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ESL Tutor

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Not many volunteer activities can open the door to travel and employment. But tutoring English as a second language does both.

"I especially like the opportunity to travel, and meet people that I ordinarily would not have the chance to meet at home," says Megaen Kelly. Kelly is a paid English as a second language (ESL) instructor in Hong Kong. However, she started her career as a volunteer ESL tutor in Bellingham, Washington.

But before you volunteer as an ESL tutor with an eye on what it can do for you, consider what your efforts can do for someone else.

In the United States, nearly one million two hundred thousand adults were enrolled in state-administered ESL programs during 2003-2004. That's according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education. ESL waiting lists and class sizes continue to grow.

Many more ESL students are tutored by volunteers through churches, libraries, local businesses, unions, community colleges, community centers, multicultural centers and other community-based agencies. ESL programs vary widely in scope and content.

"Our volunteers [choose] us," says Daphne Daunt. She was a volunteer at a multicultural society.

Daunt says most of her volunteers had taken ESL training through the local college. Even so, they were expected to participate in a one-time training session through the multicultural society. They were then asked to commit to two tutoring sessions per week. They worked with one or two students for about an hour and a half each time.

At one community college, tutors work in classrooms as teacher aides. "We take just about anyone that has patience and a desire to do this," says volunteer coordinator Arlene Springer.

"Multicultural experience or experience learning a second language is helpful, then they know what it's like," says Springer.

At the Tacoma Community House, volunteer ESL tutors go through an extensive interview process. "We want to see if they have the qualities we're looking for," explains Rebecca Jayasundara. "Patience, tolerance, cultural sensitivity, if they can be on time and follow directions."

Successful candidates must commit to work one-on-one with ESL students for four hours per week for six months. Some candidates back out when they discover the work involved. "It's not the volunteer experience for everyone," warns Jayasundara.

Volunteer tutor Cathy Swabey says that volunteering has been such a positive experience for her that she hopes to make ESL instruction her career. "You're supposed to teach them, but I think sometimes you learn more!"

When you volunteer as an ESL tutor, you remember moments that transcend the language barrier.

Volunteer Don Henry had such a moment during an impromptu game of Go Fish with a Chinese couple he tutors. The two were Level 1 students -- meaning they were just learning English. "I wanted to get the idea of 'do you have?' in their minds," he explains. "You can use it in a store or a restaurant, so it's important."

On the blackboard Henry drew the different shapes on the cards: hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades. Then, he wrote the numbers from one to 10. "So we sat and played this game Do You Have? At the end of the game they really knew it -- 'Do you have a seven of spades?' -- and that's enjoyable! You're always looking for something they'll grab on to."

Henry says what made the game really fun was the delight the woman showed in winning. "She was really quite pleased with herself," he says with a chuckle.

Cathy Swabey began volunteering as a tutor after teaching English in Japan for two years. She says she'll never forget her first birthday overseas. "I went to go to my class and they had learned Happy Birthday with an organ keyboard, and they all sang in English," she remembers. "It brought tears to my eyes."

Swabey says her experience helps her relate to the students she tutors now. "I know how tough it can be to make friends when you're in a new country with new experiences."

Trina McKinstry works as a volunteer ESL tutor at a community college. She cleans blackboards, runs errands, takes half the class for group work, and generally assists the teacher. "It's a niche that worked for me," she says.

McKinstry says there's nothing like the satisfaction of seeing her explanation of something "ring a bell" with the students. "The teacher may have gone over something again and again, and there are still puzzled faces. Sometimes it just takes a person saying the same thing a different way to hit the right note."

After five years at the college, McKinstry now sees many of her former students in the hallways on their way to regular classes. "The young ones come up and hug me, and the older ones shake your hand and are very courteous. You just don't get that personal warmth in any other arena."

How to Get Involved

Many community colleges run ESL programs. Some use volunteer tutors or "conversation partners." Search online or look in your local phone book for contact information.

"I just drove over to our North Seattle Community College one day and said, 'Can you use a volunteer?'" says ESL tutor Trina McKinstry. "They sent me up to the English department."

Churches, libraries, community centers, multicultural centers and other local agencies may also offer ESL programs. Ask around, or watch for ads in local newspapers and flyers.


National Institute for Literacy - A Directory
Search for a Learning English (as a second language) program near you

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition
Find resources for tutors and those interested in ESL as a career

Activities for ESL Students
Find online quizzes, tests, exercises and puzzles to help teach ESL

English Forum - Teachers' Section
Find books, organizations and links for ESL teachers, as well as a teachers' message board

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