Dropping in on Washtenaw Literacy’s Most Popular Program

. October 1, 2016.
ESL groups at Washtenaw Literacy build friendships and learn language

Imagine you live in South Korea or Japan and your spouse is offered a job in Michigan in the automotive industry, or is accepted to  U-M’s medical school. Maybe you learned a little English in school, but haven’t practiced it in years. Moving is a big opportunity for your spouse and your family, so you go.

You find yourself in a foreign country, having difficulty communicating. Your spouse’s VISA doesn’t permit you to work, and you are alone for the entire day.

Many have turned to Washtenaw Literacy, meeting a couple times a week with others, in similar situations, to work on speaking English. Private tutors and language-learning software aside, Washtenaw Literacy provides a social environment with a group of peers, allowing isolated people find their own community.

The landscape of Adult Education

Washtenaw Literacy provides service to two groups of learners: basic literacy and ESL (English as a Second Language). Basic literacy encompasses a large range of native english speakers improving their reading and writing ability. ESL students  are those that have moved to the U.S. and want to improve their English speaking, writing and reading.

Washtenaw Literacy is one of the few remaining adult education groups in the county. They are celebrating their 45th anniversary this year, which makes the administrators very proud.

“We lost funding two years ago. It was a very bad year for us financially. We suspended one-on-one tutoring for ESL learners,” said Donna DeButts, a member of the Washtenaw Literacy board of directors.

To continue to be able to provide services for ESL populations, they relied on a  popular program of drop-in conversation groups, “Last year Washtenaw Literacy served over 1,400 learners through this program delivery mode, with over 38,000 hours of service,” said Amy Goodman, Executive Director of Washtenaw Literacy.

Drop-in conversation groups are held weekly in various library locations. The tutors man different tables and serve different ability levels ranging from beginning all the way to preparing for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) to enter an English-speaking university. Returning learners go to the table with the tutor that they recognize, while new learners will have a brief conversation with the group coordinator to quickly assess their ability level.

“You go, and the whole room is engaged in conversation,” DeButts said.

Meet the tutors

One of the tutors is Jill Reynolds. She has been working with ESL learners, both in groups and on an individual level, for a year and a half.

Reynolds leads the group through a Maya Angelou poem titled “Human Family.” She has one member read a stanza and then discuss any words that were unfamiliar. At the end of the poem the group discusses the overall message. After the main activity is done, the group discusses  things happening in their lives.

Like any group of friends, their conversation moves in tangential ways, straying from direct discussion of grammar and pronunciation, which is precisely the point. “They can come in not knowing anyone. It’s a big social event, too.” Reynolds is flexible with letting the group talk about what they want to talk about, while sometimes steering the conversation towards subjects like the denominations of coins, how to register to vote and the layout of a grocery store.

Reynolds explained that she looks forward to seeing her group every week; the group has a running text message chain to organize outings, like going to the movies. She’s had them over to her house for potlucks where they all brought native dishes.

“I get really attached to them,” she said.

A personal touch

So while building a community is important, some people learn better in a one-on-one setting, where the gritty details of dialect and grammar can be explored. Luckily, budget cuts that made it necessary to shut down personal tutoring haven’t stopped Washtenaw Literacy.

“ESL Personal Tutoring will be added back to our offerings on January 2017,” Goodman said.

Some of the group learners will add to their education with one-on-one tutoring. Either way, it’s clear that in addition to building a new vocabulary, Washtenaw Literacy is also building a new, thriving community.

For more information, visit washtenawliteracy.org.

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