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The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read

John Corcoran photoJohn Corcoran thought that he would never learn how to read; that something was wrong with him. He was 48 years old before he discovered that something is wrong with the system – the school system.

John Corcoran spoke at the Florida Literacy Coalition conference on May 4th. This coalition is made up of volunteers and professionals who teach adults how to read. One in six adults cannot read above a 4th grade level; a high percentage of those cannot read above a 2nd grade level.

At age 48 he sought help from a volunteer reading coach at a library. She got him tested and it turned out that he just did not know how the written language worked. “A teacher broke the code for me,” he said. And in 13 months he went from a 2nd grade reading level to a 6th grade level. He was then functionally literate. However, it took seven years for him to feel like he could really read anything he wanted to read.

John Corcoran says that his illiteracy “suspended me in childhood”. He had a bad feeling about teachers and about himself. By second grade he had been placed in the “dumb room”. The teachers of course didn’t refer to it as the dumb room, but the students did. He rebelled, got in fights, and was a troublemaker all through elementary school.

In high school, John was an athlete, was popular and dated the valedictorian who did his homework. He stopped being a “cut-up” and became a “kiss-up”. He graduated from high school with a 2nd grade reading level and an athletic scholarship. 

As a college student, John Corcoran had to ramp up his cheating skills. He belonged to a fraternity that had files of past tests. He had girlfriends who did his homework and hired other students to write papers and take tests. He even broke into a professor’s office to steal a really important test. He graduated from college with a second grade reading level and a job teaching high school for 17 years.

John Corcoran claims that it is a myth that he or other adult illiterates had a chance to learn to read in school. It is not true that as a child John was lazy, not attentive or didn’t care or that his parents were neglectful. He simply was not taught what he needed to know.

John Corcoran told his story in a book, The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read. In 1992, President Bush appointed him to the National Institute for Literacy. At age 78, this man advocates for the adult illiterate, stressing that it is just as important to teach the adult to read as to teach the child.

He is greatly distressed because what happened to him in school is still happening. Two thirds of the students today will have difficulty learning to read because of the way it is being taught in our schools.

Teachers still are not trained to teach the phonic elements of the English language. The curriculum is not designed to help students figure out the written English. Future adult illiterates and non-readers are being made in our schools.

Adults who wish to improve their reading skills are welcomed at the Community Learning Center. However, we must stop the inefficient and sometimes destructive curriculum and instructional methods in elementary schools.

If you are interested in finding out more about our tutoring programs for adults and children, please call (727) 441-4444.

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