Newcomers Study ESL through Literacy Volunteers
by Annita Ward


Last Fall I received a call to give English lessons to a young woman from China. She had just arrived in Clarksburg to join her husband, who worked in a local restaurant. I knocked on the door, and when she opened it, I identified myself and asked if she were the person who wanted English lessons. "Si," she replied. This amazed me; I was sure the woman was Chinese; I had been told she was from China; yet she seemed to be speaking Spanish.

Throughout our first couple of lessons, she kept saying, "Si." I was curious, but she knew so little English I couldn't ask her why she spoke Spanish. After a few weeks, the mystery was solved for me when her brother-in-law explained that although she was from China, she had lived in Argentina for many years.

Another time at her home I met a teenage boy she said also wanted English lessons. I asked his name and he said, "Call me Jackie." When I began to laugh, he was puzzled. But he understood English well enough to appreciate the humor when I explained that another young Chinese student of mine, when I asked for his name, also replied, "Call me Jackie." We were all Jackie Chan fans, so we were very pleased at this evidence of Jackie Chan's influence.

I teach ESL through the Harrison County Chapter of Literacy Volunteers of America. Of the approximately fifty students now participating in this program, twenty are English as a Second Language students, and eleven of those twenty are my students. They range in age from fifteen to sixty-five, and they come from Korea, Mexico, and China. Their previous English instruction ranged from none to university English classes in their home countries.

Last summer, a newspaper reporter writing about Literacy Volunteers visited a class I was holding for eight ESL students. She asked about my background, and was really amused to find that I was doing during my vacation the same thing I do during the year--teach ESL. She wanted to know why I do it.

Well, there are many reasons why I teach ESL as a volunteer. Some of these reasons are professional. In my volunteer work I often encounter students from language backgrounds and at instructional levels which I don't encounter in my college teaching. Working with these students strengthens my repertoire of skills.

But the true reason I serve as a volunteer is not professional. It's human. In my ESL students enrolled in the literacy program, I see a spirit, a motivation, an understanding, which, unfortunately, I don't often find in my ESL students in higher education or in American university students. My immigrant students still believe in the promise of America, and they value my English lessons as part of that promise. For this reason, I am happy to teach them.

One of my students is the owner of a small restaurant. He opens his restaurant each day, except Sunday, at 10:30 and closes each night at 11:00 in the evening. On Sunday he doesn't open until 11:30. His "extra hour" on Sunday is the time he spends in English class.

At 8:00 on Saturday morning I meet my ESL students in the home of one of them. These students, some of whom were doctors in their home country, work 60 to 70 hours per week as servers and cooks. Saturday morning is the only time they have for English class. The students don't often ask for time off. But occasionally I take a weekend off to go somewhere or to recharge my batteries. The students, though, just keep on working, following those dreams which originally brought them to America.

Annita Ward

Salem-Teikyo University

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WVTESOL Newsletter Editor: Linda Yoder

Salem-Teikyo University

Copyright 1999 by

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This page was last updated on 28 March 1999.