Deborah Bias began taking adult literacy classes last August, and since then the Annapolis resident has vaulted from a kindergarten reading level to third grade, picking up about a thousand words along the way.
Her instruction comes courtesy of an individualized tutoring program from the Anne Arundel County Literacy Council, a nonprofit that has offered one-on-one coaching in reading, writing and spelling since 1977.
Bias' instruction often involves words on flashcards that she spreads out over a table, glimpses, memorizes, then writes out.
Sometimes, she says, she'll become so immersed in learning new words that if her phone rings, the caller is sure to hear "Leave a message."
"I have to focus on the one word for a while, and then I will know the word," said Bias, 52, who said she no longer needs help reading food labels or street signs.
She said she hopes someday to teach others to read.
"When I told my family I was going to read and write, they were happy," Bias said. "You're not supposed to give up. You have to focus on what you want to do."
Bias is among scores of Anne Arundel residents who take advantage of free instruction from the Annapolis-based literacy group. The organization says its clients come from all backgrounds, yet most are between the ages of 18 and 55 and read at a fifth-grade level or lower. Some students have learning disorders such as dyslexia, while others have endured hardships that curtailed education opportunities.
Director Lisa Vernon said the literacy council is approached by some people who have graduated from high school "who are very intelligent, but have a second- or third-grade reading level."
"We have a lot people for whom it's a shame and an embarrassment," she said, "but if they can meet one-on-one with someone, that is empowering."
Vernon said a student initially undergoes a reading assessment to determine their reading level. Then the student is paired with a tutor and receives 100 hours of instruction before another assessment.
The council uses instruction materials such as the Laubach Way to Reading, a phonics-based series for adults.
"It's really a matchmaking process," Vernon said. "We take each student as an individual and look at what their goal is and match them with a tutor we believe will be best for that student. And they work with them one-on-one until that goal is achieved."
Vernon said students are asked to commit to six months of instruction. Currently, she said, the Arundel literacy council has 161 student-tutor matches. The organization also conducts tutor workshops and its website features crossword puzzles, word searches and tips on supporting students with dyslexia.
Bias' tutor is Jill Mischo, of Davidsonville, a former Prince George's County teacher who also serves as the literacy council's liaison at Lighthouse Shelter, an Annapolis-based emergency homeless shelter.
Mischo, 52, said being a tutor fulfills an aspiration she had held since her college days, and that tutoring has given her insight into learning disabilities.
"There's a reason people don't read over 50," said Mischo. "They've missed something somewhere. I'm just trying to help fill in the pieces. I obviously can't diagnose anybody, but I see similar traits, and I can address it in a multitude of ways. For instance, the flashcards work real well with Deborah.
"It might not work well with somebody else that won't take the time to develop the flashcards," Mischo said. "But Deborah is fantastic because she's so motivated that it makes my job much easier. And I've really seen her gain confidence and kind of a self-awareness, and it's just joyous."
Vernon said the council currently has about 200 tutors, most of whom have at least a college degree. About a dozen have doctorates.
Tutors meet at least two hours a week with the students at various locations, including Anne Arundel County public library branches and more than a dozen community agencies.
"Improving the functional literacy level of … adults improves their job prospects, health outcomes, civic participation and the way that they view their own children's education," Vernon said.
Bias delights in the nearly thousands words she's added to her reading vocabulary. Asked the favorite word she's picked up since taking the classes, she doesn't hesitate to respond.
"My favorite word is 'Jill,' " said Bias, referring to her tutor.
"I kept asking people what [certain] words are. Then I met Jill, and since then, I learned how to read and write," she said.
For more information on the Anne Arundel County Literacy Council, call 410-269-4419 or go to icanread.org.