English is Certainly Harder: Tutoring Students at the Joseph & Mary’s Library

In addition to working in each department, we are also trying out the various roles that volunteers fill while they’re here.

jeff-and-johanaOne of the most important positions is assisting with the “Individual Education Plan” (IEP) program at the school. Joseph & Mary’s Schools are taught in English since that’s the language their National Exams are done in; strategically it’s best to teach in the language the students will be tested in so nothing is lost in translation.

However there are downsides to this and one of them is that some students transfer into the school with only a basic grasp of English. When this happens in pre-school or kindergarten, it doesn’t pose a huge obstacle. It happens often, as Bethany can attest; when she shadowed the teacher in the pre-school, the biggest challenge was that few of the 30+ children spoke English and some didn’t even know Swahili. They pick it up fast though at that age!

bethany-and-her-iep-partnerThe challenge is when the students transfer in higher grades and now are faced with the daunting task of learning their subjects, studying for the exam, AND picking up a second or even third language along the way.

That’s where IEP comes in. In this program, students replace their free periods with time in the library with a volunteer. The two can talk or read books to work on the basic building blocks of the language. The key is for the student to be spending time with a Native English speaker and practicing!

My students were both male: Johan and Sylvester. While the books are categorized by reading level and students can take out books from the level just above and just below their own, I think my boys were choosing books beyond their ability. Maybe it was their pride or maybe they liked a challenge… maybe it was my own pride that prevented me from encouraging them to pick an easier book. I was impressed that despite this, they were both more than willing to stop after every sentence to ask what certain words meant.

dsc_0003Techniques for explaining words ranged from funny “furious” faces, to “crawling” on the floor, to “scattering” books around the library.

There were words that I had trouble explaining though, despite knowing what they mean. “Certainly” and “hardly” were two that came up that I tried to explain, but struggled to avoid using bigger words that would only make the concepts more confusing. “Holy crap!” was another one. “It kind of means ‘Oh no!’ or ‘Wow!’” I explained, but knew it didn’t quite translate.

Then there were some words that I could easily explain. When Johan asked what “relief” meant, I paused before asking, “Do you know how you sometimes really have to go to the bathroom? Then when you finally get to pee you go ‘ahhhh.’ That ‘ahhhh…’ that’s relief.”

dsc_0004As they read, I started to recognize how complicated English is to learn. So many words mean similar, if not identical, things. How do you explain the difference between “hurried,” “fast,” and “quick”? Or reversely, there are so many words that are basically the same, that mean drastically different things. When one character described herself as “fired up” I had to explain that this didn’t mean they were on fire. I also had to explain that “to get fired” was also very different.

Then there are soft and hard consonants. In “bicycle” that first “c” sounds like an “s”, but the second sounds like a “k.” Why? Life’s kruel.

I met with the boys for an hour each day for the whole week to read in the library and on Friday they eagerly asked if we’d be reading again tomorrow. “Monday!” I told them.

While I’m certain I wasn’t able to convey the nuances of phrases like “Holy crap” I’m also certain they know a few more words than they did when we started and that’s certainly enough for now!

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