Community English classes a decades-long tradition in Birmingham

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josie pradoJosie Prado, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and coordinator of the community English class program

For more than 20 years, UAB has offered free English conversation classes to the Birmingham community, first in the Smolian International House and now within the School of Education.

The classes are part of a larger initiative at UAB to improve language learning in Alabama. The School of Education is the recent recipient of two grants from the U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition to help provide professional development to educators and help future educators prepare to teach English to non-native speakers, among other goals.

The classes will be held 7:30-9 p.m. Thursdays, Sept. 14-Dec. 7 and 9:30-11 a.m. Fridays, Sept. 15-Dec. 8 in Education Building Suite 119. New student-placement tests will be given 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7.

Learning opportunities

Taught by a combination of community volunteers and graduate students learning to teach English as a second language (ESL), the classes are a trifecta of many core UAB values: leveraging knowledge while providing training to students and performing a service for the community, said Josie Prado, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, who coordinates the program.

“I see these classes as a win-win,” she said. “Both the UAB community and the Greater Birmingham community can come together for free classes, which are an opportunity for graduate students to begin implementing what they are learning in class.”

Before the first class, students are given a placement test and sorted into one of four levels — from new to speaking the English language to learning the nuances of conversational English. Each student is paired with a graduate student or a community volunteer.

If there are more than enough teachers, Prado said she usually tries to pair a new volunteer or graduate student with a returning one. This provides another instructional opportunity for the School of Education students; they will either benefit from learning from a more experienced teacher, Prado said, or gain their own experience in guiding a new ESL teacher through the process.

Combining cultures

The English classes comprise immigrants from countries such as Turkey, Russia, Spain, Colombia, South Korea, Haiti, Poland and many African countries, Prado said. During the past two decades, more than 40 countries have been represented.

Members of the UAB and the Greater Birmingham communities can attend the free classes, which also provide graduate students an opportunity to implement their training.

The students often are spouses of people who have emigrated to Birmingham to work at UAB or other large area employers, Prado said, and they have limited English skills and generally are unfamiliar with American culture.

To address both deficiencies, Prado said, the students practice their English on content that usually is culturally relevant, such as discussions of current events, the history of Birmingham or other community resources available to them.

“Language is a tool, and you can learn language and content at the same time,” Prado said. “So why not include something to talk about? We don’t want traditional grammar to be taught out of context. We want it embedded into language activity.”

Finding a fit

When Prado lived in both Zurïch and Marbug, Germany, she did not yet speak fluent German and experienced the cultural discomfort that comes along with unfamiliarity with a country’s native language. Later, she lived in New York, where she worked at the United Nations headquarters as a German-speaking tour guide, and then in Ecuador, where she took local Spanish classes to bolster her conversational Spanish skills. Those experiences, she said, helped her develop an appreciation for the importance of learning the native language of the country in which you reside.

“I learned from those classes I took. They offered me friendships in a new community from the beginning, before I had the opportunity to build my own world there.”

“I learned from those classes I took,” Prado said. “They offered me friendships in a new community from the beginning, before I had the opportunity to build my own world there.”

She said she sees similar things happen in the community English classes —that people don’t just come to learn, but to socialize and meet others who are also experiencing culture shock after relocating to a new country.

“It provides opportunities to engage in language and to make friends,” Prado said. “When you’re living far away from your relatives and all that you know, that is grounding and important in beginning a new life."

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