ESL and LD tutoring

When I first started tutoring, I thought I was just going to work with ESL students.

There are a surprising number of people from all around the world who move to Nashville. In my little suburb there are people from China, Somalia, Uzbekistan, and the Congo, as well as people from Mexico. They either bring their children with them, or they give birth to them here. Either way, they are entitled to a free public education.

Going to school for the first time is hard enough. Not sharing the same language as your classmates and teacher is extra hard.

Sometimes the class is comprised entirely of children who don’t have English as their first language. Sometimes the ESL children and the EL children are mixed together. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

I never thought of myself as an ESL tutor, much less a tutor to kindergartners, but I’d been praying about a way to help others and this opened up. Helping people assimilate is one of the many ways to make the world better.

So many people say “Why don’t they learn our language?” when talking about immigrants, but they don’t take the time to teach “them” the language. Learning a language is very hard and it takes a lot of time. You can try to teach yourself, but working with another person is the best way. Be part of the solution, you know.

I was helping a man from Haiti get his library card. He had a friend with him who was helping out. I was explaining things in English, but somehow how I was explaining it got in. His friend noticed and commented that I should be an ESL teacher.

All Metro employees had been offered the opportunity to volunteer in the schools for an hour a week on work time, so I contacted a patron who teaches ESL kindergartners. She was delighted to have me help. I think she was delighted to have help, period. I did all the paperwork and started as soon as I could.

Something I quickly realized was that I didn’t have to know the child’s language at all in order to help them. I have to know mine. Their goal is to learn to read and write in English. So it had nothing to do with my ability with their language. That was helpful to realize, and got me over my fear.

Teaching is scary. You never know if you are doing it right. What works with one student totally bombs with another. There is never enough time, and there are never enough tutors. You just keep on trying. You just keep on showing up.

Then I noticed that the teacher kept assigning me students who spoke English as a first language but were struggling for some reason. I balked at first. I thought I was there for the ESL kids. But the more I worked with these other kids, the more I realized I was needed for them as well. I was often able to diagnose a learning disability before anyone else had caught it. This resulted in an early intervention and a better outcome.

I tutored students with learning disabilities when I was in college. I’ve come to realize that almost every job since has involved helping people who have a hard time communicating or expressing themselves. I hadn’t planned this. It just happened. I don’t have any training for this. It is just something I have a knack for.

The funny thing is that I’ve come to realize that ESL and LD are the same thing. They both represent a disability to process ideas into the symbolic language of speech and letters. The letters and sounds of any language are arbitrary and invented. They are not natural. They are an agreed-upon construct that we use to communicate with each other. It is totally normal that some people would have a hard time with these symbols. The only problem is that these particular symbols aren’t optional.

Being able to communicate is essential. While I’m for offering people multiple ways to express themselves such as through art and music, language is a cornerstone. It is something that we all share, and is the basis for much of our culture.

If people cannot communicate they get frustrated. This leads to tension and anger. It is essential that people are able to express what they feel, not only to get it out, but to share it with others. They need to be able to understand themselves, and make themselves understood.

So I’m really not teaching people how to read and write, so much as how to interact with other people in this culture, using English as a bridge. It doesn’t matter whether they come from this culture or not.