At age 48, he broke reading code; Secret: John Corcoran looked and acted the part of a successful teacher and coach. For decades, he was also a success at concealing that he was illiterate.


LOS ANGELES -- John Corcoran is good at fooling people.

He fooled the high school teachers who gave him a diploma and sent him to college with an athletic scholarship. He fooled the college professors who gave him his degree. And he fooled the students he taught for 17 years as a high school teacher and coach.

For all those years, John Corcoran couldn't read.

"I lied and cheated my way through everything, just so I didn't have to give away my secret," Corcoran says. "It was how I survived."

The trickery didn't stop until Corcoran was 48, and his 3-year-old daughter Colleen climbed into his lap with the fairy tale "Rumpelstiltskin."

With most fairy tales, he had simply looked at the pictures and told the story in his own words, pretending to read what was written on the page. The story of "Rumpelstiltskin," however, was unfamiliar to Corcoran -- but not to his daughter.

"My daughter quickly caught on that I wasn't reading it," says Corcoran, now 60. "I was caught. After all of those years, it was a 3-year-old who caught me."

Corcoran was among more than 40 million adults in the United States who are considered to be functionally illiterate -- unable to read street signs, manage checking accounts or fill out simple forms. By some government estimates, employee training on basic reading and job skills costs American companies more than $20 billion per year.

Corcoran's story -- how he managed to disguise his inability to read -- illustrates the level of trickery that both children and adults use to hide their illiteracy.

Misleading appearance

The tall, lanky former college basketball player hardly looks like the image most people conjure when they imagine the typical adult illiterate. His dark suit, distinguished silver hair and articulate style make him appear to be college-educated and successful.

He was living a lie.

Corcoran's family moved around quite a bit as he was growing up. By his own count, he had attended 17 schools by the time he graduated from high school.

At first, he simply slipped through the cracks during reading lessons. As he got older, he started faking -- something he continued during his years playing basketball for Texas Western College (now the University of Texas in El Paso) and through much of his adult life.

"If you name the trick, I probably tried it," Corcoran says. "Like most people who are illiterate, I got very good at hiding it."

Misbehaving in classrooms to get tossed out before his turn arrived to read aloud. Persuading others to read passages or type up his thoughts into papers. Pretending to have left his reading glasses in another pocket.

He taught civics, history and grammar for 17 years, often fearful that a principal, teacher or student was going to catch him. But in Southern California during the 1960s and '70s, social studies classes often focused more on freewheeling discussions about politics and the Vietnam War than on learning from textbooks, easing Corcoran's concealment of his secret.

Constant fakery

Later, when he was running a home construction company and employing 20 people, the process of completing paperwork -- permits, paychecks, health insurance -- became a never-ending exercise in faking.

But when Colleen climbed into his lap and realized that her daddy couldn't read her a fairy tale, the hiding and lying had been exposed. Corcoran decided it was time to learn how to read -- and that's when a new battle began.

Stepping reluctantly into an adult literacy center in the town where he lived, Carlsbad, Calif., he began taking lessons from a 65-year-old volunteer who had had fewer than 20 hours of instruction in how to tutor. When spotted by people he knew, he tried to give the impression that he was the reading tutor and not the student unable to read.

Like a struggling second-grader, Corcoran had to learn such basic skills as distinguishing between "i" and "e." He began with simple reading books, moving up to easy articles in news magazines. All the while, he continued to hide his problem from the outside world.

'Amazing' difference

After five or six months, written language suddenly began to make sense. Corcoran was transforming himself into a reader. He quickly decided to become a crusader in the campaign against illiteracy.

"It was like a whole world had been opened up for me," Corcoran says. "The difference in my life was amazing."

Now, he could start to read newspapers and magazines. When friends talked about such popular books as "Angela's Ashes," he could read them.

For a while, Corcoran was angry. Why had none of his teachers taken the time to teach him properly? Why had he managed to graduate from high school and college without learning to read? Why had it taken an adult literacy volunteer to accomplish what schools had failed to do?

Most of that anger is gone. In the dozen years since he learned how to read, Corcoran has traveled around the country as much as he can, telling his life story and challenging people to help fight illiteracy. He has begun a literacy foundation, too, making the campaign his full-time job.

He admits he's a little embarrassed to talk so much about his problems.

Yet his tale holds audiences spellbound, particularly when he talks to teachers.

Some are skeptical, insisting that he must have been able to read at least something to secure a college degree. Others charge that his basketball prowess must have persuaded teachers to pass him along, making him an example of the free ride given to athletes.

Cautionary tale

But Corcoran and other adult literacy advocates say that his story ought to serve as a cautionary tale for schools everywhere.

"It's easy for kids to slip through the cracks," Corcoran says. "Teachers can't let that happen."

He's quick to offer suggestions to help prevent other children from following in his footsteps: smaller classes, early phonics instruction, more involvement with families.

Corcoran continues to spread his message, working on literacy programs around his home in the San Diego area. He's also a former board member of the National Institute of Literacy, and he has written a book about his journey through illiteracy, "The Teacher Who Couldn't Read: The True Story Of A High School Instructor Who Triumphed Over His Illiteracy."

But Corcoran's battle isn't over.

"I enjoy reading, because there's so much there," he says. "But it still isn't easy. If you don't learn to read when you're young, it will never be easy."

About this series

Part of a long-term series of articles on the successes and failures in teaching children to read by third grade, or age 9.

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