University calls community to arms in battle against illiteracy

By Sandra Snyder

The statistics are staggering. Across the country and at home in Northeastern Pennsylvania, illiteracy is rampant, widespread enough to be classified as a crisis.

In the United States, according to the Literacy Project Foundation, 45 million Americans, or roughly 14 percent of the population, cannot currently read above a fifth-grade level, and only a third of fourth-graders read at the level of proficient.

The figures worsen by demographics and as they become more generalized. In terms of children and adults who have difficulty reading, the numbers approach 100 million in the United States alone. And, according to, about half of all Americans read so poorly that they cannot perform simple tasks such as reading prescription drug labels, filling out an application or opening a bank account.

In Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 13 percent of adults lacked basic prose literacy skills in 2003, the latest year for which such numbers are listed. In Lackawanna, Luzerne, Wayne and Wyoming counties, according to that same report, 12 percent of adults were illiterate in the same time period. The problem was a bit better in Pike County, affecting 10 percent of adults, but a bit worse in Susquehanna County, affecting 13 percent of adults.

Time has not healed the educational wound.

According to statistics pulled from the 2010 Census and reported on the United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania website, the problem is escalating, with nearly 18 percent of Lackawanna County adults classified as educationally disadvantaged, most of them functionally illiterate.

Those figures would not surprise M. Sandra Lamanna, M.Ed., a faculty specialist in the Education Department at the University of Scranton, who has spent her career watching this problem not go away.

“In my former life I was a school psychologist,” she said. “I worked in public schools for 31 years, and I’m not seeing a change. We are seeing more and more problems.”

She and three University colleagues – fellow faculty specialist Sandra Pesavento, M.Ed.; Debra A. Pellegrino, Ed.D., dean of the J.A. Panuska College of Professional Studies; and certified registered nurse practitioner Teresa M. Conte, Ph.D., an assistant professor of nursing – have teamed with two professional colleagues – Gina Colarossi, supervisor of special education in the Scranton School District, and Mary Lou Heron of the Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit 19 – to rally the community, especially its most front-line professionals, around the problem.

Their efforts are collectively known as the National Reading Crisis Project and will be developed in the northeastern region of Pennsylvania over a three-year-period then extended to other counties in the state. The partnership will target four main stakeholders: health-care professionals, educators, families and community agencies.

First up will be physicians, who have been invited to a physician training seminar in the Rose Room of Brennan Hall at the University of Scranton on Feb. 10.

The seminar will hew closely to the concepts that drive the national Reach Out and Read program and will help pediatricians and general practitioners understand that illiteracy is indeed a crisis, Lamanna said.

One goal will be to encourage physicians to make literacy screenings a regular part of well visits and ask them to disseminate literature that addresses the importance of talking to and reading to children.

Early literacy and early education are critical, and both are key goals of Reach Out and Read, an evidence-based nonprofit organization founded in Boston in 1989. Reach Out and Read works with medical professionals in all 50 states, and its goals, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, include ensuring that children enter kindergarten with larger vocabularies and stronger language skills, according to

On March 10, also in Brennan Hall’s Rose Room, nurses will hear largely the same message about literacy but with a tailored medical slant.

Lamanna said the nurse training seminar will focus on the correlation between chronic ear infections in children and deficits in phonological processing, a skill that relates to processing words as they are heard, not printed.

Students with phonological difficulties might have trouble associating speech sounds to letters when reading or spelling.

Children who experience frequent ear infections are at risk for such speech-sound disorders if the ear infections are accompanied by hearing loss, according to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (

The nurse training seminar will target school nurses in all 20 school districts within NEIU 19, which serves Lackawanna, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties.

“We want nurses to document children who are presenting with chronic ear infections and be an extra set of eyes to make sure kids are achieving reading benchmarks,” Lamanna said.

In other words, she said, if a nurse sees the same student frequently for an ear problem, he or she “might just glance at their reading grades every quarter.”

A signature event of the literacy effort will take place April 22 and will target all reading specialists in NEIU 19, Lamanna said. Superintendents, school-board presidents and elected officials also will be invited.

Keynote speaker for that event will be G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D., a Distinguished Professor of Education Leadership and Policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and a Distinguished Scientist in the School of Brain & Behavior Sciences at the University of Texas in Dallas.

Dr. Lyon founded and serves as CEO of Synergistic Education Solutions, an educational consulting firm, and has become a leader in the development of evidence-based education policy at federal and state levels.

Lamanna pointed out that he advised President George W. Bush on education research and policies. His website,, notes that he did so from 2001 until 2005, while he directed programs at the National Institutes of Health as well as the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The first trio of major efforts led by the University of Scranton, the Scranton School District and NEIU 19 might be aimed at the medical and educational sector, Lamanna said, but many others have a role in literacy as well, including those who work in nonprofit and faith realms.

For example, Lamanna said, she already has laid the groundwork for literacy education at her own church, the Parker Hill Community Church, which has campuses in Dickson City, Clarks Summit and Wilkes-Barre, and she plans to target “mosques, temples, everybody” in coming weeks and months.

What is the role of the faith community in the literacy crisis?

Lamanna noted an eye-opening article, titled “The Moral Imperative of Literacy,” that discusses children not acquiring a sense of morality, in part, because they cannot read religious teachings, such as the Bible or the Koran. That article, by RiShawn Biddle, is available on, an education-reform commentary website the author founded.

Illiteracy might seem a distant problem for someone like Lamanna or her colleagues in a university environment, but those who teach the teachers are hardly far removed.

As someone who coordinates graduate reading education and teaches undergraduate reading courses, Lamanna said, “I continuously see research that says teachers are coming out of programs not fully prepared to teach reading.”

Her mission, therefore, is to make sure University of Scranton students are not among the unprepared and that Northeastern Pennsylvania residents are not among the unaware.

“I would like everyone to understand that this is a national problem,” she said. “Illiteracy is not solely the schools’ responsibility but a community effort.”