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  October 2, 2000

International Families Learning English
With Volunteer Tutors

Bicycles and toys pepper the lawn outside the apartment complex. Inside, a glittery happy birthday banner for Rachel, who just turned three, hangs above a living room book case that carries an assortment of toys, books and videotapes. Five-year-old Won Jae, Rachel's brother, a bit impatient, sits atop a small plastic jungle gym near a window and scouts the parking lot. The children and their mother, Eui Jin Lee, are waiting for Abigail.

It will be a homecoming of sorts: UConn student Abigail Stolz and the family with whom she had become so close have not seen each other since April. A lot can happen in six months.

"Won Jae almost forgot English in Korea," says Lee, recalling the families' recent three-month visit to their home country. "Once he returned to America, he is more confident," she explains. Stolz notices not only the boy's confidence, but the improved English of all three.

"You're all doing so well," says Stolz, a sophomore education major, who would definitely be the one to know: she tutored the family in English during the spring semester as a volunteer for the 'America Reads' ESL literacy program offered through UConn's Center for Community Outreach.

Stolz met with them twice a week for 11/2 hours as part of the program, which provides literacy workshops for families who speak English as a second language and English-language tutors for their preschool-age children. The program is run by UConn's Center for Community Outreach, in partnership with the Mansfield Library and the Mansfield School Readiness Council. The center recruits and trains student tutors and coordinates the contacts between the students and families.

"There are many international families in this area, particularly graduate students' families, where English is not spoken in the home," says Laurel LaPorte-Grimes, America Reads Coordinator. "The husbands come to graduate school. Their wives speak little if no English, feel isolated, and are frequently at home with young children," she explains. "The children also don't speak English and don't have the same rich literacy experiences that one would hope, so the idea is to help the preschoolers get ready for kindergarten, encourage them to be in preschool programs and bring the family into the library so they become familiar with the resources that are out there and don't feel so isolated.

"This program ties in so many different interests and connects the university and the students with the community in so many different ways," adds LaPorte-Grimes, who recently completed her Ph.D. in linguistics. As an R.A. she taught English to internationa l teaching assistants. "I also tutored some of their wives," she says, "so I knew there was a need."

About 20 families would like to have tutors. There are now half a dozen tutors, who will serve about half the families. Tutors are required to put in 11/2 hours a week and are also required to go to literacy workshops for the families, which are held twice a semester. There is also a 21/2 hour initial training session and a one hour training workshop twice a month.

"Tutors bond with their families. It's a strong connection," LaPorte-Grimes says. Stolz, who has worked with two Korean families agrees. "It's been wonderful. We got close very quickly.

I looked forward to the visits and I think they looked forward to our hours each week also."

Stolz planned some activities for the visits but a lot she "played by ear." She and the children played games, sang along with tapes and read books together.

She encouraged the mothers to participate. "When we read to the kids I think it's helpful for the mothers to watch and hear," she says. "They obviously want their children to learn English but their English is limited so they can't help as much as they'd like."

LaPorte-Grimes says the students are learning first-hand about other cultures. "The group we get for this particular program has an interesting cultural exchange. They're in the families' homes, so they learn a tremendous amount about what that culture is like from the inside out." It's not unusual, for example, for tutors to be offered native cuisine or to engage in discussions about their personal lives, she says: "It's a special situation where both parties feel free to talk about their cultures."

Meanwhile, Won Jae has an activity in mind. "I want to play the memory game," he says. As he lines up small picture cards face down on the floor, Stolz asks, "How are you arranging them?" "In a rectangle," Won Jae replies. "Good," Stolz says.

Rachel finds a match: two teddy bears. "Teddy bears," she says over and over, dancing the cards around her lap. Won Jae flips over a card. "A watch," he says pointing to the one he is wearing on his arm. "This is the same watch," he giggles. His mother tries to teach him how to count pairs. "How many pairs do you have," she asks. He counts up all the cards, not the pairs. His mother smiles and explains again.

Lee says the children have benefitted from the program. "Before we got together, Rachel was afraid of meeting Americans. She didn't have chance to talk to Americans and speak English. She was very shy. After Abigail, it disappeared," she says. "Now she is saying hi to all the neighbors." The children are being raised bilingually. Lee speaks to her children in English but hopes they will also remember the Korean language.

Volunteers from throughout the community are now being recruited as readers to pair up with student tutors, says Susan Schur, children's librarian at the Mansfield Library.

"This community has a large population of people from other countries," she notes. "The Mansfield Schools have identified 28 different languages that are spoken as the dominant language within the home, other than English. This program helps children to be a little more successful when they enter school: they'll have more of a foundation of language; and we're also helping the families at home to become more acclimated to their environment."

Lee offers tea and sets out a tray of cantaloupe and grapes. "Sometimes I can speak well but it depends on the circumstance, how comfortable I am or my mood," she says. Won Jae curls up to his mother and in a whisper, asks if he can play one more game before Abigail leaves. Another favorite: tic-tac-toe.

For information, call LaPorte-Grimes at (860) 486-1165 or Schur at (860) 423-250l.

Sherry Fisher