Gift of Learning

Hayward, California

By Chris De Benedetti

August 1, 2004
Gift of Learning

Winnie Thompson teaches a phonics lesson at the Hayward Adult School.

JOHN, a Hayward Adult School student, has had a rich life. The 59-year-old Hayward man says that he attended school while growing up in Alameda, earned an associate in arts degree at a local junior college and is happily married and the father of a well-educated son.

But John has joined instructor Winnie Thompson's class this year to remove a serious problem that has nagged him for decades: He can't read or write very well.

And disturbingly, there are thousands of local adults and millions nationally who can say the same thing.

"One in five American adults really can't read," Thompson said. "People are shocked to her that, but when students hear that, they go, 'Well, I guess I'm not so bad.'"

To many, stories of schools giving diplomas to students lacking basic literacy skills are an indictment of the educational system. But there also are people like John who offer tales of hope and education redemption.
In Thompson's class in C-13 at the former Sunset High School site in Hayward, a Mozart compact disc played softly in the background one recent morning while students worked quietly.

Standing near a sign that read "A great book can take you anywhere," Thompson - who has taught literacy since 1992- said that she attacks the adult literacy problem by teaching phonics.

The "whole language" method, by contrast, emphasizes decoding the meaning of a word by the context of the reading material.


"I'd ask students, 'Are you reading or guessing?'" Thompson recalled. "When I found they were guessing, I thought there had to be something better."

Thompson turned to phonics, which teaches reading by sounding out the first letter of a word and then sounding out the following letters, and by learning the 44 sounds of the alphabet. But she found there were few phonics teaching materials geared for adults.

So Thompson has created her own teaching text for adults, titled Fast Forward to Phonics which she hopes one day to have published...


When not teaching at the Hayward Adult School, Thompson also volunteers at other programs, such as Literacy Plus, which offers one-on-one tutoring through the Hayward Public Library.

Now that his reading has improved sufficiently at the Hayward Adult School, John said, he feels as if doors have opened to "a new world (to) the things you didn't know." He rubs his chin thoughtfully and talks of how he uses his improved skills to talk with his grown son about current events and history.

"I love history and Civil War novels, and (biographies) on singers, like Etta James and Sam Cooke," John said. "I never would have tackled that before."

Phonics Fairy Godmother

Winnie Thompson as
A. Startlin' Bell, the phonics fairy

Teacher gives lessons to live by
Winnie Thompson teaches her students life lessons, sometimes indirectly. "She opened my whole world up," said Rashaad Jackson, who came to Thompson out of jail ready to give up on life and is now close to getting his General Education Development credential. "She taught me how to smile in the face of difficulties."

John N. Pappas Humanitarian Award
The Pappas Award is the most esteemed of Hayward's volunteer awards presented to someone who is consistently giving and who extends a feeling of welcome to others.

Literacy Plus 21 years
In their 21 years of continuous efforts, Literacy Plus tutors have helped over 2,600 adults to learn reading, writing, and basic life skills.

Second Chances
Winnie Thompson leads a diverse class of pupils who are striving to take control of their lives. Winnie guides wayward and struggling students in the right direction.

Adults Yearn to Learn
"When I visited the Learning Center, I was afraid to tell the teacher that I was a high school graduate for fear she would not enroll me," said Forbes. "I was so relieved when she said, 'Don, you are extremely welcome.' Now, I am learning everything high school graduates are supposed to know. For the first time in my life, I am enjoying learning and have hopes of getting the education I never received."