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Literacy group needs volunteers to help adult learners

Douglas Imbrogno
Bill Hutchinson has worked with Literacy Volunteers of Kanawha Valley for a decade.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last week, Bill Hutchinson got a call from Michigan. It was the kind of call a literacy volunteer dearly loves to get.

"It was a young woman from Iran that I worked with for a couple of years, and she's just finished graduate school in Michigan. She and her husband get in touch with me every year or so," said Hutchinson.

Calls like this track the success of the many lives he has touched during his decade with the Literacy Volunteers of Kanawha Valley (www.literacyvolunteerskc.org). The group is offering free volunteer training in early March for anyone who wants to help other people hone their reading skills.

Hutchinson, 77, has worked with both people for whom English is a second language, like the Iranian woman in Michigan, and native English-speaking adults who "have sort of been left behind in the education system for one reason or another," he said. "They go through schooling and their early life still not being able to read with any proficiency or mastery."

It's not that they're incapable of learning and, in fact, many adults who have trouble reading compensate in other ways to get by in society, he said.

This is true for both sorts of people he tutors, said Hutchinson. "There was one woman, for instance, from Afghanistan, who basically had no education whatsoever." While she could not read, she had an ear for language, he said. "She speaks four different languages. They learn to compensate."

He works with people who range in age from 18 to their mid-40s, with most of his "students," as he calls them, in their 30s. He has had only a few students who came to him with no ability whatsoever to read.

"I had one student from Liberia who was at that level. The majority of people do know the names and sounds of most of the letters," he said.

"I've got one young man right now, who basically just wants help with his schoolwork. He has difficulty pronouncing multisyllabic words. So, we're working at how do you break down these multisyllabic words."

He stresses to his students the benefit that comes from reading "smoothly" and that language is akin to music, Hutchinson said. "It has got a rhythm to it. It has got tone to it. It's not really something that is unusual.

"When they read, they stumble through it, so their comprehension is much more difficult for them because they lose that rhythm, they lose that tone."

While literacy volunteers come from all disciplines and walks of life, Hutchinson's own background made him an especially good fit as a reading tutor. He taught English as a second language abroad for 16 years -- a decade in China, six years in Thailand and a brief stint in Nepal.

"A lot of my teaching over there was training teachers of English," he said. "I worked for a couple of companies training their employees."

He has learned a few things about how best to improve reading skills. First, students must meet his enthusiasm with some of their own, while having some clear goals in mind.

"You have to find out: What is their goal? Why are they coming to us? What is it they want to achieve?"

It also helps to have students read what interests them, he said.

"If you don't, you lose interest very, very quickly in it. You need to read material that's at an appropriate level for you. You can't go running to the dictionary three times every sentence."

Hutchinson recalled the very first student he tutored as a literacy volunteer.

"The only thing he was really interested in in the newspaper were the police reports -- so that's what we read."

Literacy Volunteers of Kanawha County training

WHEN: 6 to 9 p.m. March 5, 7, 8, 12, 14 and 15

WHERE: Room 403, Education Building, First Presbyterian Church, 16 Leon Sullivan Way, Charleston

INFO: Register at 304-343-7323 or visit www.literacyvolunteerskc.org

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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