The Literacy Network

Taking classes a few days a week Hiroko Williams is learning to speak English. While her husband, a United States citizen, prepares to enter a graduate program in international relations next fall, this native of Japan receives free language education through a local non-profit called the Literacy Network. Though trained as a nurse Williams said she must first master the basic skills of communication.

“Technical language for nursing is very difficult,” she said. “Now I am learning just to speak conversationally. But maybe I go to college and learn for nursing later.”

Having studied for only a few months Williams is quickly building her vocabulary. With several other non-native speakers at the Goodman South Madison Public Library she’s immersed in the language she’s eager to learn. And though her English is halting she’s very enthusiastic for this opportunity to become more proficient.

“I study now every day,” Williams said. “And I am very happy to meet my instructor.”

Greg Williard is one of 270 volunteer tutors who assist more than 1,100 students to learn English each year through the Literacy Network. He says classes like his provide training for a wide variety of learners from many different countries.

“It’s pretty much a given that you’re going have students of all backgrounds,” Williard said. “Almost all English as a second language instructors teach a kind of target language immersion format where you only speak English.”

The classes are conducted in a group setting where instructors like Williard guide students through the basics of conversation. Learners range in ability from no English at all to those brushing up on idiomatic expressions. More advanced classes offer training in reading and writing that include computers equipped with sophisticated Rosetta Stone software. And dedicate tutors prepare lessons for one-on-one coaching. But apart from mastering the language as an academic exercise most students through the Literacy Network are working to become eligible for jobs where even the most basic language skills are critical.

“Everything we do here has a pretty strong real-life component,” Williard said. “We’ve done a lot of things with training manuals, job applications. Ideally we try to include things from their work setting whenever possible.”

The demand for language training in the Capital Region is quite high. In Dane County about 17,000 adults are functionally illiterate. “And there are more than 38,000 adults in our community that don’t speak English well enough to successfully navigate through the community,” said Jeff Burkhart executive director of the Literacy Network. “We have people in environmental service jobs who can’t read labels on cleaning supplies. In a setting like a hospital that can be dangerous to both patients and staff.”

In the workplace apart from the difficulties of communication, employees who have challenges speaking or reading English are prone to more accidents, absenteeism, less productivity and high rates of turnover. And employers are likely to face higher operating costs, deficiencies of product quality and lost supervisory time. Burkhart says tutors at the Literacy Network help to make a safer and more efficient working environment.

“A lot of people who don’t speak English don’t always feel that they are as well engaged as employees,” Burkhart said. “There are simply things they don’t understand that come from management. It can be a very tense and stressful place for employees because, not knowing the language, they don’t always know where they stand.”

Non-English speaking workers are often referred informally to the Literacy Network for language training by area job centers and other non-profits such as the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County. Classes for general language instruction are free. But employers can contract directly for services specifically tailored to the needs of their job site.

“By working with us to create a program for a business, employers can have better control over the curriculum,” Burkhart said. “We can incorporate authentic materials they use on the job and create new learning opportunities for skills related to their work.”

Drawing from a growing population of immigrants, employers at job sites for manual labor like hospitals, construction projects, hotels and restaurants typically hire workers with minimal language skills. At a nominal cost the Literacy Network can provide basic on-site English instruction.

The non-profit is supported in part by the Madison-based library and school supply company Demco. President Bill Stroner says providing language-training opportunities help to end a cycle of illiteracy that can span generations

“The Literacy Network is focused on adults to help improve their skills so that they can not only be productive in the workforce but also to help them be more interactive within their own families,” Stroner said. “In addition to communicating better with their teachers they can read a book with their children better than they may have before.”


This story appears in the May issue of the Capital Region Business Journal philanthropy column “Good Works”


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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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