Volunteers Boost Literacy
Desert Sun: June 27, 2005 by Jennifer Larson
If you can easily read this sentence, you have an advantage over nearly half the adult population of Riverside County. But pretty soon, you may not have much of an advantage over Sefika Kaya.
Kaya, 26, is a pastry chef at a local hotel, and she is learning to read English under the auspices of the adult literacy tutoring program at Palm Springs Public Library.
Kaya sought out tutoring about three months ago after briefly spending time in a local adult school. Turkish is her first language, but since she wants to become an executive chef one day, she realized she had a lot to learn. "I need to learn this language," she said.
Enter Jennifer Robinson, 28, a graduate student who also works at Rancho Mirage Public Library.
Josette McNary, principal librarian and literacy program coordinator at Palm Springs Public Library, matched the two women together. Now, Kaya and Robinson meet regularly for tutoring sessions. As they have worked through flash cards of vocabulary words and flipped through books, they've become friends, too.
Many of the local branches of the Riverside County Library System have adult literacy programs now. The Palm Springs program is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
All the programs have the same goal: to help adults learn to read - or learn to read better. With reading and writing skills, they will have a better chance at getting a good job and sustaining a higher quality of life for themselves and their families.
The Palm Springs Library program now has about 34 tutors and about 80 students, according to McNary. Some pairs meet once a week, but others meet more frequently, depending on the students' needs.
"What they like here is the one-on-one," McNary said of the students.
Robinson and Kaya love to pore over the library's cookbooks that Kaya picks out for dessert ideas - and to get more reading experience by reading the recipes.
Robinson also prepared a set of flashcards that are attached to a key ring for Kaya so she can flip through, read the words and practice pronouncing them.
Sometimes the words trip her up. For example, Kaya is still having trouble pronouncing the "o" sound in English. "Floor. Flower," Kaya said, trying to make the words sound different. "English is tricky," noted longtime volunteer Sue Sutton, 78. "Just when you say, 'This is the way it always is,' it's 'well, usually.'"
But she tries to make it fun by teaching her students little rhymes about grammar. For example, "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking" to explain how to pronounce words like "receive."
Sutton has been working with her current student, Brenda Galvez, 25, for about a year. Galvez, who is from Mexico, could speak Spanish and English, but she had trouble reading and writing in English, even though she graduated a few years ago from a local high school.
The two have also worked on life skills to help Galvez, who was in a welfare-to-work program, successfully negotiate the work world.
That should be a key component of adult literacy initiatives, according to the National Institute for Literacy, which cites the 1998 Workforce Investment Act's definition of literacy as including the ability to "compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job."
Volunteer tutor Angela Dam, 34, of Palm Springs agreed that it's not enough simply to teach an adult to read. "You want to give them skills to raise their children better, to have better knowledge of the world," she said.
Dam, who also teaches a group of Spanish-speaking women through a parenting program affiliated with the Palm Springs Unified School District, can relate to her students; she had to learn English when she was 9 after moving from Vietnam to Canada.
So she tries to relate her lessons to real-life scenarios. She also came up with the idea of asking her students to write in a journal and practice their newfound English skills. "Since I started doing that, their writing has improved immensely," said Dan. "They're using adjectives, adverbs."
Galvez has already experienced some success on the job front, too, thanks to Sutton's help. She had to take a multiple-choice test for her new job as a courtesy clerk at a local discount department store, and the tutoring sessions helped her develop the skills necessary to do that. (She passed the test.)
Galvez wants her twin daughters, now 2, to learn to speak and read both English and Spanish. "So they won't have the problems I had," she explained.
Robinson is very proud of her pupil, too. "You read the newspaper and you use the library all the time now," she said to Kaya, who smiled over her stack of homework worksheets.
McNary said she's glad to provide an effective avenue for people to learn to read - and speak - English better. Students are tested in English in school, and most good jobs for adults require them to use English. "I think it's vital," she said of the tutoring program. "This is still an English-speaking society."
If you are interested in becoming a tutor for an adult student or want to refer someone for help, try the following agencies:
Palm Springs Public Library's adult literacy program: 322-8369 The Riverside County Library Adult Literacy Program's local office:342-2580. The program serves the following libraries: Cathedral City, Coachella, Desert Hot Springs, Indio, La Quinta, Lake Tamarisk, Mecca, Palm Desert and Thousand Palms