Drop-in’ sessions provide English instruction for immigrants

Paul Thissen

Upon initial observation the conversation topics seemed mundane — Grocery shopping, map directions, household objects — for the handful of adults gathered in a nondescript room on the third floor of the First Presbyterian Church of Evanston.

For the participants, however, each word was significant because it was spoken in English.

Each of the participants was a non-native English speaker. The conversations were part of a “drop-in” session of the Adult Literacy Project, an organization based at Evanston Township High School.

The project was developed to assist people who want to better their English skills, get help with homework or work on citizenship requirements. Paid facilitators and volunteers help participants.

The weekly drop-ins are open to anyone, but most of the attendees also attend the project’s formal classes at ETHS. About 800 adults are enrolled in the program.

“It’s very obvious that there’s a need,” said Ben Kang, a first-year student at the Kellogg School of Management who volunteers at drop-in sessions. “And I can see a direct impact of what I do here.”

This Wednesday one group of intermediate students stumbled through verb tenses and American slang used in a story they had talked about in class the week before. In one corner a volunteer quizzed a beginning student on the names of objects in a drawing of a house.

Both scenes were reminiscent of any school foreign-language class. But these students had nothing to fall back on. Often there are as many native languages represented in the groups as there are students. And the volunteers and facilitators might not speak any of them.

“They’re all very motivated to improve their skills,” said Jeanie Ramsey, literacy coordinator for the project.

This motivation showed. When corrected on pronunciation, students seemed almost grateful to have been corrected and took the time to make sure they said the word properly.

One student brought in a collection of maps because she said the role-playing game they had done the previous week about buying groceries had been so helpful. She wanted to use the same game to help practice giving directions.

The students said their efforts have paid off. One woman said she had been in the program for two years. Some people had only been coming to the sessions for a few weeks.

Regardless of their time in the program, all of the students said it had improved their English skills, helping them to be successful in the United States.

“The most effective thing is to enable students to function in the foreign community,” Lizabeth Neely, the session’s facilitator, said. “This is a foreign community to them.”

The church drop-in center is one of five in Evanston. Other sessions are held on different days of the week at the main and south branches of the Evanston Public Library, the YMCA and the District 65 Family Center.

Anyone older than 16 can enroll free of charge. The program is funded through grants from the Illinois Secretary of State, the Illinois Community College Board and private donations, not city tax revenue.

Classes in adult basic education and English as a second language are offered nightly, as are pre-GED and GED classes. Typically a student attends class one or two nights per week.

To sign up for classes or volunteer, or for more information about the Adult Literacy Project, call 847-424-7630.