Literacy for Life: Student and mentor both feel a sense of accomplishment

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

In the middle of a conversation, Cliff Low will interrupt Cecilia Jimenez.

"What?" he'll ask. Then prompt her with "sonidos finales."

Jimenez will then repeat the words she just said, making sure to emphasize the ending sounds of her words, reversing the habit most Spanish-speakers have of dropping the final consonants when speaking English.

"It's music to my ears when I hear her pronounce a final sound," he said. "She can do it when she remembers to speak slowly and deliberately."

Low and Jimenez meet three times a week for an hour and a half in her Carson City home to work on reading, writing and speaking English.

"This is the best program for studying English," said the Bogata, Colombia native, who became a U.S. citizen in 2002. "You have one person correcting you. When I have more students, I don't learn."

Jimenez is one of 147 students being taught by 81 community and AmeriCorps Vista volunteers in the ESL In-Home Program, with about 100 more on a waiting list.

Program founder Florence Phillips said she's seen Jimenez improve immensely under the tutelage of Low during the past eight months.

"She has improved 90 percent of her English because of him," Phillips said. "That's the success of this program, to see the progress of the students. It always gives me chills."

Phillips credits Low's style of teaching, calling him "disciplined."

Jimenez has another word for it.

"He's very strict," she says.

But, Low said, the success really depends on the student.

"The tutor can't do it all," he said. "The student needs to do most of it. It takes determination and patience. She's a diligent student."

In addition to emphasizing final consonant sounds, the two also have worked on when to use infinitive verbs and when to use "don't" rather than "no."

Explaining the rules can be tricky though.

"Being a part of this program is a reminder of how difficult the English language is," Low said. "It's a crazy language, so many exceptions. I call it the loca lengua."

Low doesn't speak Spanish, but he's picked up some vocabulary words in the three years he's been a tutor and keeps a cheat sheet tucked in his workbook.

For him, the program is part of a larger issue.

"I'm one of those people who believe English should be the official language," he said. "My way of putting my time where my mouth is, is to help people learn English."

And as her English skills have progressed, so has Jimenez's self-esteem.

The head custodian at Fritsch Elementary School, she'll sometimes ask teachers what a word means or its correct pronunciation. Where she used to be embarrassed to speak English in public, she now goes forward with gusto.

"I feel more confidence in myself," she said. "I don't care about other people if they're laughing, it's about myself."

• For more information on the English-as-a-Second-Language In-Home Program, call Florence Phillips at 888-2021.

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