Breaking the Chains of Low Literacy: Uncovering the Hidden Struggles and Empowering Lives in Washtenaw County


Screenshots from Washtenaw Literacy testimonial video showing what someone who struggles with literacy may experience.

Washtenaw Literacy Executive Director Carole McCabe recently gave a presentation at the Dexter Senior Center to discuss the issue of low literacy and its impact on the community.

McCabe opened her presentation with, "In Washtenaw County, there are about 33,000 people who struggle just day to day with basic literacy skills; that's 11% of the adult population."

McCabe explained that Washtenaw Literacy serves people learning English and those improving basic literacy skills. Basic literacy learners often struggle with reading, writing, everyday math, and digital literacy. Rather than using the term "illiterate," McCabe prefers to discuss "low literacy" to avoid negative connotations and to emphasize partnership and solidarity with learners.

Low literacy individuals may have some ability to read and write but often struggle with comprehension and vocabulary at an eighth-grade reading level or below. McCabe acknowledges the shame and stigma involved in admitting difficulties with reading and writing, as adults often develop coping strategies to hide their struggles.

She explained, “Adults can spend their whole lives with workarounds or coping strategies, saying things like, ‘I'll read that later,’ or, ‘I don't have my glasses.’”

McCabe shared some alarming statistics: 20% of citizens cannot fill out a job application unassisted or read a prescription label. Among folks incarcerated, that number is 70%. Another problem is that low literacy is often generational. Studies have found 50% of children born to parents with low literacy will also struggle with literacy.

“Think of all the different ways we use literacy in daily life,” said McCabe. “To get here and there, open an email, find something online, register to vote, do grocery shopping, and almost everything we do daily. You need to be able to read to succeed.”

McCabe highlighted the importance of a learner-centered approach, saying, "Learners set their own goals, and I think that is the heart of our success, the core of why our model is so successful and why people stay with us, both tutors and learners many times for years for decades."

Over the past several years, Washtenaw Literacy has increased its focus on health literacy, digital literacy, and critical thinking. McCabe stated, "We have always believed that literacy is a basic human right, a civil right. It's our mission. We do what we do by providing free tutoring to adults 16 years and older through this massive mobilization of volunteers."

McCabe shared a video with some testimonials.

One mother shared, “I wouldn’t read to my children because I didn’t want to not know the word and [them] have a stupid mother. Something like that. Washtenaw Literacy has made a whole lot of different in my life. Now I read to my kids. I read to my nieces and nephews. I don’t hesitate to read now.”

Another learner told of how he struggled with “Simple things such as going to restaurants, reading the meus. Going to the grocery store reading things on the shelves—simple things. Like I’m outside looking inside. And that’s how it was for me all through my life. The difference my tutor made in my life, it’s a lot.”

Hear theirs’ and other brief testimonials in the video below.


Established in 1971, Washtenaw Literacy is Michigan's oldest and largest literacy organization regarding the number of people served. It relies on grants, donations, and volunteers for funding and support.

Although Washtenaw County's 11% low literacy rate is below the national average of 14%, McCabe believes there is still much work to be done. She encourages anyone with the slightest of tugs in the direction of offering tutoring assistance to contact Washtenaw Literacy. The impact is life changing.

If you need assistance with literacy skills or want to volunteer as a tutor, visit

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