For the past 23 years, schools, libraries and organizations have celebrated “National Family Literacy Day.” Political and educational leaders, including the National Center for Families Learning’s President and Founder Sharon Darling recognized that parents’ educational attainment and their children’s educational outcomes were related. To draw attention to this work, the NCFL worked with Congress in 1994 to designate November 1 each year as National Family Literacy Day.
For the past five years, I have been volunteering with Literacy Volunteers of Somerset County (LVSC) in New Jersey. It is an organization that serves the adult community with free programs that include one-to-one and small group tutoring, English Conversation Groups, and United States Citizenship preparation courses. LVSC serves more than 450 adults each year with their 235 active tutors.
My journey as volunteer tutor started over 20 years ago when I received training by a literacy organization and experienced how the education of a parent affects a child. The first student I was matched with was a young mother who was living in a shelter with her four year-old daughter who accompanied her to lessons. The young woman spoke no English, but came every Tuesday morning with her daughter to meet with me at a library and attempt basic communication. The little girl had much better English skills than her mother because she attended a pre-school program three days a week. As the winter holidays approached, the three of us walked to a bakery downtown to look at the festive cakes and have coffee and donuts. I encouraged the young mother to order for all of us, a task that at first seemed daunting. As she struggled with each word, I saw how proud her child was. The youngster ran over to me as I stood watching from the doorway and said excitedly, “My mommy can order cake. She really can!” Ordering at an eatery may seem like a small achievement, but each stride that an adult makes with literacy has profound effects on family life.
I now teach a group through LVSC with my husband, Chuck. We meet every Monday for two hours at the North Plainfield Memorial Library. The 15 students come from many backgrounds and have varying levels of English competency. But they all share one common goal, to improve their lives and that of their families. The programs are provided in coordination with the Somerset County Library System and LVSC.
In the first hour of class time, we focus on grammar, reading, writing and pronunciation. The second hour, our English Conversation Group, is a chance to talk about interesting subjects and chat with each other in a relaxed, convivial setting. Here are some examples of what students have been able to accomplish for themselves and their families as a result of their participation.
-We reviewed the levels of the American educational system and that inspired Marie who was able to visit the guidance office of her daughter’s high school and discuss her future.
-Sid would like to take his children to New York City and he learned about transportation options in the area.
-Jose found out where flu shots for him and his family are available in his community.
-Leah got a new job in a restaurant. She is now working as a hostess because she is getting better at communicating with both guests and the management.
-David likes to write. He is composing a daily journal that talks about his experiences. He thinks it will be good for his young children to read one day when they are older.
-Horatio got a library card and borrows children’s books to read every night to his daughters and son. He told the group that reading books is fun for his family.
Woman Around Town had the opportunity to interview Aimee Lam, the Executive Director of LVSC to get some insights about family literacy and programming. She told us how serving the adult population impacts families. “Adults who struggle to read, write, and speak English often find it difficult to support their children’s education,” she said. “They struggle to help their children with their homework and can be reluctant and/or embarrassed to attend school-related events. In addition, they often cannot or do not read to their children at young ages. These activities all encourage language development and success at school, while inspiring a lifelong love of reading and education.”
There are definitely challenges that adults face when attempting to improve their literacy. Aimee outlined why free programs are so important. “Many adults who struggle with literacy also struggle to obtain jobs with family-sustaining income,” she said. “Oftentimes, they work multiple jobs to make ends meet. The jobs may be labor intensive and may not include health benefits. As a result, many of our students struggle financially and cannot afford adult literacy classes. Others cannot commit to a rigid class schedule due to varying work schedules that are the result of shift work and opportunities for much needed over-time pay. Improving English literacy can often take a back seat to more urgent concerns such as finding a way to pay the bills, put a meal on the table, and provide a healthy and safe environment for the family.”
Like the many volunteers who work with LVSC, Aimee Lam finds her work to be very rewarding. “We work with some students who were born here in America, but most come from more than 40 different countries around the world,” she said. “They come to our organization because they want to make improvements in their lives and they know that improving their English literacy is the first step. We train volunteers as literacy tutors and then match them with a student or group of students. Tutors create customized lesson plans to help students with the English skills they need to reach goals such as obtaining a better job, getting a driver’s license, making a doctor’s appointment, and volunteering at their child’s school.”
Aimee also commented, “It is so rewarding to hear about the supportive tutor-student relationships that develop. I recently learned that one of our tutor-student pairs practiced reading children’s books so that the student could be a `secret reader’ in her son’s second grade class. Our student’s son could not imagine that his mom would ever read to the class, so when she came into the classroom as that day’s secret reader he was so excited and thrilled; he sat by her side as she read not one but two books to the class. What a proud moment for mom, son and tutor! “
LVSC does have plans to better address the needs of people seeking to improve their lives and their families. Aimee stated, “There is great demand for our services – in fact for every volunteer that we train, there are two new students applying for a tutor. So, we are always looking for ways to recruit and train a greater number of volunteer tutors, while being mindful to support our existing tutors. In addition, there is increasing demand from communities like Bound Brook, North Plainfield, and Manville to offer beginner-level English instruction. We are collaborating with the library system, other community organizations, and our talented volunteer tutors to develop beginner-level programming that is effective and appropriate for the communities in need.”
A virtue of the United States is that it is truly a melting pot of cultures. Everyone can celebrate National Family Literacy Day on November 1 and every day by recognizing and addressing the needs of their neighbors. We can all join in the mission by speaking patiently with people learning English and embracing their desire to improve their own literacy and enhance their family’s opportunities.
Top photo: Bigstock