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Building bridges, one conversation at a time

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Adult English language learners connect through informal dialogue in the Adult Tutoring Program Conversation Club
Participants at Conversation Club

Participants at Conversation Club /Adult Tutoring Program

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Responding to prompts over coffee

Responding to prompts over coffee /Adult Tutoring Program

Piloted in spring 2013, the Adult Tutoring Program Conversation Club of the Literacy Center of West Michigan provides a space for active and waiting learners in the program to practice their conversation skills. The club, which is also open to community members, is a partnership with Kent District Library. It convenes for six weeks in the fall and spring at the library’s Wyoming branch. While the group is targeted toward lower level language learners, participants of all levels are invited to participate.

A typical session uses prompts such as pictures and questions to launch conversation.

Tutors in the Adult Tutoring Program are welcome to join their learners and assist with guiding discussion. The Adult Tutoring program pairs volunteer tutors with adult learners who read and write below a ninth grade reading level, at no cost to the participants.

Carol Mallow, a long-time tutor in the program, saw the benefit of participating in the Conversation Club with her learner, who was from the Ukraine. While the student had learned English for many years in her home country, speaking was not emphasized in the curriculum.

“The problem for the students is that they are only trained in grammar and writing so when they are faced with a conversation,” Mallow shares, “they are unable to understand what they hear.”

Likewise, while many English language learners practice listening and speaking exercises, putting what they learn into practice is a struggle and can be embarrassing, Mallow realized.

She shares, “As in any setting, there are people who will not talk and those that are comfortable, so encouraging the quiet ones (without intimidating them) is always the challenge.”

Conversation Club is a good way for people to hone their speaking skills in a safe environment and build relationships with other learners.

“This is not a 'classroom' that could intimidate students,” Mallow says. “It is a 'coffee club' that is structured to let everyone grow at their own pace.”

Students can participate for the full session or on a drop-in basis. With a new language to unite them, students enjoy learning from one another about their countries of origin. Last session, the group was very diverse, with learners from Peru, Mexico, Vietnam, and many African countries.

Mallow cites Conversation Club as her most rewarding experience through the Adult Tutoring Program, not least because of the impact it had on her learner.

“Because I had the one-to-one student and was aware of how much English she knew but could not communicate, I understood the value of casual conversation training,” says Mallow. “I believe the Conversation Club could be a huge part of the learners’ program—especially for the ones that already know the language through study.” 

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