Literacy program teaches ESOL

Betty Liang has lived in the United States for 26 years. Until last year, the Chinese immigrant’s limited English could make it difficult for her to communicate — even with her American-born fourth-grader.

Today, Liang, 48, of Dumfries, is reading English books with her daughter and translating at doctor’s appointments for her non-English speaking parents.

The remarkable change is due to the work of Prince William’s chapter of the Literacy Volunteers for America.

LVA-PW started offering English for Speakers of Other Languages-type instruction about a year ago. ESOL instruction was a new twist on the 11-year-old LVA-PW’s original purpose of teaching adults to read or improving reading skills. Students at LVA-PW are now roughly 50 percent ESOL and 50 percent basic reading, LVA-PW Executive Director Kim Sells said.

LVA-PW’s newest venture is a program for parents of ESOL students at Graham Park Middle School in Triangle. That program kicked off in November. Twenty-three parents are LVA-PW students while their children are receiving ESOL instruction at Graham Park.

ESOL is a newer addition to LVA nationally, which was founded in 1962 to teach adults to read or improve their reading skills. LVA-PW offers ESOL instruction in both small groups and one-on-one tutoring free of charge.

LVA literature says that very few adults in the United States are completely illiterate. The country boasts a 97 percent literacy rate, according to the 2000 World Almanac. However, 23 percent of the population, or as many as 44 million people, may have such low literacy skills they cannot fill out applications or read simple children’s books. Nationwide, 31 percent of LVA students are Hispanic, 28 percent are white, 17 percent are black and 13 percent are Asian. LVA-PW estimates about 10 percent of Prince William’s adult population “could use literacy services,” according to a LVA-PW fact sheet.

“Since I came here, my reading is better, faster,” Liang said. Previously, Liang tried ESOL classes through Prince William and Fairfax county programs, but neither offered her one-on-one tutoring. “County has a big class, and they charge you, too,” Liang said.

“A big portion of what we do is one-on-one,” LVA-PW Program Coordinator Cindy Provenzano said.

The LVA-PW also teaches students in small groups of two to six people. About 40 people are in the LVA-PW’s small group classes, and about 70 are in the one-on-one instruction.

“We’re learner-centered,” said Provenzano. All new students are interviewed and their reading skills are assessed before a placement is arranged.

“Sometimes it takes some questioning from them,” said Student Coordinator Luanne Oberst, adding that tutoring pairs are matched by “trying to find someone with the same interests,” as well as similar schedules. Oberst matches all tutoring pairs for LVA-PW, and helps them maintain the relationship. She also tutors. One of her students is Liang.

Oberst questions students to their specific goals: What does the student want to accomplish? In Liang’s case, that meant translating for her parents, who speak no English, and helping her daughter with her homework, among other needs.

“I want to learn more English. It’s important, for me to live in this country, in work and in daily life,” said Liang, a hairdresser at a Hair Cuttery in Vienna. “I [also] wanted to learn more English so I can understand what the preacher says. I don’t find a Chinese [-speaking] church [in the area].”

Liang visits her mother, who lives in Woodbridge Nursing Center, every day to translate between her and the nurses. She also works at the nursing home one day a week, cutting residents’ hair.

“We’re a blend of so many cultures, they’re juggling 10 different problems just to get a simple sentence out,” Provenzano said. “Luanne does lots of slang and idioms.” Provenzano, Sells and Oberst marveled at the difficulty of learning English, with its many roots and idioms.

LVA-PW is entirely dependent on volunteers to provide its services, and they are running short this year. Fifteen people are presently on a waiting list for services, and another 10 people are waiting to enter the LVA-PW’s program for Graham Park Middle School parents.

“We need community support in any way we can get it,” Sells said.

Those interested in volunteering or donating to the LVA-PW are encouraged to call (703) 670-5702. A training workshop for new tutors will be held on two consecutive Saturdays, Jan. 25 and Feb. 1. Attendance at both sessions is required in order to be a tutor.

“We have 80 tutors, all volunteers, God bless their hearts,” Provenzano said. Still, she adds, frequently she thinks she gets more out of tutoring than the student.

Provenzano related the story of a high school graduate who couldn’t read well enough to pass the emergency medical technician exam. The man desperately wanted to be an EMT. Provenzano worked with him for three years, using EMT manuals as reading textbooks.

Recently, Provenzano’s former student called to update the office on life as an EMT.

“He called to say he used the paddles on someone, and they came back [to life],” Provenzano said, tearing up, “and he said ‘all the [LVA-PW] ladies were there with me.'”

Staff writer Maria Hegstad can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 121.

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