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How a Northeastern State University professor taught a 89 year old man to read

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
March 7, 2013
 

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Late last week, the CBS Evening News told the story of 89 year old World War Two veteran Ed Bray. It wasn’t about how he earned his two Purple Hearts, or life after the war, but rather a problem facing 12 percent of Oklahomans over age 16 – they lack basic literary skills. Thanks to a professor at Northeastern State University, the Cookson, Oklahoma resident is able to get through basic books now. I first asked Tobi Thompson how surprised she was when he walked in:

“I had received an email previously from someone that they were going to bring him in and was today a good time. But I honestly did not expect to see him walk through the door. Because I know how proud that generation is. They don’t want to, a lot of times, to admit to anything that they feel is going to be embarrassing. So when he walked through the door, I was completely shocked.

“And when he sat down and we started talking, I thought, initially, after his list of things that he didn’t want to do and wasn’t going to do, I honestly didn’t think there was any way that I was going to be able to help him.”

How did you tailor your instruction to fit the different challenge?

“I listened to what he had tried before. Everything it seemed, that he had tried before was totally computer based or totally workbook based. No one took the time to listen to what he already knew, to access his prior knowledge. No one took the time to understand the struggle he had gone through for 80 years.

“So I asked him things he was interested in. He was interested in music, specifically Eddie Arnold songs. So I started printing song lyrics and we started reading song lyrics. And then isolating the words, and reading the words and using the words in other pieces of literature and it worked.”

Is it as simple as just listening?

“This time around, it was as simple as just listening.”

Why?

“I think in the past, people have, when they talk to older people about their needs, people my age think that the older people are broken and that we have to fix them. Mr. Bray is not broken. He is a very intelligent man. To make it to 89 years old and not be able to read, you have to have some kind of intelligence. To make it through World War II and live, you have to have some kind of smarts.

“So I just treated him like I would want somebody to treat my grandfather. And I listened and didn’t try to fix him. I tried to help him instead.”

What did you get out of the experience?

“Oh my gosh…you’re going to make me cry. My grandfather was also a World War II vet, he was a medic, and he was also a Purple Heart award recipient, and  a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star. But my grandfather died when I was seven. So I made a deal with Mr. Bray at the very beginning that I would do my best to help him if he would, kinda tell me his stories.

“I didn’t say it, but I wanted him to kinda be a surrogate grandfather. That’s what I have. He is someone that I admire and respect and he’s a true hero. I was just glad that I was in the right place at the right time.”

He took you a little closer to the grandfather you knew for 7 years?

“Exactly.”

What about illiteracy makes it so hard to completely solve?

“I think people like us, like you and me, who take for granted the ability to read, we don’t remember. Can you remember learning to read, do you remember that process?

“I don’t either. And everybody that I talked to who is a good reader, a fluent reader, and enjoys reading, no one remembers learning to read. No one remembers that struggle, because it wasn’t for us. It wasn’t difficult.”

But people who struggle and people who can’t read, they remember it being a very painful thing. They remember seeing other people get it immediately and them sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t get it, something’s wrong with me.’ I believe. And it’s easier to give up than it is to keep going.

Is this a hidden problem?

“Definitely. I was just talking to Mr. Bray [Tuesday] and he said that now, he doesn’t understand why he didn’t tell people before that he couldn’t read. He said that he was extremely embarrassed, because he thought people would look down on him, even after all of his accomplishments.”

“I think people are scared of the perception, which is sad  because the only way to get help is to acknowledge the issue.”

____________________________________________________________

Tobi and Ed get together every Tuesday and Thursday, and their last meeting featured a proud moment:

“He pulled out an old McGuffie Reader that he had, and he said, ‘Is it okay if I read this?’ and I said, ‘Well of course’ and he said ‘Well good because I’m on page 35 now’”.

Why is he starting to learn to read so late in life? Tobi remembers what he told her:

“Get in there and learn baby, because you’re not going to do it there in that pine box.”

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