Paris Bailie, ESOL Coordinator, Literacy Volunteers of Greater Worcester [virtually]
Tina Blood, Literacy Coordinator, Literacy Volunteers of America, Morrill Memorial Library
JoAnn Butler, Literacy Coordinator, Dudley Literacy Center, BPL
English Conversation Groups are an increasingly important part of many libraries' services to recently-arrived immigrants. They provide a bridge before, after, or in addition to formal English language classes. The presenters worked together to speak about different aspects of running these programs on a library-wide or district-wide scale. I've condensed their tips into a bulleted list; if you're thinking about starting conversation groups at your library, read on...
[Note: If you'd like a copy of Paris' excellent handout, contact her at "parisrenee at hotmail dot com"]
Why Do We Need Conversation Grouops?
- Some students only speak English during a class; conversation groups give them another place to listen and practice speaking
- Provides additional English-speaking contacts for participants -- it's a good way to have a social interaction, combat isolation, and encourage cross-cultural exchange
- Offers a place to focus conversation on survival skills, work-related issues, and community topics
How Do I Prepare a Conversation Group Program?
- Planning is essential -- Conduct needs assessment, don't schedule against other programs
- Schedule more in summer when formal English classes aren't offered
- Keep the group small (10-15 people); create multiple groups if demand is high and possibly have different skill levels together
- Have a written take-away so that people feel that they've gotten something worthy out of it
- Tailor your literacy collections to support possible topics, or identify books from the regular collections to use
What Topics Work Well in Conversation Groups?
- Survival skills (e.g., Calling 911, navigating the local area/directions, household repairs, dealing with medical professionals, restaurants & shopping)
- Community resources and opportunities
- Holidays/special events
- idioms & pronunciation
- Topics that students introduce ("I just got a letter from my landlord and I've been evicted.")
- Discussion of community newspapers, short stories & essays
- 'Conversation starter' books, including from the Children's department (Where In the Wild?, How Big Is It?, The Living Breathing Human Body Book)
- Topics from students' daily lives; use questions from students as conversation starters
What Goes On During a Conversation Group?
- Volunteer can ask open-ended questions or introduce a topic to generate conversation; or, volunteer can ask students for topics or questions
- Remember that the focus is conversation; let grammar & punctuation correction come up naturally during the conversation.
- Model using language reference works -- dictionary, encyclopedia, computer
- Practice dialogues, use games & activities, card games, etc.
- Book club & conversation groups around books (intermediate level)
- Try a Cultural Night to let students celebrate their home countries
Things to Remember
- Don't talk down to students -- they are adults and agents of their own lives
- Encourage the students to talk more than the volunteer
- At the same time that we're teaching folks about English, we're teaching folks about the concept of a free public library
- Our mission is to make people feel welcome, and we're teaching that as much as anything else.
Questions from the Audience:
How do you train your volunteers?
- Sitting in on other conversation groups until you get a feel for how it works
- Send folks to Norwood to attend their trainings for literacy volunteers Use mentors; pair them up with existing volunteers
- Small-group or one-on-one orientation 101; have the coordinator sit in with new volunteers
- Guest speakers / trainers for the volunteers
- Call or email JoAnn for copies of the BPL Literacy Volunteers description or other materials
- LSTA grant funded program through MBLC, for literacy training
- Use a blog for literacy volunteers to create their own resource to pull ideas from (Brookline PL uses one)
How do you find volunteers? And once you find them, how do you keep them involved?
- Local newspapers -- invite reporters in to existing conversation groups, use Letters to the Editor
- Use your Friends Group to run the program or to drum up volunteers
- Faith-based organizations are full of folks who might volunteer; put blurbs in church newsletters, LDS kids on mission
- High school seniors or college/grad students doing community service hours
- Use non-native English speakers to teach English-speakers other languages
- Peer-to-peer YA conversation circles
- Don't use Rosetta Stone Online -- it's horrific at home and doesn't seem to work with non-native English speakers, too complex
- Tell Me More (Auralog) is much friendlier
- Hands-On English: a print magazine with exercises, tips for tutors/teachers, crossword puzzles, mini-lesson (approx. $50/year)
- News For You: New Readers Press, slightly older news written at a level for new English learners
- The Metro: also written at a reasonable level