Fighting adult illiteracy in Oakland County


Sophie Hume

Paul Kozlowski and Dayja Foster and tutors and mentors, helping fight adult illiteracy.

 Two Oakland University students fight against the impact adult illiteracy in Oakland County.

The Oakland Literacy Council was founded in 1984 by Robert Gaylor, after attending a conference on adult illiteracy hosted by former First Lady, Barbara Bush. After 35 years of service, they’re still dedicated to ending adult illiteracy.

A recent study by The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) found that 111,000 adults in Oakland County are functionally illiterate.

“Functionally illiterate means that people function at the lowest level of illiteracy or below,” Executive Director Lisa Machesky said. “They would struggle to fill out job applications, read bus schedules, prescription labels or emails from their children’s school”.

Being a non-profit organization, the program relies on tutors in the fight against adult illiteracy.

Paul Kozlowski, biology major, had two motivations for getting involved: the misinformation spreading because of COVID-19 combined with the misunderstanding of information put out by the federal government and Kozlowski comes from a family of immigrants. 

“My entire family came from Poland so I grew up with my grandparents not speaking the best English, ” Kozlowski said. “ It was always the troupe of the 10-year-old with their parents or grandparents in the doctor’s office trying to translate what a neurologist is saying in English into Polish so I sympathize with those struggles on a personal level”. 

Dayja Foster, communication major, started a tutoring company when she was just a freshman in college. She tutored kids from local elementary schools in reading, writing and math. Her company ran for two years before coming to a close, but the need for a capstone requirement brought on the opportunity to tutor again.

Through the program, tutors have to meet one-on-one with their students every week. Foster and Kozlowski meet with their students for a total of two hours weekly, and after 40 hours students are tested. 

“That’s how long it takes for them to understand and show improvement,” Foster said.

Students are tested using a national standardized test through The Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS). The program gives students a pre and post test. They are tested on both listening and reading. 

“One of the great things about the literacy council is that we designed the program that works with wherever you are at, “ Machesky said.

Outside of the one-on-one sessions, the tutors have group themes. These themes vary on topics and students get to choose which group theme they want to attend that week. 

Kozlowski hosts a health-literacy group that helps students learn how to explain symptoms they are experiencing to their doctors. He came up with this idea after working as a medical scribe and noticed a theme in the emergency room.

“A patient might come in, and they don’t speak the best English. Oftentimes, they don’t understand what’s being asked of them,” Kozlowski said. “It’s simple things like, ‘What are you feeling today?’ ‘What are your symptoms?’ I found through my students that they don’t know how to describe in English their symptoms”.

Foster, on the other hand, has a group theme that focuses on awareness. 

“I teach them who to call in case of an emergency, how to prevent hazards from happening in the home and words you should know when going to the doctor’s or hospital,” Foster said.

There are two main demographics of the students. English Second Language Learners (ELL) are learning English as an additional language, and Adult Basic Education Learners (ABE) are adults who were raised here in the United States but have low reading scores. 

“Seventy-five percent of our students are ELL. We are always trying to increase the number of ABE, but most of our students are ELL, “ Machesky said. “With Oakland County being one of the largest counties for immigration in the state.”

Tutoring also paves a way for opportunity.

“It’s a great opportunity. We’ve had a former Oakland University student who was one of the faces of literacy,” Machesky said. “He worked with us as a way to teach English as a second language, and now he’s over in Korea,” Machesky said. 

In 2019, the Faces of Literacy celebrated 35 years of service. This showcased former tutors and students dedication to fighting illiteracy in Oakland County.

After being tutors at the program for a few short months, Kozlowski and Foster have already begun leaving a positive impact.

“I am excited about these Oakland University students. I’ve heard such great things around health literacy,” Machesky said.