It's not that adults who can't read and write are unintelligent or unwilling.
They're bright enough and motivated enough to figure out how to get by in today's high-tech society without those particular skills - in itself a big accomplishment.
"They're very smart. They know how to get around their situation," said Holly Tracy, the Pikes Peak Library District's longest continuous tutor.
But once illiterate adults become literate, a larger world opens up. That's one reason Tracy has been volunteering as a tutor for 25 years.
"It's exciting to see when the light bulb goes on," she said.
Tracy has worked with 33 adult learners on an individual basis since 1989, when she retired as a high school teacher and wanted something else to do.
The program is free for students, who must commit to doing homework regularly. Some come and go, Tracy said. "Some start the program and have a problem with work or baby sitters."
Others finish with a new lease on life, after working with Tracy for two hours every week, sometimes for more than a year.
Tracy said one student, a Korean woman, was "very inhibited" when she first started. After two years and a lot of hard work, Tracy said the woman seemed like a different person.
"She could speak to people, and her personality really evolved," Tracy said.
Volunteer tutors take a training course the library provides and use materials geared specifically for adult literacy lessons. Tutors can tailor their lesson plans to the learner's style and needs.
Along with books, Tracy likes using newspapers, magazines and even cellphones.
"You use any tool you can," she said. "Texting is an incentive for some people."
She starts with grocery store ads, helping a student identify consonants and vowels in a word such as "banana" and then searching for the word in the ad. After the learner moves beyond simple concepts of word construction, reading headlines comes next.
"They sound out the words. They may know some of the words but not others," Tracy said.
Students like reading the weather page and nuggets of history in the paper, she said.
Adults enroll in the program for various reasons. Some grew up speaking a language other than English. Some never got the hang of spelling, which is why they can't identify words. Others just never learned to read and write well in school and were pushed through the system or dropped out.
"After a while, they give up," Tracy said.
They also learn to rely on others - parents, spouses, children - to make their way in life. But at some point, they decide to pick it up again, whether it's for a job or self-esteem or to improve the quality of their life.
"There are many adults who do not know how to read and write - more than we know," Tracy said.
According to an April 2013 study of the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the United States can't read. That's 14 percent of the population - a rate that's held steady for the past decade.
Teaching adults isn't like teaching children, Tracy said. Adults need to know the basics, such as reading labels, signs, instructions or forms. And "if they can't read, they can't write," she said.
An important quality of being a tutor is to not judge the adult learners, Tracy said.
Tracy says she's learned as much knowledge as she has imparted. An assignment about writing recipes, for example, turned into more of a lesson than she bargained for when the metric system came into play.
The library has 20 individual tutors and a waiting list for students, said Teona Shainidze Krebs, who supervises the literacy program.
The library also offers groups classes for English as a Second Language students and adults who want to take a high school diploma equivalency test. About 300 students are enrolled in those.
To learn more about the literacy program, call 531-6333, ext. 2224.