August 2016 | Volume XXXIV. Issue 4 »

A Rising Tide: Library Staff andVolunteers Lift Adult Literacy

July 19, 2016
Kipp Cozad, Moraine Valley Community College; Jim Deiters and Erin Foley, Oak Lawn Public Library

Estimates show that two million adults in Illinois can’t read above the fifth-grade level. The number of folks “falling through the cracks” is staggering, making literacy initiatives essential. Some of these struggling adults were born and raised here in the United States and others moved here looking for a better life—like Manaf, a forty-year-old husband and father from Jordan.

His wife and four children still live across the globe, and he is wrestling with the difficult decision of whether or not to relocate his family to the United States. Manaf practiced English during his school years and has a doctorate in Islamic studies. His English reading and writing skills are fair, but he doesn’t get a chance to speak it much since his family and friends typically communicate in Arabic. He is pursuing an academic career, and English proficiency is important to his goal. Moraine Valley Community College’s (MVCC) Adult Literacy Program helps in that pursuit, and the Oak Lawn Public Library (OLPL) is a valuable partner.

Board and staff members from the Oak Lawn Public Library partner with Moraine Valley to offer tutoring close to home, at convenient times, and in a safe environment for students like Manaf. In a year when the state’s budget issues threatened to derail the program, the two partners worked together to keep it running, and at the same time, the library became more engaged and the program more effective in attracting the students who need it most.


Librarian and educator Melvil Dewey wrote, “The time was when a library was very like a museum and the librarian a mouser in musty books. The time is when the library is a school and the librarian in the highest sense a teacher.” Librarians no longer “sit back and wait” for patrons, they “reach out and grab ‘em.” Dewey died in 1931, so his call for active librarianship is not a new concept. Dynamic librarians lead geocaching expeditions, grow gardens, and—as told in this article—tutor adult literacy students. Librarians get out from behind service desks and interact with patrons as Dewey envisioned so long ago.

Moraine Valley’s main campus is just six miles southwest of the Oak Lawn Public Library. With similar goals, the library collaborates with the college—that serves twenty-six local municipalities—whenever opportunities arise. Since 22 percent of adults in MVCC’s district do not have high school diplomas, the need for effective partnerships between these two learning institutions is at an all-time high.

Founded in 1986 by volunteers helping fellow community members, the Adult Literacy Program at Moraine Valley was traditionally funded by the Illinois Secretary of State through the Illinois State Library. During the current budget crisis,
the program was unfunded. Moraine Valley decided to move forward with the valuable program on their own, a decision that made resource sharing between public libraries and the college even more important.

Kipp Cozad, MVCC’s Literacy and Tutor Coordinator, oversees the current seventy-nine students in the program, along with its sixty volunteer tutors. Most of the tutors are retired individuals, but not all, as many working librarians and library staff members are getting involved. Volunteers complete twelve hours of training online or at in-house workshops offered in the spring and fall. Students are assessed for placement and as a baseline for improvement. When placement levels are complete, students and tutors are paired based on proximity, transportation, and expertise.


With the insular nature of the MVCC campus, outreach beyond the college is a challenge. Posters recruiting potential tutors and students are displayed by local libraries and religious institutions, as faith-based volunteerism is a valuable element of the literacy program. These informational flyers and how they’re used offer an important opportunity to explain the difference between ancillary and embedded promotion of literacy services.

Ancillary, or passive, promotion occurs when interested tutors and students see a flyer at their local public library and then ask staff about the literacy program. The staff member then directs them to call the posted phone number, usually of an outside agency, for more information.

But a better solution is embedded, active, literacy services where prospective tutors or interested students read the flyer at the library, and when they inquire, can be referred directly to a library staff member or volunteer who already participates as a tutor in the program. The tutor shares first-hand experiences and advocates for literacy opportunities. In addition, the participating tutor explains the local library and community college resources.

The Oak Lawn Public Library had been an ancillary partner to the MVCC literacy program for years—assisting with grant requirements, displaying flyers, and referring interested students to MVCC. Library Director Jim Deiters always wrote a letter of support, but now, thanks to the efforts of Trustee Roseann Spoto and Administrative Assistant Joanne Neff, the library is an embedded participant. At a board meeting in the winter of 2014, Deiters presented a flyer and spoke briefly about the program. Then Spoto and Neff enrolled in the tutor training, which inspired five staff members (and seven Oak Lawn patrons) to register as tutors. Without Spoto and Neff’s impetus, that literacy flyer would have been another missed opportunity posted on a bulletin board.

In January 2015, OLPL further expanded its literacy initiatives when, under the guidance of Mary Williams, Adult & Young Adult Services department head, staff members started a Conversation Circle for new English speakers. Beginning, intermediate, and advanced English learners are all welcome to attend the discussions led by native English speakers. Promotional materials are written in English, Spanish, Polish, and Arabic. MVCC offers similar ESL conversation groups on campus. Opportunities for learners grow with programs aimed to assist those traditionally underserved. The partnership between MVCC and OLPL is successful because of the dedicated tutors who give freely of their time.


These literacy efforts can be replicated in libraries, big and small, throughout Illinois and across the country. As libraries strive to be something more and librarians look to serve community members in meaningful ways, active literacy initiatives are a natural addition. By getting out from behind the desk, library staff help patrons better themselves. From homebound delivery services, to ESL conversation circles, to hands-on computer classes, to genealogy workshops, to job training, to rooted school connections, librarians are “in the highest sense, a teacher.”

For more information about “activating” an adult literacy program at your library, please contact:

Kipp Cozad, coordinator of Tutoring and Literacy, Moraine Valley Community College,, 708.974.5331

Jim Deiters, director, Oak Lawn Public Library,, 708.422.4990 x300

Illinois State Library’s Literacy Office,, 217.785.6921

iREAD Summer Reading Programs

Since 1981, iREAD provides high quality, low-cost resources and products that enable local library staff to motivate children, young adults, and adults to read.

Visit the iREAD website »

Latest Library JobLine Listings

Browse all JobLine listings »