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At 40, Literacy Volunteers Valley Shore Looks Ahead

Published Feb. 12, 2020

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Having celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2019, Literacy Volunteers Valley Shore (LVVS) is looking ahead to its future. Its plans entail identifying ways to partner with other community organizations, making tutor training more widely accessible, and getting the word out about its services to more potential students and even employers of potential students.

The organization serves 11 shoreline towns from Guilford to Old Lyme, offering one-on-one English-language tutoring to adults. Students have come from at least 73 foreign countries as well as from the U.S.—while the majority of students are learning English as a second language (ESL), some are American-born adults who have struggled with literacy skills, sometimes due to developmental or intellectual disabilities.

To date, LVVS has tutored 1,460 students and 152 volunteers are currently busy tutoring 187 students.

LVVS nearly always has a waiting list of students and has a constant need for tutors, explained Susan Graves, workshop coordinator, board member, and tutor. But the organization often has to overcome hesitation on the part of would-be volunteers.

“How can I teach somebody who doesn’t know our language? Don’t I need to know their language to explain to them?” are common questions, said Graves. “And our answer is ‘No.’ No, in fact you really don’t want to speak in their language. You want to immerse them in English.

“Side by side, you start very basic, you read out loud, you do the exercises, there’s lots of pictures and it’s amazing how much just doing that every week that the student’s English capabilities grow,” she said.

Tutors are not teaching the fine points of grammar.

“The approach is a communicative approach to teaching English because you’re teaching English in the context of life skills,” Graves said.

“Going to the grocery store, the post office, talking to your children’s teachers,” added Joanne Argersinger, the organization’s office manager. “That’s a big one: We have a lot of students coming to us wanting to communicate with their children’s teachers.”

“My [first] student was a housekeeper,” said Graves. “My first vocabulary I tried to gear toward what you might hear in housekeeping. My current student does drywall, he has a drywall business, so try to focus on things that might come up during his business.”

Tutors arrange to meet their students at libraries, cafés, students’ workplaces, and even the grocery store: One tutor has been teaching her students how to use the automated checkout lines. Clinton’s Henry Carter Hull Library has a dedicated tutoring room for which LVVS volunteers have first priority. And other libraries in the organization’s service area are very accommodating, Graves said.

Most accommodating of all is the Westbrook Public Library (WPL) and the Town of Westbrook, which essentially provide LVVS with its office space in the library basement at no charge.

The town and the library’s board of directors understand the great need for LVVS’s services, explained WPL Director Lew Daniels, and the organization’s use of space in the library is a long-standing arrangement.

Overcoming Hesitation

For some would-be volunteers, it’s not possible to dedicate time to the training workshop at the WPL. Twice a year, in the fall and the spring, the organization offers its seven-week workshop. Its spring 2020 course begins on Thursday, March 26; volunteers have a choice of attending the sessions in the morning or evening.

This fall, LVVS began offering an online training course that can be taken at home. An unaffiliated national organization, ProLiteracy, produces a range of materials for teaching English to adults, many of which LVVS uses. About five new volunteers have used it so far, and one has completed it, according to Graves.

“We still run three in-person, one-on-one sessions with them,” she said.

These meetings give the new volunteer the opportunity to check in, establish contact with Graves and Argersinger, and ask questions.

“And then we have the ongoing continuing ed and social [events] to bring them back with meeting with other tutors,” said Graves. “That’s the one thing you don’t get with the web-based [training] is the interaction with other tutors.”

Those training at home “can feel a little bit outside of the organization,” said Argersinger. “Bringing them in gets them familiar with the people and the office and resources available to them...and then just to feel a little more connected.”

In addition to the books provided to tutors, which include lesson plans, the office is stocked with a whole range of materials that tutors may check out and return to any library in the state.

Each tutor is also assigned a mentor.

“It’s basically solitary work—you’re working with your student—but if you have questions or you need additional help...they all have someone they can go to with questions or frustration,” said LVVS Board President Nancy McCormick.

“There can be frustrations as well,” she continued. “A lot of times, the student’s schedule changes suddenly. Some of these people are working two and three jobs and they can’t make the tutoring session, but they don’t know that until late in the day.

“So you try to keep the frustration of the tutors down,” she said. “You don’t want to lose them for something that you and they really have no control over. And sometimes it’s not a good match, so you need to not lose them from the system but get them matched up with somebody that they get along with.”

“Flexibility is a key component of our program,” said Argersinger. “They’re adult learners. Everybody has busy lives, jobs, families, obligations.”

Tutors go on vacation, some leaving for an extended length of time in the winter, so students have to be flexible, as well: some might have to adjust to a month-long break.

Working Toward Workplace Literacy

A newly established communications subcommittee of the board of directors is focusing on expanding the organization’s reach and ensuring its message is clear. Among its goals is finding ways to reach out to employers with workers who might benefit from English tutoring.

A workplace literacy program can serve “employers that have employees...they would otherwise promote within their system, keep in their system, but they just need better literacy skills to be able to do that,” said McCormick. “That’s a great way for the students to get ahead and for the employers to keep really good employees.”

Employers “need their employees to understand their workplace safety rules, and other requirements of the workplace,” Graves said.

“We’re trying to get the word out to employers in the area,” added Argersinger. “[W]e know that the need is there. If they’d like to reach out to us, we’d be more than happy to go in and speak to them regarding the program and being flexible—how [tutoring] would work for them.”

Employers can simply make applications available to their employees, Agersinger suggested, letting them know that LVVS’s services are available to them.

“There’s a program if you’d like to improve your English skills,” she said. “There’s a program that’s local. They can help you.”

For more information on Literacy Volunteers Valley Shore, visit lvvs.org, call 860-399-0280, or email jargersinger@lvvs.org.


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