Provo • Spelling and salad greens: Neither is usually a crowd-pleaser.
But at the Project Read Adult Spelling Bee in Provo last week, the energy in the room rose as more than 100 people waited to hear the correct spelling of the first word "radicchio," a red chicory used in salads.
"R-a-d-i-c-c," host Logan Wilkes started, earning an enthusiastic "Wooo!" from the competing teams, who were following along and comparing written answers.
Wilkes' next letter, an "h," met with a disappointed "oooo." He finished up the word with an "i-o" and the teams moved onto "bibulous," "risibility," "arolium" and more, donating money for clues like help from experts and use of smart phones.
The competition was light-hearted, but it raised money for a serious cause, said Project Read executive director Shauna K. Brown. More than 21,000 adults in Utah County alone need help with basic reading skills, she said.
"In Utah County, we have two universities. We have a lot of very, very educated people," she said. "Then there's this other side of the tracks we don't see."
Brown told the story of a 42-year-old man who came to Project Read. He'd graduated from high school in the county, but could only read two letters on the diploma his initials.
He wasn't alone. In the state of Utah, about 11 percent of the adult population function at a reading level at or below third grade, and nationally, 1 in 5 people have difficulty with very basic reading skills, according to Project Read.
Those without reading skills face a tough road: Some 70 percent are unemployed or have only a part-time job, and 43 percent of people with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty.
The Project Read program in Utah County helps about 100 people every year by pairing them with reading tutors. Aimed at people 16 and older, Project Read was founded in 1984 by the Provo and Orem libraries, the Provo City School District and other community groups.
Student Ester Peña, a native of Colombia who moved to Ohio about 10 years ago, learned how to speak English well, but despite classes in Ohio, she never got the hang of reading, she said at the fundraiser last week.
When she moved to Orem, Peña started with a Project Read tutor who helped her with new vocabulary, reading articles and even speaking pronunciation.
"I got better, I have more confidence," she said. Peña's new skills recently helped her land a job interview as a bus aide at a local school district.
Meanwhile, tutor Shanesha Legardy of Provo said she is impressed by her student, who is from Guatemala. The woman was educated up to the third grade in her native country, and, now that her children are grown, is determined to learn to read and pass her GED, Legardy said.
"I like how committed my student is," she said. "She teaches me a lot about determination and perseverance."