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COMBATING ILLITERACY. Computers: high-tech aid for Americans who can't read

Every day, about a fifth of America's adults have to put up with inconvenience and humiliation. They can't fill out an application for a bank account or a job. They can't look up a phone number. They can't order from a menu, so they just ask for the special. The reason: They can't read enough to perform the most basic tasks.

For years, the problem seemed ineradicable.

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Only 4 percent of the 35 million ``functionally illiterate'' adults - those who can't read beyond the eighth-grade level - get remedial education.

Now, however, the computer promises to make a dent in those daunting statistics.

Illiteracy isn't just a personal problem, it's a national one. It will determine how large America's underclass will become in the next decade as the country creates high-tech and service jobs and loses low-skill manufacturing jobs.

Some studies indicate that in the 1990s, anyone who reads below a 12th-grade level will be excluded from jobs. And, of course, illiteracy affects US competitiveness vis `a vis other countries, especially Asian nations such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, whose literacy rates far exceed that of the United States.

``American illiterates cannot compete,'' says Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee, which has one of the 10 most illiterate districts in the country. ``American literates can.''

Now the same technology that is displacing functionally illiterate workers promises to give them jobs.

Though in nascent stages, computers have scored remarkable victories in teaching adults to read, and a whole slew of technologies is finding its way into schools and the workplace.

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Some of these were on display on Capitol Hill Tuesday for legislators to tinker with and possibly include in their budgets.

Rep. David Price (D) of North Carolina seemed captivated by the IBM talking computer terminal.

It was telling a story, illustrated with comic-book pictures, about two friendly kingdoms in 3000 B.C. that go to war because they have no alphabet and no proper means of communication. The language is modern and casual, things like, ``What does that scum Haman say now, Black Olive?'' and ``Ain't we clever?'' Every few sentences, the computer told him to write out a phrase, and helped him when he made a mistake (which he did, on purpose).

The IBM system, called Principle of the Alphabet Literacy System (PALS), will officially become available July 31.

It is already in some 50 sites, and initial results are encouraging.

In 1983, IBM tested the course on 24 students in the bottom 10 percent of the class at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. The 20 who completed it saw their reading jump almost three grade levels in 20 weeks. Sixteen graduated from high school and eight are in college.

To date, PALS is the most sophisticated high-tech tool for the functionally illiterate.

But the $70,000 price tag will be hard for school systems in which adult education often ranks last in priority. ``Educators might say, `Give me $70,000 and I'll buy 20 Apples and write my own programs,'' notes Karl Haigler, director of the Department of Education's adult literacy initiative.

And throwing money at the problem won't do the trick, says John Fleischman, who oversees the literacy programs at Los Angeles county prisons. ``Let's not go overboard and look to technology to provide the answer, because it won't,'' he says. He adds that there's ``no solid research'' suggesting adults learn to read better with computers than without, and points out that even IBM's experiment at Cardozo was done with audio tapes, film strips, and workbooks - not computers.

Still, his experience with technology is encouraging, and was achieved on a shoestring budget.

Inmates learn reading and math twice as fast with a computer than with a teacher. The computer, he points out, can drill students tirelessly and retain their attention better. Though Fleischman's sample is small, only 10 percent of the inmates who received vocabulary, literacy and pre-employment training using the computer wound up back in jail after being released. Nationally, the recidivism rate is 82 percent.

What he and other educators at Tuesday's conference, which was put on by the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, were most excited about was the Army's program. The Army, concerned that most of its recruits do not have high school proficiency, has already sunk $10 million into computer training. The system teaches not only reading skills but math, basic engineering, problem solving, and other skills.

The Army is offering the software to schools and companies which want to train their students and work force, but can't afford to develop their own systems. General Motors has already signed a letter with the Army to modify the system.

Of course, minor adjustments must be made.

In the Army software, for example, students learn to count with pictures of bullet casings rather than more civilian objects like apples.

But the Army believes that 95 percent of the different programs are applicable to civilian use. 030-{et

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