Hillsborough Literacy Council to Offer 6-Week, Classroom Format Sessions

As many of you know, the Hillsborough Literacy Council does not offer any educational experiences in a classroom format, nor do we have any shorter-term volunteering opportunities. Well, I am pleased to announce that we are addressing both of those issues in one swoop by designing a series of six-session courses that focus on English that students encounter in their daily lives. Test runs of the courses will be occurring over the next few months. 

The courses focus on various themes that language learners encounter in their daily lives such as English for the Citizenship Test, Communicating with Your Children’s School, English for Medical Visits, and On the Job English. Tutors are not required to grade students or give homework, and there are no certificates or other credentials offered to those who complete the course. Student participants will register for the courses through the library system’s online calendar, and in some cases, they will need to purchase a text book at the typical rate of five dollars. Class size will be capped at twenty participants per run.

The courses all include six-sessions of two hours, and can be hosted by volunteers once or twice a week. The courses are also intended to be an option for volunteers who cannot commit to tutoring over extended periods of time throughout the year, but would still like to help. The program is designed to be led by anyone, regardless of teaching experience, and the content of the courses currently aims for mid-level (for our program) students. We will be working on a process to try to screen participants before courses begin in order to avoid filling seats with people who will not benefit from the program. 

We are planning on launching our first test-run of a course, English Lessons: American Civics (English for the citizenship test), in May at the Town ‘N Country Regional Library. We will be communicating with tutors and Conversation Corner leaders to promote this session among our current students. We will also focus heavily on waiting students as our first enrollees.

After test-runs of the first few programs, tutors will be able to lead a program, but please note that only a few people at a time will be able to do so because of limited demand, tutoring space and time. Furthermore, there will be a few stipulations. Anyone who wishes to facilitate a course will have to observe a session or two or take a supplemental training beforehand.  

More details will come as we move towards concretizing the process. We hope that these courses will be a new opportunity to serve more students, and a helpful way to attract tutors with less availability. And of course, we are hoping that the experience will be a new source of fun and interest for all members of the Hillsborough Literacy Council! 

Renew the Spring in Your Literacy Step

Spring! It’s that time of year when we are surrounded by renewal and rebirth. Now, without slipping too far into the poetic, I would like to offer some inspiration to all of our wonderful tutors out there who may be looking to reinvigorate themselves and their tutoring this spring, just like a fresh magnolia flower. So, I came up with the following list of three ways to bring new thinking and energy to your tutoring.

Put limits on yourself or your student to renew your thinking
Have you ever seen an old karate movie where the wise master helps the trainee to improve their skills by tying the trainee’s hands behind their back and making them learn to fight with just their nose or something? Or, remember the scene in Star Wars when Luke has to learn to use his light saber while blindfolded? I know you remember that scene, right? Sometimes a good way to get to a new place is to take away a tool that you have come to depend on. Take that tool away, and you’ll be forced to think creatively.

For example, perhaps your student has a certain phrase they like to use. Often times students will develop a general phrase that can serve as a catch all for many occasions.  The problem is that these phrases are usually vague. If you notice one that your student relies on, prohibit it for the lesson and work with them to make a handful of replacement phrases. This will help them become more sophisticated in their language use. Some great examples are any phrases that use the words “things,” “stuff,” “people.” These types of words don’t really express anything. 

To illustrate, work to change, “I need to learn new things” into “I need to learn to speak to people at the store,” then to, “I need to speak to the clerks at the supermarket.” Take away, but build something new with your student and see what happens. Or, prohibit Google Translate, and put the monolingual dictionary on the table. What change does that make?

Is this just “a person?”

Also, if you, the tutor, have any crutches that you use when tutoring, analyze yourself and try going without them to see how that energizes your thinking. You know what I mean…how many times have you used that one activity you love so much? Heck, maybe there’s a phrase you use that you could give up. You never know when a small change is going to snowball into a whole new way of tutoring. 

Throw away the tools 
While we’re at it…what if we just threw away all of the tools we are using. Don’t panic! I don’t mean forever. If you’ve been tutoring awhile, you might notice that the lessons in the books can be a bit repetitive. Don’t forget that we have games and other supplies you can use to take a break from the book. Also, from time to time, make it a goal to not open the book at all. Instead, talk to your student and let them try to express to you what they really want to say. You’ll find out more about what they really need to learn as well. Don’t forget what I told you above; however, you might need to talk with them for a while to get to the specifics. This will be the fun part!

There’s actually a movement in some educator circles to do away with formal materials completely and let all learning originate with the students. This is a controversial idea, but something that is worthy of thought. I wouldn’t advocate permanently getting rid of the books, especially for volunteer teachers, but I whole-heartedly support doing so periodically. I would recommend having an approach—something to guide your discussion at least—and see what comes out of it. Come in with the goal of finding something the student wants to learn, and help them get there with a few impromptu lessons or even a walk around the neighborhood, if that would fit the bill.

Find your tribe
One final thing I would recommend is, of course, talk to like minded people as much as you can! Nothing energizes us quite like seeing and hearing what our peers are doing. They can inspire us, and you can inspire them. You’ll feel more confident and creative when  you hear about the ways other tutors have tried ideas.

So, don’t forget the many ways we provide to help tutors connect to one another. The first is our quarterly meet and greets, the times and locations of which are posted on our web page. Secondly, please join our Facebook group for tutors. Here you will be able to talk directly to one another about any topics that you like. And finally, right here on this blog is a comments section for every post. If you don’t see it, click on the title of the blog post you would like to comment on, and you should go to a screen that has a comment box right below the post. 

So, go out there and experiment this spring. And don’t forget to share your experiences to let the rest of us know what you discover.

Using YouTube in a Tutoring Session

I have some good news! The HLC has been awarded an American Dream Grant from the American Library Association and Dollar General Stores. With this grant we plan to purchase tablet computers to use for a series of citizenship classes and for use in our daily HLC tutoring sessions! We are very excited.

With that in mind, I thought I would take this opportunity to think about ways we can use the tablets in our tutoring sessions. They will come pre-loaded with some applications, and I am sure I will talk more about most of them in the future. What I would like to start out talking about is using YouTube in a tutoring session.

There are a variety of ways and reasons for using video in your lesson. The first is that adult learners appreciate and excel with visual learning materials. Video is an excellent, multi-sensory resource that can activate learning in the brain. Many of our students are almost certainly using YouTube to learn many things, so we can use our new tablets to augment those activities.

There are multiple features on the YouTube platform, and many ways to approach a learning situation with YouTube that I would like to discuss. Perhaps some of you have some favorite videos and approaches that you are already using. If so, tell us about them in the comments!


Closed Captioning
One good use of the videos is to have spoken words, and visual stimulus at the same time. Most ESL students may already know this, but YouTube has closed captioning for each video. In the YouTube App, which works slightly differently than on your computer, you select the menu in the top right corner (three vertical dots). There you will find the option to turn on the Closed Captioning.

One word of warning, the captions are computer generated most of the time, and they can contain various errors. Also, although literacy students can see words as they are being spoken, you’ll probably need to find a video that has words at their level. This can be a challenge.

Finally, you don’t need to use closed captioning all the time. After all, we want people to learn how to hear the words and know what they are, so try watching a video without the captioning, talk about what the learner understood and what they didn’t (ask them comprehension questions), then watch a final time or two with the captions on.

Speed control
Another feature of YouTube is that is has the ability to slow (or speed up) the video. Of course, this is very handy for language learners. The option to change the playback speed is located in the same menu in the top right of the video.

List save
One other option that you may find handy, especially if you look at videos beforehand, is to make a list. To do this, at the top of the video you will see an icon with three lines and a plus sign. Press on this, and you will see a line pop up saying “Saved to Favorites.” There will also be the word “Change” in that pop up. Press “Change” and you will get more options, including to make a new list instead of saving to your favorites. You will have a few options, like “Watch Later,” but you can go ahead and make a list called “Tutoring” if you want, and then save videos there.


Of course, there are myriad videos about ESL. They will range from lessons about grammar, speech, pronunciation, to going to the store. You can look at videos of language lessons if you want to, but these aren’t really a priority unless you are trying to answer a learner’s specific question about a grammar form, per se.

Pop culture or topic specific videos
Take a look at some of these from time to time to add spice to your tutoring sessions. These will be fun and entertaining for both the student and tutor. You can really watch any video you want so long as you have a technique for incorporating the video content or language input into your session. One of the best ways to do this is to have a pre-discussion session where you talk about some ideas or information you may get from the video based on its title, or an image from the video. You may want to discuss any vocabulary that is important to understanding the video. Then watch the video (numerous times, with closed captioning, slowed down if you want). Afterwards, discuss what you saw. Discuss what was learned from the video. Interpret the video. Just describe the video. You be the judge, based on the level of your learner.

Many learners love music. You can use YouTube to find all kinds of music videos, music games, and karaoke. One popular activity is to make a fill in the blank form for the song where you give the learner some of the words, but leave out keywords that you want them to listen for. Often times, you can find these pre-made on the internet.

Some final Advice
Try to watch videos in advance. You probably want to know what you’re facing before you get into it. Be especially aware of certain music videos, which may be a bit racy or have language you may not appreciate. You be the judge. And, all you have to do is practice the approach of talking before watching, watching, and talking after watching, and you have a lesson!

Year End Round Up

This past October marked the full one year anniversary of Eric’s time as the Literacy Coordinator for the Hillsborough Literacy Council and the Hillsborough County Public Library. We are also coming up on the anniversary of Laura’s start date as well in just over a week, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you a bit about what has happened in this past year, and share with you some of the statistics this year compared to last.

First of all, I am happy to say that we managed to organize and execute the typical four New Tutor Training Sessions in the past year. They were held in various locations around the county, and we even had banner attendance at one of them, 38 attendees! Laura was able to match most new tutors within a few weeks, as long as they were willing to tutor in a location with students currently available. Don’t forget, if you are a waiting tutor, you can always check the list of available students right here on our web page.


Secondly, we got to meet many of you through our Tutor Meet and Greets, which were held every two months at different locations around the county as well. We look forward to hosting more Meet and Greets in 2019, and we hope to meet more tutors to share ideas and concerns. This past year we got many great tips on how to improve communication, how to use the website, materials to offer, and much more. So please, don’t stay away! We love to hear from you and we think you will enjoy meeting other volunteers like you.

Speaking of tutors, do you know that we currently have 119 tutors? Perhaps there’s more of you out there than you think (or maybe less!). We certainly didn’t get a chance to see all of you at the Meet and Greets, but we also get to meet many of you at the trainings. If you have been around for a while, some of these new tutors would love to get to know you! So please, don’t hesitate to use any of the communication channels that we offer. Those are: our phone number, our email, our Facebook page, our Instagram account (search for Hillsborough Literacy Council), commenting on this blog by clicking the title of the article, and our texting service. There are a lot of ways to stay in touch and also many ways to share your wisdom.

By the way, if you haven’t liked our Facebook page or started following us on Instagram, please do so. By linking with us on social media, you help to build a network of connections that can help us reach more and more potential students and tutors. The HLC has had a Facebook account for some time now, but we have tried to increase our activity there, and, of course, the Instagram account is new this year.

We had a wonderful Student and Tutor Appreciation Assembly in September. We would love to see more of you attend because it is for you! We served a breakfast in the beautiful Italian club, and we were wonderfully entertained by our guest speaker, Mellissa Alonso Teston. As always, we gave out awards for students and tutors of the year, as well as the Sylvia Miller achievement award to Lark Underwood. Put it on your calendars for next year! September 21, 2019.


This year has also seen the come and go of a few board members. First of all, Laquinda Brewington and Aldina Dzebo moved on to their next projects, and we were fortunate to bring on Karla Guzman-Mims, Dr. Jenifer Schneider, and Brandi Meredith as new board members. They have been very influential and helpful this past year!

Finally, our stats show an overall increase in calls received this year by the Literacy Department from students, tutors, and the general public. We’re very happy to see that rise in traffic. Our numbers of students and tutors overall have held relatively steady in number, as was mentioned earlier, roughly 150 active students, and about 100 active tutors. However, our list of waiting ESL students has increased to over 100. We hope that in the coming months, we see that number fall.

This has been an active year for the Hillsborough Literacy Council! We are looking forward to another year on the horizon. It is only possible because of the great work by so many volunteers. So, Thank You! And we’ll see you again in 2019!

Finish Off the Year with a Language Learning Bang!

Summer is wrapping up for this year and we are rounding the corner of 2018, and already heading to 2019. The kids are back in school, and all of us at the HLC are preparing to ride the flow of time right through the Annual Student and Tutor Appreciation event, the busy month of October, the Holidays, and then bam! It’s the end of the year! So, you know what I recommend we all do for the next few months to destress and finish this year with a bang? I suggest we all learn a language on Mango Languages!

I’m trying German.

If you haven’t tried it, you really should. It’s free for any library-card holding resident of Hillsborough County. It’s a great way to charge up your mind. And if you teach ESOL, then don’t forget to tell your students to check out Mango as well. It has English as a Second Language courses offered in a variety of first-language options.

But, I’m not advertising for Mango. Trust me, I’m not getting any kick back! There are many great reasons why learning a second language is a great thing to do at any age. I’ll tell you about a few but first, let’s talk about something called, “The Critical Period Hypothesis.”

Most people know that children seem to learn languages much easier than adults. For some reason, the ability to learn a language with a minimum of effort turns off at a certain point, after which we really have to study hard just to awkwardly converse in a new language. This time in life before our abilities change is called the Critical Period. There is a lot of debate about it. It’s believed that perhaps something about puberty flips a language-learning switch, but not everyone really agrees about just what the phenomenon is. There does seem to be some evolutionary benefit to having a time in your youth when you learn the language of your people without any explicit instruction, then shut down to all other languages. Thought and language become so entwined, maybe it’s just best for the brain to close the valve of language learning once it has figured out the rules of your language. But, if a child is exposed to many languages in a reliable way before this happens, they’ll capture them as well, and I consider them to be very lucky indeed.

It’s interesting to think about because many people lament at the difficulty of learning a new language as an adult, thinking about how much easier it would be as a child. To this I say, don’t forget that a lot second language learners are adults. In other words, adults accomplish this feat all the time, and you can too! But hey! You don’t even have to worry about mastering a language. Just the act of learning what portion of a language you can will open up your mind in many pleasant ways.

Another aspect about the struggle we should keep in mind is that, of course, all of our learners are coping with the challenges of learning a language skill. The Critical Period Hypothesis relates to literacy as well. Learning to read is a lot harder as an adult. I think it does all of us who are interested in teaching literacy and languages a little good to experience what our students are going through. It can give us insights and common ground to both commiserate and inspire each other.

On a final note, there is a lot of research out there that seems to indicate that being bilingual provides cognitive benefits, like delaying dementia. Lifelong learning in general has many great effects, so really, there’s no reason not to try it. And, do you know, there are plenty of people out there who think there may yet exist a way to circumvent the Critical Period? I would encourage everyone to give it their best shot, and since you can use Mango for free, that’s a great place to start.

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