Before teaching how to read, tutors learn to teach

The group was founded in 1968.

Blanca Arce is one of 12 students who met with tutors for the first time at the Literacy Action Corps meeting Tuesday at the First Baptist Church of Columbia.

Arce, a Columbia mother of three, came to the United States from Mexico 16 years ago. Arce said she spent most of her time in California, where she did not need to speak English.

"I really need somebody to help me to learn English in the right way because I understand a lot, but when I try to speak English I get confused, and I speak in past when I need to speak in present, or something," Arce said. "In this country you need to learn the language if you want to get a better job, and the people treat you better when they know you speak the language too."

Arce's tutor, Barbara Michael, said her goal is to help Arce become confident in her English.

Tuesday's meeting was the second of five volunteer-training workshops. Once training is complete, the tutors and students will meet for an hour or more once a week.

The LAC was founded in 1968 by a group of First Baptist Church members. The group is part of a national organization called Proliteracy and offers Adult Basic Literacy for native English speakers and English Language Learners program for non-native speakers.

Volunteer Carol Miller said the ABL program is much smaller because the students are more reluctant to ask for help. Miller said learning to read books is important even in the digital age.

"If literacy and reading and writing are not important in your life, then you might not graduate," she said. "You might not stick with it throughout your lifetime. Even with all the technological things, like computers, you still have to be able to read, to interact with the computer and with the people."

ELL Student Coordinator Shirley Colbert said the English program includes four components: dialogue, structure and focus, vocabulary and pronunciation. There is also a literacy program developed by Frank Laubach, a pioneer in adult literacy training.

After the volunteers met with their students for the first time Tuesday, Colbert showed them the Literacy Library, a room the church has dedicated to books used by the corps.

The collection includes the four-level Laubach Way to Literacy workbook set and books on topics such as culture, citizenship and reading newspapers. The selection also includes student-written books.

Colbert first became involved with English literacy 25 years ago after a tragedy illuminated the need for a local program.

While working in the International Friends organization, she met a Chinese woman struggling to learn English. Colbert was ill equipped to help the woman, and the student quit out of frustration.

The woman planned to move back to China in six months, but after the subsequent Tiananmen Square Massacre, her husband decided he would not return to the hostile political situation.

Eventually, the woman became depressed. Before her husband could take her to the hospital for help, she committed suicide.

The woman's death prompted Colbert to find a better way to help students learn the English language. Colbert found the LAC, which at the time only offered ABL, and established the ELL after taking training courses herself in Springfield.

At Tuesday's workshop, Colbert taught her skills to 12 volunteers. The tutors broke into groups to practice teaching techniques involving four components: model, repeat, question and review.

Volunteers wrote "survival plans," dialogues for their students to memorize to help them in everyday situations, such as going to the doctor.

"I want to multiply myself," Colbert said. "I just don't want to do it one-on-one by myself, I want to multiply myself through other people, and get more people involved."

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