Literacy Network tackles region's monumental reading problem with Spelling Bee

CINCINNATI – An astounding 400,000 people in Greater Cincinnati are functionally illiterate. Though that number is gathered from a metropolitan area of more than 2 million, it surpasses the population of the city of Cincinnati by more than 100,000.

It's a crisis for the Tri-State that hobbles nearly one in five of us. "A person who is functionally illiterate cannot read a menu, novel or even street signs. They will often have 50 -75 words memorized, and that is how they get by," said Kathy Allen Ciarla, Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati president.

Functional illiteracy is defined as reading below fourth grade level. Students who are behind in fourth grade are in trouble academically. "From fourth grade on you read to learn. Therefore 75 percent of poor readers in third grade, will remain poor readers in high school," she said. "If you are not on grade level by the beginning of fourth grade, you are behind."

The Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati is on the front lines of combating the problem, which has grown from 288,000 just a few years ago, working in eight counties with more than 60 literacy programs, a coalition of more than 100 provider agencies and more than 30 schools.

The group listed more than 1,000 volunteers and spending of $280,000 in its 2012 tax filing, all geared toward improving the lives of neighbors whose careers are hobbled by their inability to read.

While the problem is a serious one, the network is hoping to enlist teams of volunteers for some fun to raise money during its 24th annual Spelling Bee on May 22 and the Holy Grail at The Banks. The group hopes to raise $12,000-$14,000, Ciarla said. 

“The Spelling Bee is a great way for the Literacy Network to raise awareness and funding," she said. "With thousands of adults and children in Cincinnati struggling with basic literacy, events like this make our much needed programs possible."

Teams of three people will compete to be crowned Cincinnati’s best spellers. Businesses, charitable organizations or friends can form teams, which will have one minute to work together to spell a word correctly. Rounds continue until only one team is left standing.

Mount Notre Dame High School teachers won in 2013 and are scheduled to return to defend their title.

Team entry fees include appetizers and drink tickets for each participant. Fans can be part of the action as well, with a $20 happy hour admission that includes 2 drink tickets. The Holy Grail will donate 10 percent of sales from the evening to the Literacy Network, and all who stick around will be serenaded by Tommy & Hub following the bee. Teams can enter or sponsorships can be set up by contacting the Literacy Network at (513) 621-7323 or clicking here to fill out a registration form.

The Literacy Network programs cater to adults and children free of charge thanks to funding from private grants, donations and fundraising. The network has embraced the Orton-Gillingham method for teaching reading, a multi-sensory approach that was originally designed for dyslexic learners but has been found to be effective with the general population. 

Its Adult Basic Reading Program provides Orton-Gillingham-based instruction to adults who are functionally illiterate and places adults with one-on-one tutors.

"All students have the opportunity to also work with a tutor to reinforce classroom learning. We have expanded this in the past two years and have seen better retention and scores from our students," Ciarla said. 

The most effective programs are those that make it easiest for clients. "Offering day and evening classes in the communities where the students live helps with retention and makes attending classes easier for the students," she said. "We have expanded our community outreach this year offering classes in Price Hill, Madisonville and the downtown main branch of the library.  We also offer bus tokens."

The Network recruits and trains volunteers to work with kindergarten through fourth grade students in Cincinnati Public Schools for a minimum of 30 minutes a week.

For children who may be dyslexic, a two-year program is offered that teaches basic literacy skills for free to children in grades 1-4, using the Orton-Gillingham multisensory method to achieve reading at grade level.

The group also operates a Hotline, which provides referral services for over 100 programs at 60 sites in eight counties for adults and children.

Its Winners Walk Tall character coaches work with classrooms of kindergarten through 6th grade to instill positive character traits and teach important life lessons. Character coaches can volunteer for as little as 15-20 minutes a week.

"We at the Literacy Network could not be more grateful for the communities continued support in our mission, ultimately changing lives and making our city a better place," Ciarla said. "Events like the Spelling Bee are crucial because with the support of the community we can continue to reach more in need of basic reading help. Our programs and services can grow and

provide quality programs that improve lives."

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