The Relief Society Literacy Project

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There are probably people in your ward or branch who see something like the previous sentence when they see the ward bulletin. Adult illiteracy is a problem in the United States, with about 10% of the population over age 16 judged to be unable to read or write. People in that situation struggle in many ways, since they cannot fill out a job application, read the instructions for a medical prescription, or understand correspondence from the bank, not to mention read the scriptures.

The church’s official response to adult illiteracy is the Gospel Literacy program, administered by the ward Relief Society. A ward can order the materials, which consist of a workbook, a teacher’s manual, and a training video, from the distribution center. The books and video all have the title of Ye Shall Have My Words, and are available in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

The program functions in a ward when a literacy specialist is called, under the direction of the Relief Society president. The specialist helps identify people who need help learning to read, and those persons are invited to participate. They meet as a group, and the participants are assigned two or three homework lessons per week. Additional specialists can be called to give individual help.

Mary Ellen Smoot, a former general president of the Relief society, spoke often of the good results of the literacy program. In one case, women from a ward had organized themselves to go into a nearby penitentiary and teach inmates how to read. When the program was officially started in 1992 as part of the Relief Society sesquicentennial observance, Gordon B. Hinckley said this:

“Now a great new project is to be undertaken. It is a practical and much-needed part of this 150th anniversary celebration. But its consequences will go on and on and be felt in the lives of generations yet to come. It is a program to teach those who suffer from functional illiteracy. It is designed to bring light into the lives of those who can neither read nor write.

This lack of literacy skills is far more common than many believe. In some areas of the world 75 percent are unable to read or write. Illiteracy’s effects are tragic. Those who are its victims are denied the opportunity to become acquainted with history and the great minds of the past. They cannot read the daily newspaper. They cannot understand the word of God set forth in the immortal scripture. For them there is little light of ages past, and only diminished knowledge of the vast and intriguing world of which they are a part. The darkness that surrounds them, the bleak shadow of illiteracy, condemns them to poverty, hunger, and ignorance. Theirs is only half a world, a world in which they are literally blinded from much of that which goes on about them. Now there is to be provided a means to open the doors of communication and let in the light of understanding. Women old and young, in various nations, will be taught by their sisters to read and write. Imagine, if you can, the potential of this inspired program. Who dare dream of its consequences?”

I think the literacy project is a great thing, but I have some questions.

1) Why does the church not promote this program more? I think it is just as needed as the perpetual education fund, but we hear relatively little about it. The program hasn’t been dropped because the materials are still available, and they were just revised this Spring.

2) Does anybody have experience with this program? I can see several potential problems with implementation.

3) I have been involved with a class teaching English as a second language which was held at the church building as part of the ward’s effort in promoting literacy. We had about thirty people attending, most of them not LDS. It worked very well as a means of outreach and building goodwill. Are there reasons the RS literacy program could not function in the same way?


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Good questions. I too am interested in this program, and would love to hear some war stories from people with actual experience with it. I’ve never actually seen it implemented, but I live in an area where the need is probably not readily apparent.

  2. It works well in our wards where it is emphasized by the Bishop, not at all in those where it is not. We are trying at the stake level to encourage it, along with a program for addiction.

    One problem is the availability of teachers. As our units eliminate non-essential programs and meetings and responsibilities, it is easier to address these things – the meat of the Gospel, IMHO.

  3. Did it start under Elaine Jack?

    Way back when (I was 20!) I was a RS pres in a singles ward and we decided to volunteer at the library to help people read. It wasn’t quite the program but it kicked us in gear to volunteer at the library and it was really fun. Made me so grateful I could read too. I had no idea how much I love this skill.

    They should start groups like this with the new Enrichment group idea. Once a month or week, the group goes to the local public library to volunteer or something.

  4. Mark IV says:

    amri, yes it started in 1992 in President Jack’s administration. That is sehr kuhl that your ward went to the library and tutored people with their reading skills.

    Ray, I agree with you, finding staff is a big challenge. I get a little discouraged sometimes with the emphasis on parents in the home that the church has taken recently. It is almost like you can’t ask anybody to do anything because it will detract from their family. What is your experience with optimal class size? And did anybody every take offense when they were invited to participate?

  5. It did start under Elaine Jack. I went to a talk on it where she was the speaker–only 3 people showed up! They had a huge chapel and no one came. Admittedly, it was at BYU women’s conference and it seemed everyone would rather go hear a talk on charity than actually do something to implement service into their own live. I talked with her briefly afterwards. She was frustrated. The program did not do all it was supposed to do because frankly, sisters didn’t care that much about implementing it.

    However my sister did work with the program a lot on her mission in Ecuador. She loved helping people learn to read! It was a great experience for her.

    I think people are really just not aware of the problem in the US. Our local library runs a program and a few sisters in our ward participate to help the adults in the program.

  6. I was the ward literacy specialist and taught lessons for about a year to a middle-aged man born with hydrocephalus and a slightly mentally retarded young woman. It was fulfilling at times, and they were generally willing to learn, but setting up class times was often a challenge — sort of like an extra (weekly) visiting teaching assignment. I finally persuaded the bishop to allow me to use Sunday School time and church space to teach the class. (Sunday lessons are specifically discouraged in the handbook, even though all lessons are based on the scriptures.)

    The materials are pretty good, as far as I could tell. They are not intended for ESL. I tried to make sure the lessons helped people with the functional reading they encountered every day (e.g., filling out forms). Since another major purpose of the course is to help people access the scriptures for themselves, some time is spent on unpacking KJV language. Imagine how much more friendly the scriptures would seem to these folks in 21st century language. I don’t mean to threadjack, but I think people with reading difficulties would greatly benefit from a modern language edition of the English scriptures. How long will we keep the overwrought KJV language, as much as I love it? Every year, dear old King James is further in the past and less relevant.

  7. Ardis Parshall says:

    I took some Laubach Literacy training about 186 years ago, it seems, and worked one-on-one with an elderly rancher who had finally let his family know he couldn’t read. We met at the public library, and the match between him and me was made by a city volunteer program. I’ve never seen any sign of any ward I lived in being involved with such a program.

  8. I would love for my ward to do something like this, and also an ESL program. Lots of other churches have those. I think we should too. There is a vast immigrant population here who are generally underserved. I did adult literacy tutoring years ago, a young man with a high school degree who read on a kindergarten level. I’ve also had ESL tutor training. I would love to do ESL tutoring for my calling.

  9. Our ward tried this for awhile here. One problem was getting the students to attend, since many of them had long work days themselves. Of course, getting women to commit to volunteering was another problem. I guess I’m wondering why only the RS should be doing this– after all the women have jobs too– why do we expect them to go out after work to teach? As for me, I’d much rather be working in a program like this than doing much of the fluffy stuff, like planning Enrichment Night. And I bet that my boys would have been much happier doing stuff like this at YM than playing basketball yet again. Maybe it would work to get the youth involved once in awhile.

  10. I was in a ward (UK) where the bishop promoted it and the RS and EQ really tried to make a go of it. I was in the EQ pres and one of the tutors. Despite great intentions and a good curriculum (although too American-specific) it was a mess. I think we were unprepared for the nature of the student: the half-dozen adult students all had mental or emotional issues severe enough to make the tutoring very difficult. There was also an understandable defensiveness, and the social class differences were palpable (this was central London). One or two women kept with it, mostly out of loneliness I think, so I suppose it was successful. But it’s not a lightweight thing that you can just pick up or have the youth do.

  11. To echo Norbert, I am a former teacher and an educator at heart still. Many people have no idea how difficult adult literacy training is. Think of how hard it is to learn a foreign language as an adult; in reality, that is what many adult non-readers must do, with the only advantage being they already know the words verbally – IF they are being taught their native language. If you add mental or severe emotional issues to the picture – good luck.

    I believe the focus of most ward literacy programs should be those who have the capacity to complete the course in a reasonable time frame, have the dedication and motivation it takes to attend regularly and are able to articulate a concrete and specific reason for their desire to learn to read – without suggestion or coaching by someone else. I know it would be difficult to turn people away, but if they don’t meet these minimal requirements they probably need more than a volunteer-based program can provide.

    Of course, it’s 5:00AM and I have been up all night working on a project, so my brain might be more than slightly muddled as I type.

  12. Ardis Parshall says:

    There was also an understandable defensiveness

    Recognizing this made me wonder at Mark’s description of the RS program that students met in groups. Non-reading adults have spent a lot of years hiding that painful fact from family and peers and employers — how easy could it be for them to admit it to a group of strangers, even ones who share their problem? Too, people start at different points — completely illiterate, knowing the alphabet, reading at an elementary level — how can a group setting give each what he needs without, and how can class members avoid comparing themselves unfavorably?

    My single experience of tutoring involved a man who didn’t want any of the librarians to know why he was there, and he didn’t want any family but his wife to know until he was successful, “just in case.” And he would have run away had I shown any sign of impatience or superiority.

    Laubach’s motto is “Each one teach one,” and since they have so much successful experience their methods start the race with a certain amount of credibility, at least with me.

  13. Mark IV says:

    Thanks, everybody, for your interesting comments.

    Ardis, the example I saw met as a group, but also included individual attention later during the week to help students follow through on the homework. There is enough flexibility to allow for either approach, but an approach that doesn’t take into account the varying abilities of the learners will undoubtedly fail, as you note.

    Defensiveness is one of the hurdles I anticipate facing when we invite people to participate. Even when the invitation is extended with kindness and tact, it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine hurt feelings.

    I’m really interested in examining tha way this initiative has failed, at least in North America. The first reason that comes to mind is that the institutional church doesn’t promote it enough. That is certainly true, but I don’t think that is a satisfactory explanation.

    I think it’s because the situation in many cases is so difficult, as Norbert and Ray have described. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, and the results are often pretty discouraging. I’ve had the same experience before when trying to help people with their financial problems. I began with a lot of hope and enthusiasm, thinking that it was as easy as 1)reminding them to pay tithing, 2)filling out a budget worksheet, and 3)helping them balance their checkbook. But the real problems turned out to be so much deeper than I assumed, and it became exhausting, and my efforts yielded only very marginal results.

    But still, I have to ask myself: If we can’t succeed at this to some degree, what can we do?

  14. I wonder then, if like what Ardis is saying, we should use it as an impetus to get involved in literacy programs set up by people with more experience. We Mormons have to run so much, maybe it would be nice to be the helpers rather than the organizers and maintainers in this sort of thing.

  15. Mark IV says:

    amri, I think that is a very good idea, at least for us in North America. In the parts of the world where over 50% of the ward can’t read, it probably needs to be a ward initiative.

  16. Melinda says:

    I volunteered at a library adult literacy program and had two students. One was a man who had been brain-damaged in a car accident and was on a fourth grade level both cognitively and in his reading. The other one was an ESL student from Europe. I don’t recall that either one of them made any progress at all due to my efforts, and we just sort of petered out after a couple months.

    I learned that you can’t teach much at all in two hours a week. If someone is going to learn to read, it would take a lot more time commitment. Our ward program asks for volunteers to volunteer as little as one hour a month. One hour a month! Reading takes much more than that, and the ward is afraid to ask for it.

    I’ll be tutoring two dyslexic children this summer. I’ve spent at least 80 hours reading books about how to teach reading in general and to dyslexic kids in specific and brainstorming lesson plans and ideas. The ward would be hard pressed to find someone willing to put that kind of time into a calling besides bishop or RS Pres. The people who are willing to work like that already have mega-callings.

    This tutoring is not Church-affiliated. Personally, I wouldn’t like to do it through the Church because of how laidback Church has to be. It’s okay if you’re late, don’t come, don’t do anything, have a bad attitude, mouth off. Yuck. These people are paying me; their kids are going to be on time and on task; and I expect the parents to read out loud to their children regularly. If they don’t comply, then I can quit. I’m hoping that sort of structure will make both the students and families take this seriously. If it was a Church calling, I wouldn’t dare even tell them to stay on task, or insinuate to the parents that they ought to read to their kids at home.

  17. I don’t think many members of the church in the US know about this program — I ran into it accidentally on the official website about two weeks ago. And given the number of people who’ve told me that a teacher in Primary has “no business at all” in trying to help children figure out KJV English, I wonder whether the reception would be altogether positive if more noise were made.

  18. I am not familiar with the Church’s materials, but I have heard that a stalwart sister in our ward, who has served in several major callings, became literate through this program many years ago.

    It seems to me that for the more advanced student, using the KJV along with a standard Engish version of the Bible might be a good exercise.

  19. Ardis Parshall says:

    I winced when I read back my own comment that “I wondered at Mark’s description” — it sounded like I doubted his accuracy, when what I meant was “I wondered how that could possibly work.”

    The gospel can be a powerful motivator in learning to read. One branch of my own family went from marginal literacy in one generation to school teachers in the next, because after having joined the church the family was hungry to read the scriptures. Laubach Literacy operates as a secular program, but its origins are through Protestant missionary experience with converts who wanted to read the Bible for themselves.

    So I can see how literacy could be a natural fit for Relief Society service.

  20. To reinforce what Ardis just said, the greatest leap in literacy in the history of the world occurred because Gutenberg made something available that people wanted to read – the Bible. You can put every book ever written in front of someone, but if that person doesn’t have an internal motivation to learn to read you will have a very difficult time teaching them to read. (Just look at the situation in many schools throughout the country and the difficulty they have teaching children to read who are in the prime language acquisition window but have no parental or cultural support and, therefore, no internal motivation.)

    That’s why one of my suggestions is that each student ASK to be taught and articulate their reason for asking. It is working best in our stake when our leaders are identifying potential students and asking them if they want to participate (and accepting negative responses) – instead of approaching it almost like an assignment that should be accepted.

  21. Ray, thanks for fleshing out your previous comment. I was wondering about it. I still am somewhat confused though… you say the students should ask, but then say that the stake is approaching people. Do they approach people, then deny them if they don’t articulate a good reason?

  22. No. Sorry, Claire. I was mixing how it is done and what I would suggest as the ideal. You know what the pregnant woman said to her husband: “I know what I was thinking; why don’t you?”

    Our stake approaches people, but there is no pressure to attend if the person doesn’t respond with enthusiasm – or at least determination. It then becomes an open invitation for the future. (That’s what I meant by accepting negative responses. Sorry for the confusion.)

    Melinda’s last paragraph (#16) highlights the issue of the Church’s inability in this type of program to demand effort and focus and attendance – to impose consequences of almost any sort short of expulsion, and even that could be very problematic. For that reason, I believe the ideal would be more of an application process among competing applicants – knowing that might never be possible. If we must stick to the volunteer and accept anyone who agrees to attend model, I still think we should separate those with severe mental and/or emotional issues from those without them. The proper instructional model for each group simply is too different to succeed, IMHO.

  23. Thanks for the clarification, Ray. This is food for thought, as there is probably a need for this program, or referrals to another program, in our Ward.