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Employees Launch ESL Tutoring at the Workplace

November 1, 1994
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Most U.S. citizens take English for granted. But in states like California, where the immigrant population continues to increase, English is a second language for many. Recognizing that phenomenon and wanting to help, employees at Irvine, California-based Avco Financial Services came up with an idea that didn't start in HR. The resulting program, called Each One, Teach One, provides English as a second language (ESL) tutoring for employees who want to participate. The program is run by Capistrano Beach, California-based South Coast Literacy Council (SCLC), a not-for-profit organization that provides training for tutors and facilitates literacy and ESL training in Southern California.

Since the program's inception in April 1993, 20 Avco employees have been trained to provide ESL tutoring, and 28 employees have received language instruction. Tutors can work with students individually or in small groups according to a mutually determined schedule. Avco's voluntary program offers help with:

  • Pronunciation and conversation
  • Reading and comprehension
  • Writing skills and grammar
  • Proficiency with tenses
  • Intonation.

HR plays a vital role in literacy efforts.
Although the program didn't originate with HR, human resources staff found out about the effort and recognized its potential value to the organization. Avco management already had some concerns about employees' literacy problems because many of the employees were immigrants from Mexico, Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia and Romania. Therefore, the need had been apparent during recruitment efforts. Also, some current employees—although well-educated individuals—still had difficulty filling out applications or communicating adequately during interviews for promotions. Sometimes, they didn't know the proper tenses and were unable to convey the right messages. In fact, HR's concern peaked after one woman was passed over for a promotion because of her poor writing and communication skills.

So, if there were such problems, why didn't Avco only hire applicants who already had adequate English-language skills? The reason for the company's openness is that today's population in Orange County—where the headquarters is based—is diverse. It's necessary for the company to have employees who have come from many different cultures because that diversity will be the makeup of Avco's growing customer population. Also, the company is expanding internationally, so having employees who can speak other languages can be a real benefit—if they communicate well in English.

An HR staffperson discussed the organization's literacy problems with an employee who had gone through a literacy program and who's now an English tutor in her spare time. Through this employee, HR learned about Avco employees' efforts to develop a literacy program. Interested individuals already had formed a literacy committee in 1991. A company literacy program seemed the best solution.

Today, the literacy committee is one of Avco's community-involvement committees, and HR is fully behind the effort, according to Teri Howes, senior programmer analyst for Avco. Howes, who had been an ESL tutor for three years, spearheaded the committee and was instrumental in getting the Each One, Teach One program off the ground in April 1993. "The response was overwhelming," she recalls.

Whether a program such as this originates with HR or is a grassroots movement, HR should play an active role. Its role as organizer of training programs and facilitator of communication can be useful to the employees' literacy efforts. HR professionals can act as liaisons between the people, the community and all the other departments.

Tutors can be more effective than classes because they can provide a type of instruction that isn't possible to attain in large classes. Speakers of many other languages may have difficulty with English pronunciation because they don't use their tongues in the same way that English speakers do. The tutors help their students feel comfortable about looking them directly in the face. This way, they can see how the tutor's mouth forms the words.

Non-English speaking individuals require specialized instruction, according to Mary FitzGerald, vice president of ESL tutor programs for the SCLC, the local branch of Syracuse, New York-based Laubach Literacy Action (see "Where To Get Help"). "In some cases, this kind of instruction isn't available to the student. In other cases, there's no time or money to take advantage of the educational opportunities that are available," FitzGerald says.

Help is available from local literacy groups.
Because Howes had been an SCLC volunteer tutor, it was natural to turn to the SCLC for help and support, she says. FitzGerald offered to add another ESL tutor-training class to her schedule of seven classes per year so that she could accommodate the employees at Avco who wanted to receive training.

FitzGerald says that other corporations can also receive help with corporate literacy programs from local Laubach Literacy organizations. "Companies can expect help with training for their tutors," she says. Volunteer tutors can attend a training course put on by a local branch of Laubach Literacy Action, such as the SCLC, or, if there are enough employees interested in the program, the company can bring in the trainers and provide onsite instruction.

After training is completed, the local Laubach organization can provide continuing support. "The Council would then be a resource for providing books for the students and ongoing support for the tutors," FitzGerald explains.

The committee customized the tutor-training program.
The SCLC's involvement in the Avco training program enabled Avco's literacy committee to tailor the existing program to meet the needs of the company. Because Avco really didn't have employees who were just learning to speak English, its tutors didn't need to spend as much time learning to work with beginners. For example, Carolyn Baker, community affairs administrator for Avco, tutors two employees, both of whom are advanced ESL students. One of these employees is interested primarily in business writing. The other wants to improve his vocabulary and pronunciation.

"We customized the tutor-training to concentrate more on advanced students," Howes says. In addition, some material about lesson planning and assessing the level of the student was added to the curriculum. The customized training provided at Avco enables Baker and the other tutors to meet the needs of these advanced students.

The classes met once a week for five weeks and covered the following topics:

  • How adults learn
  • Pronunciation problems
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • Teaching tips
  • Lesson-plan design
  • Games
  • Survival conversations
  • Methods for motivating students
  • Assessment of level of proficiency.

During the sessions, students also observed demonstrations and were given the opportunity to practice what they'd learned. The committee also brought in guest speakers to three of the classes. Betty Kent, director of the SCLC center in Irvine, spoke about games that tutors could play with their students and shared information about the center. Larry Brose, a tutor for seven years, spoke about teaching advanced students. During the final class, three ESL students talked to the class about how they'd acquired their English skills and how English proficiency has changed their lives.

At the end of the five weeks in May 1993, 18 participants had completed the program satisfactorily and received certificates. Tutor trainees who missed a session received an opportunity to make up the missing material and still receive certificates. The certificates made them eligible to provide tutoring either at Avco or at one of the local literacy centers.

Following the training program, the committee sent out a flier to inform employees that the ESL tutoring was available and invite them to participate. The response was impressive. The 20 employees who signed up were requested to specify when they were available to be tutored—before work, after work, during lunch or on weekends. Howes attempted to match the students with tutors who were available at the same time of day. This often wasn't easy, because many of the students were hourly employees who only had 30 minutes for lunch. It also created logistical problems for tutors who worked in one building but had students in another. The tutors have handled this problem by driving to their students' buildings to save the entire lunchtime for the lesson. "So far, everyone has been able to make arrangements to meet," Howes says.

The committee worked hard, but the effort wasn't without problems. "This program started without a how-to handbook, so we're still learning. Our employees are literally designing the program as they go," Avco President Warren Lyons says. "Having the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, perhaps publicizing successes earlier would have helped accelerate the program," he adds. The organization has corrected this oversight and now highlights the program's successes regularly in its bimonthly, all-company publication, Trends, and its Community Involvement Newsletter.

How can HR start a literacy program?
A program like Avco's Each One, Teach One can't be as effective without support from the company, even if it originates with the employees. This support was evident at Avco even before the literacy committee was formed. First, the company has to provide the kind of workplace environment that encourages each employee to contribute to the well-being of others, says Lyons. This means that management must set the tone for personal participation and self-improvement. The organization must demonstrate its support of the program as well. This support doesn't have to be expensive, as the Avco experience bears out.

"For a workplace literacy program to be successful, the company must feel that the long-term benefits of increased productivity and improved employee morale are worth the expenditure of time and money," FitzGerald says.

The commitment of management isn't enough, however. "Employees participating in the program must be aware of the wholehearted support of the company and be willing to demonstrate their own commitment by regularly attending classes and freely giving the time necessary for preparation," FitzGerald says.

Tutors and students participate on their own time.
Although Avco provided support for the program, it didn't cost the company much in terms of dollars. The tutors used their own time to complete the training program and didn't receive any time off for working with fellow employees. Neither did the students receive time off from work to attend their meetings with tutors. In fact, no incentives were offered to employees to be trained as tutors or to volunteer as tutors in the program, says Howes.

"One of the more amazing parts of this growing literacy program is the fact that everything has taken place [and continues to do so] on personal time," says Jim Straw, vice president of community affairs for Avco. "All program participants work hard every day at their assigned Avco tasks. In addition, they work together to become even better employees who, in turn, help others as they have been helped themselves. This is the epitome of a win-win situation."

The employees who have participated so far in the ESL training program are proud of what they've accomplished. "I like that our program is employee-driven," Howes says. Al-though the program has the support of the executive committee, it wasn't mandated by that committee or human resources. "It's something that the employees wanted to do. The students wanted to learn, the tutors wanted to help their fellow employees, and the executives of the company are supportive of the program. These factors provide great potential for a successful program," she says.

The volunteers are people who want to do something to help other people and the company, although their reasons for becoming involved in a literacy program may vary. For example, Baker's interest in tutoring comes from her own love of reading. "When I saw the need, I thought that it was something I'd like to do," she says.

Of the 18 individuals who completed the tutor training and received certificates in May 1993, several had learned English as a second language themselves. Most have volunteered to tutor other employees at Avco, while some have gone on to tutor at centers in the community. Some tutors are working both with Avco employees and people at the centers.

"All ESL tutors are Avco employees who understand the value of literacy to Avco and to society in general. These individuals are willing contributors to a program that benefits everyone—student, tutor, Avco and the community," Lyons says.

The cost of the program is small.
Because participants have been contributing their own time to the effort, Avco hasn't had to pay for staff time for the program. "On a very basic level, Avco's human resources training department has been increased by a staff of caring and compassionate instructors at no additional staff cost to the company," Lyons says.

The committee has found other ways to save money as well. The SCLC usually charges $25 per person for the tutor-training program to cover the cost of materials. The company could have paid to have its tutors participate, but it found a less-expensive alternative: The literacy committee made the tutors' notebooks, and the company print shop copied the materials, with permission from the SCLC, so that neither the company nor the tutor-trainees had to pay for the class.

Continuing support is needed, however. Howes says that Avco has provided the office space to set up a Literacy Resource Center. "This is an area where students and tutors can meet, where supplies are kept and where students can go during their breaks to study," she explains. Tutors often meet there to share ideas with one another. "The tutors are coming up with great ideas," she says.

Although the cost has been small, management expects to provide additional assistance as the needs of the program become evident, but employees responsible for program leadership don't expect these needs to be costly. "These are extremely responsible people who have a frugal mentality toward corporate assets," Lyons says.

The committee continues to look for ways to improve Each One, Teach One. "Right now we're looking into everything that might improve our program because it's still so new," Baker says.

Probably the most expensive need of the program is for computers and software. The organization now has four computers and is researching various software packages to enhance and maximize the entire literacy effort, says Straw.

The cost may have been small so far, but what about the results? What has Avco accomplished by supporting the ESL program? Lyons says: "Those individuals who have a need or desire to become more literate do so, but this process offers much more. Respect for each other, improved self-esteem and greater workplace efficiency translate into a better total workplace environment."

The needs of Avco that the program meets are no different from the needs of other successful companies. Lyons says that Avco needs an educated and literate work force to understand job requirements and respond appropriately to customers' needs. This program takes a unique step in helping the company create a work force that's better able to meet these organizational needs.

The company's goal is to reduce turnover among valuable employees. "These are some valued workers, so why not train them to be able to stay here and move up in the company?" Baker asks. One of Baker's students needs to write correspondence to outside vendors and agents, but doesn't feel comfortable with that part of her job. Baker is working with her to help her become more competent in letter-writing skills.

Language skills aren't the only skills that tutors must work on with their students, however. For instance, during tutoring sessions, Baker became aware that one of her students lacked some basic organizational skills. She's working on those skills now, in addition to reading, writing and speaking skills.

Baker also has become more aware of what the other people in the company do and what the needs of the company are. "When you get in your own position, you aren't aware of what the other people are doing," she says. "I like having interaction with people in an area other than the one I'm in, to see what they're doing. It's a real morale booster. It's stimulating. It's exciting."

Lyons says that all employees are members of a team. "The extent to which we can help strengthen every employee makes Avco a stronger company," he says.

During the recent recession, it has become even more apparent that the welfare of the community has an impact on each of its businesses. Any program that benefits the community is likely to return some benefits—however small—to the organization. In this case, the program provides substantial benefits to the organization, but at the same time helps the community by improving the ability of some of its citizens to communicate with others using a common language.

Personnel Journal, November 1994, Vol. 73, No. 11, pp. 49-54.

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