putting in 20 years tutoring foreign-born students at the Mission Language and Vocational School and the International Institute of San Francisco.

Within six months of joining Project Read, Acton had tutored three students at the Adult Learning and Tutorial Center on Gough Street near Market. This organization, which is affiliated with City College of San Francisco, gets some of its tutors from Project Read.

The Project Read format has been carefully thought out to protect students from embarrassment or discomfort. For one thing, the program avoids placing students in classrooms with much younger and perhaps far more proficient people.

Before offering the services of a professionally trained tutor, Project Read evaluates each student's individual needs. It also makes sure student and teacher have access to learning and teaching tools, an easy-to-use computer lab, family services to encourage reading at home, vocational help, and referrals to other educational resources.

Students may focus on one objective, such as passing the high school equivalency test or GED. But they often gain collateral benefits, Acton tells me. Their newfound confidence may lead them to register to vote and participate in elections, take advantage of the many supportive programs of the San Francisco Public Library, and encourage the academic goals of family members.

Since 2001, Acton has been tutoring a 61-year-old man who is preparing to take the GED exam, which requires passing tests in five subject areas: writing, reading, math, social studies, and science. Acton meets with the student twice weekly for an hour-long session to work on vocabulary and spelling skills. The two of them together have drawn up a list of 500 frequently misspelled words, and they address 10 each week. Acton says he spends a half-hour beforehand drafting a lesson plan.

Saying that the key element "is to build trust with the learner," Acton structures his tutoring to relate to the real world of his student. As the student is the appointed tenants' rights advocate in his Tenderloin hotel, Acton builds assignments around newspaper clippings of stories on housing and homelessness and related issues.

One of the most gratifying aspects of working with this student, says Acton, is the man's "sincerity and desire to learn." Acton makes sure each tutorial session leads to measurable progress.

Tutor and student recently celebrated a milestone: A parable the student wrote about a man living in ancient Egypt was featured in Midnight Writers, a creative writing journal published by the Adult Learning Center.

Gandhi once said, "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."

Both Wade and his student are obviously following Gandhi's advice.

If you would like to volunteer or find out more about Project Read, call 415-557-4388, e-mail, or go to

Lee Hopkins is a 15-year resident of Noe Valley. His writing has appeared in West Coast and national media.

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