ESL courses break barriers, make connections | News, Sports, Jobs
Moving to a new place can be intimidating, but adding a language barrier makes the situation all the more difficult. Everyday tasks can become frustrating and difficult when people immerse themselves in a country where they don’t speak the language, local guides said.
But help is available in schools and through church outreach programs such as the Altoona English and Culture Club, an English as a Second Language program offered weekly at the Altoona Alliance Church.
Volunteers with the program say it started as a way to do so “Love your next” as the Bible dictates.
The Church on Pleasant Valley Boulevard offers classes at seven different levels.
Lori Crownover, director of programs, said people who come to America from another country need to speak English to get a job, do business, talk to neighbors, see a doctor, and do other everyday tasks.
The church ministry offers courses for beginners with no knowledge of English through to those who are at the highest level of conversation.
The program is in its fourth year and has enrolled about 90 international students.
“You wouldn’t really believe Altoona has that many, but there are probably 13 to 15 different countries represented by those coming through those doors.” said Crownover.
Volunteer Kimberly Long said working with the program is a passion.
“I think it was a calling, it just seemed really interesting to me.” Long said.
Long teaches the literacy class, which she says is a little easier when the teacher and students are one-on-one. The goal of all classes is to gain conversational English and confidence, she said.
Your classes begin with learning the alphabet and being able to introduce names at a pace that works best for the student.
Gail Keller and Kyrah Allender teach an intermediate level course that uses listening comprehension to measure the listener’s understanding of conversations. They also use vocabulary illustrations and call out new words and have students respond.
Allender, who is on a master’s program to eventually teach in schools, said members of her class hail from Mexico, Thailand, Sudan and other countries.
“I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for people moving from a non-alphabetic country. They have a completely different alphabet.” Allender said, noting that Spanish speakers have similar letters, while others who speak Arabic or other languages have to learn an entirely new system.
Students can make connections to real life, which improves their understanding of what a foreign language is for them.
A new course focused on commuting and commuting to work or school. The students talked about whether they liked being in traffic or not, and they talked about their children using car seats.
Facilitate daily activities
During classes, students aged 22 to 75 not only learn English, they also build relationships.
According to Crownover, the courses are led by 25 to 30 trained volunteers who come from all walks of life and from other churches and organizations.
“The teachers don’t just teach English, it’s all they need in their lives.” Crownover explained.
Mentoring or counseling can take the form of helping the student to cope with everyday tasks, e.g.
Volunteers help students “Navigate American culture.”
Crownover said a student was struggling with a green card, and volunteers helped the person through the process.
“I tell my family that I don’t actually have family here, but you are my family.” said this student.
The program offers rolling admission, with classes offered on Mondays from 6pm to 8pm throughout the school year. Once students register, they are interviewed and placed in a class at their level, according to Crownover. A donation to cover course book costs is accepted but not required.
Students are placed into similar learning levels, which helps reduce anxiety.
Some students are parents of young children learning English at school, so the program also offers childcare.
While the number of students in a class varies throughout the year, volunteers from 10 communities in the Altoona area are on site each week.
“It’s really a community effort” said Crownover.
The volunteer teachers are not required to speak both English and the student’s native language, which actually aids in the student’s learning.
Crownover, a retired elementary school teacher with an ESL certificate and a master’s degree, said research has shown that ESL students progress faster when they only speak English during class.
However, learning English can be exhausting.
Therefore, the students are in class from 6 to 7 p.m. and then have a half-hour break together, about another common language – food.
“The cultures are extremely hospitable”, said Crownover. “They will prepare a lot of food for you if you go to their house, so we try to do the same.”
The food and fellowship provide a period of quiet time as well as an opportunity to practice conversational English.
There are people who leave the program, some because they have completed the coursework, others because they are moving away or changing jobs.
“Sometimes there are people who come in for a month and then they switch jobs and we don’t see them, which is always super sad.” said Crownover.
When someone leaves the program, both the volunteers and the students miss each other.
Crownover said a student who has been with the program since its inception had to move out of the area last year. This student tapped a thank you note on her phone to show the volunteers while crying with gratitude, Crownover recalled.
ESL in schools
While the Altoona English and Culture Club caters to adults, students moving to the area can find help at the school.
School districts are required to have ESL teachers even if no student needs the service, said Juli Claycomb, ESL teacher for the Hollidaysburg Area School District.
When a student moves to the district, officials test the student’s language skills and understanding and begin training within 14 days, she said.
Claycomb estimated the district has 20 students whose first language is not English, but with the pandemic, the numbers have dwindled.
“It was a difficult year” she said, noting that the families of these students often have restaurants and salons that have had to close at some point in the past two years. Some of the kids stay at home with the cyberschool.
“COVID has really impacted population numbers, but I hope that changes.” She said.
Claycomb said Hollidaysburg has a few ESL students per grade level. She covers elementary level while Cheri Grimaldi teaches secondary school students.
According to district spokeswoman Paula Foreman, the Altoona Area School District has one full-time teacher at the elementary level, one at the junior high school, and one at the high school level who teach ESL in addition to other class loads. The district’s ESL program serves approximately
ESL teachers do not always speak the students’ native language. While it’s beneficial, it’s not necessary to teach them, Claycomb said.
Once the students are tested, Claycomb says they will either be tutored individually or Claycomb will go to class with the student to help them out. Students learn the same content in both environments, just with some adjustments, she said.
“As her English develops, we try to keep her in the classroom more,” She said. “When they’re young, they learn it (language) so quickly.”
Claycomb said she labels everything in the classroom in both English and her native language, relying on a routine to create a better learning environment.
“English is one of the most difficult languages to learn” She said. “Once they know the routine, they feel comfortable.”
“They’re usually silent for the first few weeks and just absorb everything.” said Claycomb. “You think they don’t want to study, but then all of a sudden they blossom.”
Claycomb said language learners acquire their skills in two ways, academically and through conversation.
Conversational English, known as BICS or Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, is everyday conversation, like things you would talk about at work on a Monday morning. Students pick up these skills quickly and typically take between one and three years to fully understand them, she said.
CALPS, or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, is basically anything students learn in school. This type of language takes five to seven years to master, while some children can learn it in three years, she said.
Teachers can see ESL students interacting and communicating with their peers in the playground, but don’t see the same level in the classroom.
“That’s because they’re learning two different types of language.” She said.
In her experience, students tend to do better with math courses than with English/language classes because math has universal numbers.
Claycomb said children are also more likely to pick up American cultural expressions, such as idioms or slang, but may not always understand what the words mean.
ESL students’ initial quietness or shyness in the classroom does not reflect a lack of interest in learning, but instead builds students’ confidence, Claycomb said.
“When they get that confidence, whether they know the content or not, that’s when they shine.” She said. “It’s really cool to watch, they’re so calm and then come out and make friends. It’s just great to see how the other kids accept them.”
Other cultures see education as a valued privilege and a path to a better life, Claycomb said, and students are motivated to learn.
“They care so much about education, they’re some of the best students in our district. They want success” She said.
Claycomb said the best part about her job is getting to know the families and learning about their cultures.
She also spoke about the common language of food, saying that students’ families invite them to dinner and cook food from their homeland and share cultural customs.