My role as an English as a Second Language (ESL) volunteer is to inspire adult students to better communicate, but it is my students who inspire me. Each and every student has impressed me with their ideals and has motivated me to develop and tailor the best possible lessons for their needs. While some of them have excellent comprehension but lack reciprocal language, others need lessons start with communication basics or “survival skills.” And while speaking is an essential component of lessons, writing also helps to develop a well-rounded knowledge of English. I have spent as much as two years with the same student and as little as a month depending on their personal situations and obligations.
Tutors come from all walks of life and contribute to a variety of non-profit organizations. I have worked with dedicated individuals who have been physicians, stay at home mothers, professional teachers, business executives, and college students.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, students who are English language learners (ELL) participate in appropriate programs of language assistance, such as English as a Second Language, High Intensity Language Training, and bilingual education to help ensure that they attain English proficiency, develop high levels of academic attainment in English, and meet the same academic content and academic achievement standards that all students are expected to meet. The percentage of public school students in the United States who were English language learners was higher in school year 2012–13 (9.2 percent, or an estimated 4.4 million students) than in 2002–03 (8.7 percent, or an estimated 4.1 million students) and in 2011–12 (9.1 percent, or an estimated 4.4 million students).
While these statistics reflect school-age children, information on the vast number of adults who do not have good English language skills is much more difficult to attain. Many literacy programs also address the problems of educational disparity and work with people who want to improve their communication skills and earn their GEDs.
I usually work one-on-one and in small groups. Meeting in libraries once a week, my students and I spend about an hour having conversations, doing worksheets, discussing current events or playing word games like Scrabble. My recent students have been from all over the world, China, East Africa, Peru, Yugoslavia, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Guatamala, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Talking to them about their countries of origin has been an education for me as well.
To convey a sense of what it is like to be a literacy volunteer, here are some profiles of the people I have taught and their circumstances. While their stories are accurate, the names have been changed.
Antonio is a carpet installer who plans to bring his wife to the United States. He works two jobs to save enough money to get them a nice apartment where she would like to live. Antonio also wants to be able to communicate better with his customers.
Maria is a mother of two girls under five. She holds a medical degree from her country. When both of her daughters are in school full-time, she hopes to return to work part-time and use her skills.
Anna lives in a women’s shelter with her very bright five year-old daughter, Celine. Celine does most of the talking for her mom when they are in public. Anna strives to become more communicative and a better mother figure.
Lillene works as a stock person in a local factory. Although many of her workmates speak her language, she would like to be able to speak with her English-speaking supervisor. She brings her lunch to work but would like to go to the cafeteria and order food in English.
David is a mason. He loves to travel by bus and wants to see all 50 states. He likes to read about destinations before he plans a trip.
Janel is registered for the local county college, but must take an ESL course with the college before enrolling in classes. She needs extra practice to do well in the course.
Danna wants to be a citizen of the United States. She takes advantage of all programs available to her to learn English and prepare for the exam.
Lil’s only son left their home country to attend boarding school in the United States and is now entering college. She would like to speak with him and the people he knows in English when she comes to visit.
Muhammad works as a salesman in a small clothing store. He is very good at mathematics. His boss would like him to help with the store’s bookkeeping, but he needs to have better English skills first.
Carolina has four school-aged children. She wants them to have a good education and volunteers in their school whenever possible. She also wishes to communicate better with their teachers so that she can help them more at home.
Ina is 80 years old. She has been in this country for five years and lives with her son, daughter-in-law, and her two teenage grandchildren. She loves to cook for the family and likes to talk to her grandchildren and their friends in English.
I currently tutor for Literacy Volunteers of Somerset County (LVSC) in New Jersey. LVSC trains tutors and supports their work through regular meetings and communication. They offer Basic Literacy, ESL programs and conversation groups in local libraries. If you are interested in becoming a literacy tutor, check to see what is available in your community.
Photo from Bigstock Photos.