ASPEN HILL- Playing the role of the teacher is not a game of dress-up for 10-year-old Giselle Jimenez. Her English is stronger than her mother’s, Maricela Cabrera, 35, who often needs Giselle’s guidance on homework assigned in a family literacy class they are taking together.
Cabrera and Giselle are teaming up to learn English in a course offered by the Literacy Council of Montgomery County, a novel, intergenerational approach to helping adults with low levels of literacy learn English, by making their children the teachers.
U.S. Department of Education estimates show that 11 percent of Maryland adults aged 16 or older lack basic prose literacy skills — the ability to read and answer questions about readings. With a lack of funding in adult education making it difficult to address the problem, groups like the Literacy Council are filling the gaps left by schools.
“I help [my mom] practice reading, help her with homework and help her write and pronounce English words she doesn’t know,” said Giselle, as she spelled out her name with magnetic letters on a whiteboard at Brookhaven Elementary in Aspen Hill last week. Her mother was upstairs learning how to compare food prices and read English recipes.
The Family Literacy program began last year at schools across Montgomery County. These once a week classes encourage parents and children to work together to improve literacy skills. The program seeks to teach adults the English they need on a day-to-day basis, whether learning how to read a report card or how to make budgets.
“They need to be able to function in society and be a bigger part of their community and their children’s education,” said Jayne Klein, program director of the Family Literacy program.
Literacy experts said intergenerational learning benefits adults and their children.
“If you have both of them learning together there’s mutual motivation,” said Thomas Sticht, international consultant on adult education. “The child is motivated when they see mommy or daddy doing it.”
A study conducted by Wider Opportunities for Women — a nonprofit that promotes equality and economic stability for women — showed that women enrolled in basic skills programs spent more time reading to children, took them to the library and communicated better with their children’s school teachers.
“Evidence is so strong that investing in education of adults that can improve education of children, but we’re still trying to fix preschools or K-12,” said Sticht, emphasizing the need for more funding in adult education as opposed to youth education.
And at the Literacy Council, they’re doing a bit of both.
“If the adults are learning about colors, I’ll come up with a related activity with the children so they can go home and practice with their parents,” said Solange Duran, intern and children’s teacher for the Family Literacy program at Brookhaven Elementary.
Cabrera’s homework assignment for the following week required her to label household appliances and furniture items, and specifying the room in which they can be found. She was required to work on the assignment with the guidance of Giselle.
In Maryland, 7.4 percent of adults 25 or older lack high school diplomas, according to the U.S. Census. Adults with low levels of literacy tend to have higher unemployment rates and lower wages.
In the United States, 1 in 6 adults have low literacy and low fundamental math skills, a higher rate than most developed countries. Low-skilled adults are four times as likely to have poor health compared with those with the highest skills, according to the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation provide grants to community colleges, public library systems and groups like the Literacy Council to help provide adult education across the state. But they are struggling to cater to all adults who need help.
Patricia Tyler, director of Adult Education and Literacy Services at DLLR, said they are serving about 40,000 adults while the need is around 800,000. This year alone, 8,000 adults were placed on a waiting list.
“It’s a drop in a bucket compared to what the need is in the state and that’s not unique to Maryland,” Tyler said.
But that doesn’t stop parents like Cabrera, who works as a housekeeper, from trying.
“I want to talk more with my boss and use more English words at work and at school,” she said in her native-tongue, Spanish.
Literacy Council co-teacher Wendy Samee and senior teacher Lynn Balabanis said Cabrera and her classmates at Brookhaven Elementary have improved significantly. But Klein said they are also guiding the students to other resources once the class ends.
“We look at it as a springboard program,” Klein said. “We hope they become confident enough to access other programs in Montgomery County to keep on growing.”