Students help Spanish-speakers learn English


When Moises Estrada began attending tutoring sessions about 2 1/2 months ago, he knew no English. Now he can tell people his name, where he's from and can ask about their weekend.

With the help of Palabras to Words (palabras is Spanish for "words") - a tutoring program started by a group of McDaniel College students this semester - Estrada has learned to carry on basic conversations in English with co-workers at the construction company where he works.

"I have to learn English," said Estrada, 26, who moved from Mexico about a year and a half ago. "If I learn English, I will be able to survive better."

He also can talk about the things he likes to do with people he meets in his Westminster community.

During a recent Sunday evening session, Estrada looked to his tutor - Jeffrey Zamostny, 19, a sophomore Spanish major from Mount Airy - as he searched for the right English words to express his feelings about the program.

"I started with nothing," Estrada finally said.

The McDaniel students were encouraged last spring to start Palabras to Words - which has become an official campus organization - while discussing ways to reach out to the local Latino community in a "Cultural History of Latin America" course.

Michelle Wolff, 21, a senior Spanish major from Westminster who works at a local restaurant, said several of her Spanish-speaking co-workers had been asking her to teach them English. As much as she wanted to help, she wondered how she could do it alone.

With the class discussion in mind, she ran the idea of starting a tutoring program past classmate Rebecca Jayne, 20, a junior math major from Ingleside in Queen Anne's County.

They enlisted the help of about 12 other tutors and started planning the program in earnest over the summer. They also were given this year's SOS/Hinge Griswold-Zepp Award, a $1,500 grant that the college gives each year to help fund a student community service project.

The students used the money to purchase instructional materials and supplies, as well as English-Spanish dictionaries.

Wolff invited her co-workers to the program's first session in October and told them to bring a friend. About 11 Spanish-speakers came to the first session. The class size has been twice that on some Sundays.

Across Maryland, the Hispanic population grew 12.5 percent during the 1990s, reaching 256,510 in 2000, according to U.S. census figures. In Carroll County, Latinos make up 1 percent of the population of 150,897.

Knowledge about the program has spread, mostly by word of mouth and through announcements made during Mass at St. John Roman Catholic Church on Monroe Street in Westminster, Wolff said.

The tutors, who meet Wednesdays to discuss teaching strategies, mostly improvise during their sessions. Because the students have a range of English proficiency, the tutors have found that this approach enables them to teach each student what he or she most needs to know.

"One of the first things I ask is, 'What do you want to learn?'" said Jayne, who minors in Spanish.

The tutors usually work one-on-one, or in small groups, with the students. Often the weekly sessions spill well beyond the scheduled hour.

The tutors have used various methods to teach vocabulary, the days of the week, the months of the year and the use of adjectives.

Some have found role-playing useful for teaching students how to order food at a takeout restaurant or have a conversation with the boss.

Tutor Heather Kirkwood, 21, a senior Spanish major, was teaching work-related terms to a group of students one Sunday.

"I asked, 'What else do you need to know how to say?' and someone said, 'How do I ask for a raise?'" she recalled.

During the group's final session for the semester, the tutors decided to lighten up the evening with a game of Hangman - in which players guess letters to fill in the blanks to reveal a mystery word or phrase. The students were instructed to give their guesses in English only.

Several times the students slipped into Spanish, but after several guesses Estrada came up with the correct answer: Merry Christmas.

At the end of the meeting, the tutors handed out surveys to solicit suggestions on ways to improve the sessions, which are scheduled to resume Jan. 9.

Some of the students wrote their thoughts in English. Others wrote two versions, one in Spanish and one in English. The students all said they were thankful for the tutoring program.

At least one student asked that the sessions be expanded to twice a week for two hours at a time. Others were less specific but had the same idea. They want more time and more practice so they can develop a firm grasp for communicating in English.

The tutors said they would discuss ways to build upon the program, including enlisting more volunteers and possibly offering the sessions more frequently.

"This semester we wanted to see how it would work out," Wolff said. "We want to keep growing."

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