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The Language Teachers

Literacy Door County opens the world, through English, to adult learners

From job applications to rental agreements to road signs, English is everywhere in America. For those who read, write and speak English fluently, its ubiquity doesn’t pose a problem. For those who can’t, being surrounded by incomprehensible sounds and symbols can quickly become isolating.

As the president of Literacy Door County (LDC), a nonprofit organization that provides one-on-one English tutoring sessions for local adults, Sally Ludwig has seen that sense of isolation in many of the people she has worked with.

“In Door County, many [non-English speakers] rely very heavily on friends and family who do know English,” Ludwig said. “But they want to be able to do things by themselves.”

LDC wants to help. Since its inception in 2015, LDC has logged over 4,500 tutor hours, helping Door County residents from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Honduras, Korea, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Turkey and Ukraine, as well as the United States. Currently, LDC’s membership sits at about 25 student-tutor pairs, Ludwig said.

While the majority of the students involved with LDC are there to learn English as a second language, others are native English speakers who can’t read or write proficiently. That’s a more common problem than many think, with about one in five U.S. adults – 43 million people – having low literacy skills, per the National Center for Educational Statistics. According to Ludwig, many such people have managed to get by without these skills and hide their struggles from others.

“It’s much more difficult for people who need remedial English to actually admit they need help,” Ludwig said. “We have students who have been passed through the school systems, but still have a hard time reading and writing.”

Inside the Organization

Helping another adult learn a language might sound daunting, but LDC has plenty of resources to ready volunteers for the challenge. 

First, prospective tutors go through volunteer orientation followed by practical lessons on how to approach tutoring sessions. Then, they sit in on a session or two before an LDC representative pairs them with a student and reviews the curriculum they’ll be working on together. 

LDC’s support for its tutors extends beyond training, too, Ludwig said.

“We hold monthly tutor roundtables, which give any tutor who wants to attend an opportunity to share problems or questions they’re having, or to share successes,” Ludwig said. “It’s a great opportunity for everyone to meet and talk and support each other.” 

LDC-provided workbooks guide the tutoring sessions. Often, a tutor will ask their student to do exercises in the book as “homework,” then review the work with the student in-person in a public place during an hour-long session, which they meet for once or twice a week.

“We also like to encourage tutors to reserve some part of the lesson for just communication back and forth, because that really helps students with comprehension,” Ludwig said.

There’s no time limit for how long students stay and learn with LDC. Some stay for just a few months (especially J-1 workers, many of whom only live in Door County during the summer), while others have stayed for as long as three years, Ludwig said.

Since those who could benefit from tutoring sessions may not be able to read flyers or social media posts made by LDC, the organization has unique ways to connect with its target demographic. Many of Door County’s non-native English speakers are in the agriculture, service and shipyard industries, Ludwig said, so LDC connects with local businesses in these fields to spread information about their program. 

The organization is also involved with local schools, where students are encouraged to refer family members to the program, and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, which has an ELL [English language learners] program.

According to Ludwig, many prospective students come to LDC with specific aims; gaining citizenship and earning a GED diploma are two common goals. Others get involved for more personal reasons – they want to be able to help their kids with homework, or order food at a restaurant without their spouse’s help, Ludwig said. Regardless of their reasons, Ludwig said she firmly believes that students strengthen the entire community when they become educated in language proficiency.

“It really is wonderful to see the impact we [LDC] have had,” Ludwig said. “We’ve had students that ended up serving on our board; we’ve helped people do better at their jobs.” If you’re interested in volunteering for LDC as a tutor or a board member, call 920.493.3667 or email [email protected]. For more information, visit literacydoorcounty.org or follow LDC on Facebook.