The Tutoring Experience at Its Best

May 11, 2010 at 3:57 PM | Posted in ESOL, Tutoring | 2 Comments

Since January 2009, I have partnered with my gracious, easygoing student, Suman, to help her reach her literacy goal: to pass the U.S. citizenship exam. Suman is a native Hindi speaker from India. She has been in this country for about 10 years working as a nanny and supporting several members of her family in her cozy, one-bedroom apartment in Arlington. Since the moment I met Suman in the Arlington Central Library, where we have our fun, yet productive, sessions, I have hoped that she would feel confident and prepared for the exam, which she will take sometime in the next few months. There have been moments when I was quite unsure of what would happen, but the longer we work together, the more I believe that Suman will do well on this most important test.

Suman is able to read English, so when we first began working together, I thought she would sail through her assigned book, Reading for Today book 2. But when I would ask her comprehension questions, it became clear that she was challenged in understanding the material she was reading. When we worked on spelling, I began to realize that she was also less sure of vowel sounds and some basics about phonetics and word formation, namely, that vowels are needed to give words a pronounceable form. I feared that if she lacked these skills, the foundation of her English literacy would be dangerously shaky. Moreover, how would we get through the 100 civics questions on the citizenship test, the dozens of vocabulary words, and practice for the interview if Suman was only guessing at answers and meanings?

After a few months, I sought advice from some of the LCNV experts. I asked whether it would be acceptable to return to Reading for Today book 1 and start from scratch on vowel sounds. The LCNV staff assured me it would be alright, but I did not make the decision unilaterally. I shared my concerns with Suman and the idea of going back to book 1. In Suman’s kind and open-minded fashion, she said it would be fine to try it and that agreed it might help. Back to Book 1 we went. We sorted through the long and short vowels, and practiced using the sounds in various ways. I learned that the small distinctions I hear between the sounds are often imperceptible to a non-native speaker. Though it took several months of weekly meetings, Suman began to gain some traction in her phonetics and sounding out of words. This improvement has supported her gains in reading comprehension.

By the fall of 2009, however, we needed to turn our attention to preparing for the citizenship test. We took out great test prep materials from the LCNV library; on her own, Suman went ahead and bought a copy of each book for herself and her family (her two adult children will be taking the test this spring, too). We are talking about issues that are brand new to Suman, such as the history of U.S. colonies and the workings of the Supreme Court, but she is soldiering on. We have to work a bit faster than we’d like to ensure we touch on all of the material in time, but as usual, Suman is game. She uncomplainingly works hard and does the best she can to make headway with this crazy language.

I’ve talked a lot about our work together. What I haven’t mentioned is how we sometimes laugh riotously in the library when Suman makes an, um, interesting choice in her spelling or understanding. I joke with her about some of these unwittingly funny errors, and she cracks up, too. This often happens when it comes to English words with slight differences in pronunciation that may be difficult for non-native speakers to tease out. One day, I said the word “window” and she thought I said “widow,” which led to a very confusing conversation until we figured out our disconnect. Suman and I also talk a lot about her family and friends, sometimes touching on subjects that are close to her heart. Yet even when we discuss difficult issues, Suman maintains her keen sense of the foolishness of life. She is the kind of person that other people rely on in their time of need, and I can easily see why. I am just happy that I can support a person like this with what she needs. And when she passes that citizenship test, I’m sure we’ll laugh some more and get back to work.

~ Samantha Levine-Finley, LCNV Tutor



  1. Good luck with your exam, Suman!


  2. LCNV is so lucky to have great volunteers like you, Samantha!


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