National Literacy Month

Language BooksSeptember is National Literacy Month, and September 8th is National Literacy Day. I would like to do what I can to spread awareness about literacy, by talking about my own path to becoming an ESL tutor for adults.

Two years ago, I became a volunteer tutor in English as a Second Language (ESL) for adults. This program is offered by the South Bay Literacy Council (SBLC), here in Southern California. The process to become a tutor did not cost anything, and teaching credentials or previous experience were not required. It began with an information meeting at the local library. This was mainly about the Council and the program, designed to help you decide if tutoring is indeed something that you would be interested in pursuing.

If you decided to do this, there was a tutoring workshop, that met twice a week for four weeks. These classes were very informative and a lot of fun. At the end of this workshop, you get your membership card for the SBLC, a certificate proving your completion of the workshop, and a list of students who are seeking a tutor. These students may sign up with the program for any number of reasons, to communicate better at work or school, to be able to read English better, or become US Citizens, to name a few examples. And some students have a need to focus on reading, writing, and speaking English, while others may find it necessary to focus more on only one or two of these.

When I first became interested in tutoring, I first planned on becoming a tutor for adults who spoke English, but couldn’t world-language-map-english-small (2)read. I wasn’t interested in ESL tutoring, only because, I figured that to teach ESL, you would have to speak, not only English, but also the student’s native language. The only other language that I can, somewhat, speak is Spanish. I say somewhat, because I can carry on a basic conversation in Spanish, but I don’t speak enough to tutor a course on learning English. However, the instructors of the workshop explained to us that it’s actually a little better if you don’t speak your student’s native language, because if you do, then it’s too easy to default to that language, and not focus on English.

My first student was from North Korea, and we met for a few months before a change in her work schedule wouldn’t allow her to continue, at least, not on the nights that I was available to tutor. After that, I got my current student who I have been with for nearly two years now. She is from South Korea, and actually has a pretty good grasp of the English language, we never have trouble communicating in English anyhow.

The SBLC suggests using a series of books called the Challenger series. These books have eight levels, with Level One being the most basic level for students who speak very little English, to Level Eight. They include articles and short stories, that the student reads aloud, as the instructor silently follows along. After each lesson, there are questions and exercises related to that article, that are designed to improve comprehensive skills.

Challenger 6

Challenger 6. The sixth of the eight levels in the Challenger Series.

You initially contact your student by phone to introduce yourself and ask them if they are still interested in finding a tutor. If they are, then you set up a date and time for an introductory meeting. Based on the phone call, you may be able to assess what level your future student will begin with. I found that the best way to do this is to let the student choose, because he or she would know best what is too easy for them and what is too challenging. If, based on speaking with your student over the phone, you think that he or she may be a Level 5 for example, then at the introductory meeting, bring Levels 4-6, and see what your student decides on. In the case of my current student, we started with Level 5, but about halfway through that book, she decided that the level was too easy for her, and we went up to Level 6, which we are nearly done with.

While the SBLC recommends the Challenger Series, depending on the student, other things may also be helpful. For example, my first student enjoyed reading magazines and newspapers, and one of her hobbies was hiking: so I would go to the library and pick up hiking and outdoor magazines. These included articles that my student enjoyed reading  while at the same time was improving her English skills.

My current student has been studying for a writing test that is a part of a job application. She will also occasionally need help for documents at her current job. And in a few months she will be eligible for US Citizenship, and when that time comes, I will help her study for the Citizenship test.

To some, ESL may seem to be a fairly recent idea. In fact, it began in 15th century England, as the English expanded their trade routes and it became necessary for them to be able to communicate with those with whom they traded. At first, English was a common language for all that traded with England. A few centuries later, however, the British Empire began sending English teachers overseas, and they continued to do this for the following two-hundred years. English was mainly taught to the upper-class citizens of these other countries, and their government officials. However, the English learned by them, would eventually influence the rest of the colonists, who would also learn English.

The English understood that foreigners would not want to give up on their native language, which was still necessary for Languages of the Worldthose in power to communicate with others in their respective countries, and also to gain their trust and respect. Thus, bilingualism was very much encouraged.

From the 19th-20th centuries, as opportunities in the United States increased and expanded, immigrants began flocking to the US, in pursuit of the American dream. At first, bi-lingual education was taught in public and private schools, depending on the dominant language of the schools in that area, such as Spanish being the main language that was spoken in Arizona and New Mexico.

By the late 19th century, the United States, in need of its own identity, proclaimed English as its national language. Not much later, in 1906, the Naturalization Act was passed. And by the 1920s, English-only instruction began in the schools. Therefore, the immigrant children were taught the English language, that their parents were struggling to learn.

After WWII, ESL became prominent in learning about foreign languages and cooperating with those who speak other languages. Many teaching methods were implemented over the next four decades, most of which are still used in ESL education to this day.

Why English Is Hard To LearnBeing an ESL tutor is a rewarding and fulfilling experience. It involves, in no small part, a certain amount of patience and understanding, but it is really something to witness the process of a student improve their English skills, and leading up to a satisfying result. And these students often want to learn more than just speaking and reading English, but they are interested in American culture as well. In turn, you will often learn  about their culture and customs, and how those customs identify with, and differ from, our own. I’ve also learned that my students are interested in learning American idioms. These idioms are rarely, if ever, literal. “It’s raining cats and dogs” for example, means that it’s pouring rain, not that dogs and cats are literally falling from the sky.

Becoming an ESL tutor is something to consider, if you have the time for it. It usually costs little to nothing. Even the books that the SBLC recommends don’t have to bought; these can be found in the library.

At the end of this post, I will include a link to the SBLC website. This is, of course, mainly for those who live in the South Bay area of Southern California, but if you live elsewhere, I can assure you that there are probably tutoring opportunities in your area. A quick Google search could turn up some potentially endless possibilities. And if you have the interest, time, and means to travel, you may even consider teaching English abroad. But regardless of the opportunity that you choose to seize, all of them are gratifying and enriching.

And you just may change someone’s life for the better!

SBLC Logo-page0001 (2)To learn more about volunteering as a tutor for the SBLC, and learn the dates and times of the upcoming information meetings, please visit: