Book Recommendation: Picture Stories

I would like to take just a brief moment here simply to point you to a video I made about a book in our Adult New Reader (ANR) Collection called Picture Stories. I think HLC tutors may enjoy using it in a lesson or two. You’ll hear all about it in the video, and have a look for yourself.

There are many resources that we have in the ANR collection that I would like to raise awareness about, so I plan to do more of these videos in the future. If you have used a book from the ANR collection that you think is great, let me know, and I’ll make a video about it. 

To refresh everyone’s memory, the ANR collection consists of English language learning books, adult easy reading books, some dictionaries, and teaching resources as well. The collection is located in every library branch in the system, usually right after the Spanish language books. These books circulate like regular library books, which means they go out for three weeks at a time, and can be renewed twice. Also, if you don’t see this book (or any book you are interested in) at your location, you simply look it up in the catalog and place a hold for it so it will be sent to you. If you need help with that, just ask the librarian!

So, enjoy the video. I hope you give this book a try! 

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.

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.