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Local Non-Profit Combats Memphis’s Low Literacy Rates

Memphis has a critical literacy problem. In 2019, Shelby County Schools standardized testing scores indicated that 76% of third-grade students were not at an adequate level of reading proficiency for their grade level. Additionally, one in four adult Memphians cannot engage with text written at the sixth-grade level.

Literacy Mid-South (LMS) is working to fix this vital issue. Founded in 1974, LMS serves over 10,000 people annually by tutoring, the organization's primary function, and distributing books and other resources. The organization is the only provider of literacy tutoring for adults below the sixth-grade level in the region.

LMS divides its Adult Learning Program into two groups: Adult Basic Education (ABE) for English-speaking adults and English Language Learners (ELL) for those whose first language is not English. Currently, there are over 100 active volunteer-learner pairings.

Family Literacy Coordinator Sean Moore said that people come to LMS for a wide variety of reasons.

"They might be looking to improve their literacy skill to pass a driver's license test, or to get a better job, or just because they want to read with their kid," Moore said. "For those of us who were fortunate enough to go through the educational system on track, I think we frequently take for granted how important literacy skills are and how much we use them in our day-to-day life."

After reaching a sixth-grade reading level, learners can take the High School Equivalency (HiSET) exam, join an adult high school, or stay with LMS. However, attaining this literacy level is a slow climb, Moore said, as it usually takes around three years to move up one grade level.

"As an adult, you have multiple other jobs, kids you're taking care of," Moore said. "Plus, our brains aren't absorbing new information as quickly, so for that reason, it does take a little while."

LMS relies on volunteers to do the bulk of tutoring, and in the aftermath of the pandemic, they are needed now more than ever.

In addition, due to a lack of in-person learning, the standardized testing scores of Memphis-Shelby County School students have seen a noticeable drop in the last few years, posing a greater need for tutoring.

LMS's Tutor 901 program works to improve these low scores. Funded by a grant from the TN Department of Education that only four other organizations received, 70 tutors across 15 schools in the county will work with students this semester and for the next two years to improve their reading ability, eventually impacting 3,000 students.

"It's quickly shown to be one of the most effective interventions to help students recover from learning loss related to the pandemic," Moore said.

These programs aim to eradicate generational illiteracy, which Moore says is the root cause of such high illiteracy rates in Memphis.

"Like poverty and so many other things, literacy rates are multigenerational," Moore said. "Families get into a cycle or are put into a cycle where educational attainment perpetuates itself. To really affect the adults of the future, we need to work with kids now."

Those interested in volunteering can sign up on the LMS website for a 45-minute virtual or in-person meeting that gives an overview of the organization, followed by a one-day training session that teaches volunteers how to work with adult learners. Volunteers then choose between ABE, which makes up 70% of tutoring groups, or ELL. Volunteers are asked to work two hours per week for six months, though LMS offers shorter or one-off volunteer opportunities.

"That kind of consistency really helps learners build that trust and get into a groove together," Moore said. Empathy is what LMS desires from volunteers. "You need to understand that people have very different experiences with the school environment, that there's a lot of reasons why someone might not be able to read at a sixth-grade level, and they're almost never their fault. If you're interested and you're passionate about this, you're the right person."

Moore realizes that a six-month commitment can be daunting but said it's an even more considerable investment for someone learning to read.

"Growing literacy skills can really be a game-changer in someone's life," he said. "What seems like something small, the ability to read, really opens a lot of doors."

For more information on the impact of LMS programs and how to volunteer, visit

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