0 Friday, November 18, 2011

Language barriers broken

by Trey Curtis

Learning a second language while immersed in an unfamiliar culture can create a daunting challenge. The Oklahoma City Metro Literacy Coalition offers English-speaking students the opportunity to enhance the lives of those who struggle with literacy or are learning English as a second language.

“The Oklahoma City Metro Literacy Coalition is a citywide nonprofit organization dedicated to helping other organizations improve literacy,” Oklahoma Christian University’s Professor of English and Head of the English as a Second Language Committee Gail Nash said. “It can be anything from teaching children to read, to teaching economic principles to high school students, to helping people learn English as a second language.”

The chapter in which Nash participates is part of a larger group of coalitions.

“There’s the [national] coalition, then a state coalition and then the Oklahoma City coalition,” Nash said. “We are members of the local chapter. It’s pretty new; it’s only been around for about five years. Our part is called the Literacy Lunch program, where we teach English to non-English speakers.”

The program started as a supplement to Oklahoma Christian’s writing center, from which it received most of its grants. Since then, the program has become more connected to the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) program at the university.

“The TEFL program has become the key factor in the literacy program because we have TEFL majors and minors,” Nash said. “Those students are more interested in the program. They want to do it, and sometimes have to because of their course work. It really started with a pilot project with one of my TEFL classes.”

The mission of the program, and the idea from which it draws its name, was initially to teach English to non-English speakers during their lunch breaks.

The program has since branched out and is now active in three locations: the Econo Lodge off of I-35, Capital Hill Church of Christ and the campus of Oklahoma Christian.

“We’re usually pretty small in that sense,” Nash said. “We’re usually only at three or four sites at a time. At the site we have two students, or we may have ten students – it fluctuates. Right now we have six to eight teachers working with seven to ten students, so it’s a pretty small student-to-teacher ratio.”

Since students may not have formal experience teaching a language, the program provides education on the basics.

“We do provide training to our teachers,” Nash said. “The teachers are all volunteers, but I have some money from outside grants, and OC has given us some money because they support the program, so we can buy books for the teachers and the students. I also have enough to hire an outside tutor to come in and have a few courses.”

While many involved with the literacy lunches are related to the Oklahoma Christian community, some are not. A local mother, Tina Carter, teaches at the Econo Lodge location.

“The tutors are people from all over,” Nash said. “They can be students, but we have people from the community who aren’t related to Oklahoma Christian at all. We have people from Edmond help us and even some faculty spouses.”

Each year, two student coordinators are chosen to organize the program. This year the coordinators are sophomores Shelby Stanaland and Amanda Arnold.

They are responsible for tracking all numbers and ensuring things run smoothly.

“I was originally a TEFL major, and that’s how I got involved,” Stanaland said. “I told Amanda, and she was interested, so we started going to the training sessions. After we finished the training, we were informed that one of the teachers at Capitol Hill was unable to teach for the rest of the semester, so they asked us if we would go and try to fill in.”

Arnold reflected how unexpected the offer was.

“It was basically a crapshoot,” Arnold said. “We had just finished our training, and they had nobody else to ask.”

The program is not without its pressures. Stanaland commented on how nervous she was at first.

“It’s really nerve-racking,” Stanaland said. “Especially when you haven’t had any kind of formal training or education. You don’t want to teach them the wrong thing.”

Another reason Arnold says she felt intimidated was the age difference, with many of her students being older than she. Despite these initial insecurities, students responded enthusiastically to the two teaching.

“One of the reasons it was so nerve-racking was because most of the students were adults,” Arnold said. “But they were very kind to us. They’re also really diligent. Anytime we’ve had ‘homework’ they always get it done.”

For students who may be considering joining the literacy program, Nash offers an invitation to come and see it in action.

Students have many opportunities to observe the program.

“You could go up to Capital Hill, or you could come to some of our afternoon courses,” Nash said. “That’s one of the best ways to get to know the program. Even if your major isn’t related to TEFL you can still benefit from it, even if it’s all internal.”

Students interested in the program can contact Stanaland, Arnold or Nash.

Photo by: Jeremy Gan

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