Health Literacy

Make a Difference: Be a Literacy Volunteer

Article from the Boston Globe’s On Call Magazine, April 2001

By Helen Osborne, M. Ed., OTR/L
President of Health Literacy Consulting

Writing clearly and simply is one way to improve health communication. Teaching children and adults how to read is another.

As an educated health professional, I can only guess what it feels like to be unable to read. But after tutoring an Egyptian woman caring for her chronically ill daughter, I have a greater appreciation of the challenges a person faces when he or she lacks basic literacy skills. People need these skills to read, understand, and act on healthcare information. A person who cannot read cannot understand printed immunization information. Nor can that person follow written discharge instructions. Without adequate literacy skills, people lack the tools they need to make informed choices about their own health and well-being and about that of their families.

There is a great need for literacy volunteers. Health professionals who volunteer have a lot to offer. As a health professional, you understand medical concepts. You also appreciate the importance of health in a person’s life. Consequently, you can help make sure a person knows how literacy will make a difference in his or her life. When I tutored the Egyptian woman, for example, we used a lesson about how to fill out a form for a library card as an opportunity to talk about ways to complete medical forms.

To Make a Difference, Get Involved

You can make a difference. Become a literacy volunteer. Here are some ways to get involved:

Volunteer to tutor adults or children. You can find volunteer opportunities by calling your local library. You can also find them in the volunteer column in your newspaper. Also, watch for program announcements in the calendar section of your paper. You can also get involved by contacting any of the programs listed below. Some will provide you a list of literacy programs looking for volunteers. Others can provide you training and placement assistance.

Read to children. Programs such as Reach Out and Read are looking for volunteer readers. By reading aloud, you can share your love of reading with children and their families. When you do, you also give children an incentive for developing good literacy skills.

Donate books. Many centers are looking for new or “gently-used” books. Contact your local literacy center to see how you can help.

Raise awareness about literacy. As a professional, this is one of the most effective actions you can take. Here are ways you can raise awareness:

  • Write about the importance of literacy in your organization’s newsletter.
  • Organize a book drive.
  • Start an on-site literacy program where you work.
  • Talk to your colleagues about how they can make a difference as literacy volunteers.

For help in raising awareness contact any of the following agencies.

Take Advantage of These Opportunities to Get Involved

The Massachusetts Adult Literacy Hotline. The hotline provides information about adult literacy programs in Boston and across Massachusetts. When a person calls the hotline, an operator can give information about volunteer opportunities for tutors or local literacy programs for adult learners. Isilma Morales is the coordinator of the Adult Literacy Hotline. Morales says there are many opportunities to volunteer. Most involve one-on-one tutoring and require a weekly commitment of several hours. To learn more about the hotline, contact Isilma Morales by phone at (617) 482-9485, or by e-mail at

Reach Out and Read (ROR). There are more than 1,000 ROR programs in hospitals and healthcare centers across the United States. This includes 57 programs in Massachusetts. ROR is a national pediatric literacy program. It began eleven years ago at Boston City Hospital when a pediatrician noticed with pleasure that books kept disappearing from the waiting room. That led him to develop a program for distributing age-appropriate, culturally relevant books to small children when they come for well-visits. In ROR programs, providers help parents select age-appropriate books. They also write “prescriptions” for families to read together. The goal is to foster a love of reading says Bunmi Fatoye-Matory, program coordinator of the Greater Boston Coalition of Reach Out and Read.

Here are some ways you can participate:

  • Attend a ROR training program. These programs are geared for health professionals and focus on pre-literacy and language development, ways to use books as diagnostic tools, and ways to talk with parents about the value of literacy.
  • Encourage parents to engage in “dialogic reading” with children. In dialogic reading, books are used as a vehicle to expand a child’s vocabulary, engage in conversation, and promote thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Consider starting a ROR program where you work. Contact Bunmi Matory for more information, including ways ROR can help with funding support.

To learn more about ROR, contact Bunmi Matory by phone at (617) 629-8042, ext. 234, by e-mail at, or visit the Reach Out and Read Web site at

ReadBoston. ReadBoston is a comprehensive early childhood literacy initiative. It was launched in 1996 by Mayor Thomas Menino. The mission of ReadBoston is to ensure that all Boston’s children can read by the end of third grade. ReadBoston operates a book drive and book bank. It also coordinates a “Reading Partners” volunteer program and provides support for school planning and staff development around early childhood literacy. In addition, it sponsors a variety of community-based initiatives. For more information, call (617) 635-READ.

The Jewish Coalition for Literacy (JCL). JCL works to ensure that all children have the opportunity to learn how to read. Along with ReadBoston and other local programs, JCL recruits, trains, and places hundreds of volunteer tutors. It also collects thousands of books for public schools, community centers, and pediatric clinics in the greater Boston area. JCL requires that all volunteers attend training and orientation sessions before beginning work. To learn more, contact Tammy Alfred by phone at (617) 457-8661.

Get Involved on a National Level

Laubach Literacy International. This is a nonprofit, educational corporation. Its purpose is to enable adults and older youths to acquire the skills they need to do three things:

  • solve problems encountered in daily life
  • take advantage of opportunities in the environment
  • participate in the transformation of society.

Each year, nearly 90,000 specially trained Laubach tutors work with more than 170,000 adult learners individually or in small groups. To learn more, call (888) LAUBACH (528-2224) or (315) 422-9121. Or write to

Laubach Literacy International, 1320 Jamesville Avenue, Syracuse, NY 13210.

You can also send email to or visit the Laubach Literacy Web sites at,, and

Volunteers of America, Inc. (LVA). LVA is a national not-for-profit organization. It delivers local literacy services though a network of more than 50,000 volunteers. To learn more, visit the Literacy Volunteers of America Web site at or call toll-free (877) HELP-LVA (435-7582).

Article reprinted with permission from On Call magazine and published by a division of Boston Globe Media.