John Corcoran says he’d wanted to learn to read his entire life. But not until he finished college and taught high school for 17 years did he achieve his goal. In his book, The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read (co-written with Carole C. Carlson), Corcoran tells how he managed to get through school and teach others, even though he only had second-grade reading skills.
“There were some words I could sight read, like ‘exit’ if it was above a door,” says the 62-year-old man, who now reads at the college level. “But I couldn’t recognize it in a sentence.”
When Corcoran was growing up in Texas, he had trouble learning to read in the second and third grade. His teachers convinced his parents — both readers — that he would catch on. But Corcoran never did. And he hid his illiteracy by cheating his way through college.
“I’m not very proud of that,” he says.
Corcoran taught high school social studies courses by creating an oral and visual environment in the classroom so that students would not discover that he could not read.
“I guess you could say I was an Academy Award producer, director and actor,” he says.
Corcoran’s ability to mask his illiteracy and manipulate his surroundings is a sign of his intelligence. He says that illiteracy has nothing to do with intelligence and that those who struggle with reading have similar stories about the lengths that they went to in hiding or compensating for their secret.
At age 48, Corcoran began disclosing his secret and shedding the shame associated with it when he entered a literacy program offered by a nearby public library.
“It was a frightening experience and I
didn’t think I was going to learn to read,” he says.
After the 13-month course, he was reading at the sixth-grade level. Corcoran joined other literacy programs and has been a national literacy advocate the past 10 years.
Michigan Literacy, Inc., a statewide literacy program, invited Corcoran to speak at its annual conference in Lansing earlier this month.
Corcoran says people who can’t read are often blamed for their illiteracy. But, he adds, everyone is responsible for what he calls “America’s big secret,” where 2 million students graduate from high school each year unable to read. The onus should not be just on the student, or just on the teacher.
“It is a partnership,” he says, “this business of learning and teaching.