Introducing the Literacy Pod

The Oprah Challenge

Jeanie Eller is a master reading teacher from Arizona. One day, while watching Oprah Winfrey's talk show, she heard her remark, "Many parents do not know how to read, and therefore cannot read to their children."

Jeanie issued the following challenge to Winfrey: "Select several illiterate adults, let me teach them for two weeks, and I'll prove that illiteracy in America is a fraud."

Her challenge was accepted, and in February 1994, Jeanie set up shop in a small classroom at Winfrey's Chicago studio. Her students: Alfred Carter, age 69, who had attended school for only two weeks when he was six years old and who wanted desperately to read his Bible; Paul Burde, 35, upper-middle-class suburbanite, who hid his illiteracy from everyone but his wife and mother; Alberto Mendoza, 32, who had graduated from high school with a diploma he could not read and was told he was clinically dyslexic and would always be illiterate; Paulina Gomez, 30, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade when she became pregnant with the first of six children. Gomez had lived on welfare and drugs, and her children had been placed in foster care. She had gone through drug rehab, and she wanted to learn to read, get a job, and regain her children.

After two weeks of intensive instruction using the phonics-based "Action Reading" program, Jeanie's students were calling themselves "the four Amigos." The day before the taping of the Oprah show, Jeanie and the "Amigos" walked the streets of Chicago, reading store and street signs. They were like children, laughing and pointing. They went to an art museum where they read the labels under the great masterpieces. They ate lunch, and read the menu aloud. Finally, they went to the public library, where they each got library cards. They were pulling books out of the stacks and reading paragraphs to each other, giddy with delight.

One can only wonder what their lives could have been if they had been taught to read in first grade.