The article below is reprinted from the most recent SlavFile. The full issue is available here.
A Volunteer Opportunity: English for Ukrainian Newcomers
By Liv Bliss
First, the basic scoop: The Wonder Heritage Language Centre (WHLC) in Toronto, Canada has developed a volunteer program of English-language tutoring for Ukrainian native speakers who are recent arrivals in an Anglophone country or are preparing to make the move.
For the life of me, I can’t remember how I first heard about it. So if you’re reading this, and it was you who posted the announcement I read—Thank You!
There’s a brief description of the program here, which is also where you can link to the application form. There you will see that the program is called “Conversation Practice” and is intended for Ukrainian speakers with at least some knowledge of English.
Here’s how it worked for me. I applied through the site and soon afterward was invited to sign up for a short online (Zoom) orientation session. A number of dates were available, so scheduling was no problem. Volunteers also receive a short PDF densely packed with dos, don’ts, and other hints and information. Shortly after that, I was matched with a learner and had to contact her directly to set up our first meeting. The means of communication (Zoom, Google Meet, etc.) was left up to us.
My learner already had Zoom installed on her phone, so Zoom it was. My being a Zoom newbie—except as an invitee—exposed me to a bit of a learning curve. But it was wonderfully shallow, and now I can set up our meetings in my sleep (although that is not recommended).
As instructed, I first contacted my learner by email in Russian (with apologies for not speaking Ukrainian), but since then, Russian has played only a very small part in our interaction. That’s a faint echo of my training for an EFL teaching certificate, many decades ago.
There were other, more resonant, echoes: relentless repetition, back-chaining (shun – siashun – nunsiashun – pronunsiashun), prior introduction to the vocabulary to be used in teaching a particular grammatical pattern, a brisk tempo, homework as reinforcement, and visual aids. Lots and lots of visual aids. (Oddly, I still had a stash of magazine photos and my own drawings from back in the day. But now the blessed internet spares me from having to sketch a lion that comes out looking more like a mangy chihuahua.) Right now, in readiness for today’s session, there’s a lesson plan and a stack of graphics on my desk, along with a can of Pepsi, some bottled water, a can of beer, a bottle of vodka, and an airline-sized bottle of wine. Please don’t ask.
I quickly found out that my learner’s comfort level is boosted once she sees unusual words and weird grammar written down. So I come to every session with a black marker and a bunch of blank paper slips. I really should invest in a small dry-erase whiteboard one of these days.
My lessons are generally planned around blank spots that came up in the lesson before. For example, I found that my learner was having a hard time with “this/these” vs. “that/those” (which is so much easier to teach face-to-face than remotely, where wild gestures can be sadly misinterpreted), so I sent her an illustrated exercise that we explored in the next session, following it up with homework that we discussed in the session after that. She’s great with homework: always does it and usually aces it. I wouldn’t impose it on her if it was a burden, though. “Do you want some homework on this?” I routinely ask, and she always gives me a big grin and a “Yes, please!”
As you’ll have gathered by now, this has proved to be a fairly structured series of lessons, spiraling upward in complexity week by week, rather than a more laid-back conversation practice, which is fine with me but may not suit everyone. WHLC tries to match pairs based on, among all else, the tutor’s English teaching experience (if any) and knowledge of Ukrainian/Russian (ditto), but I’m quite sure that any instances in which tutor and learner proved in the end to be hopelessly mismatched would be swiftly rectified. The program is not intended to start beginners off from scratch: my learner had several years of post-Soviet high-school English that has grown rusty in spots over the decades since.
I won’t fib and tell you that the preparation for our sessions takes only “a few minutes,” as the WHLC site suggests. But that’s likely attributable to my learner’s needs and my own foibles—no seat-of-the-pants teacher, I! The follow-up to each lesson—an emailed list of new words and expressions—takes a little time too. Two or three sessions a week is generally preferable, per WHLC, but we now have to arrange our meetings around my learner’s work schedule, because a mere week or so after arriving in Canada, she had her child in school and had found a part-time job. I’m so proud of her.
WHLC asked to be notified after the first meeting had happened but otherwise stays pretty much out of the process. There’s a Google Docs spreadsheet to which tutors are encouraged to add online resources, and also a Slack workgroup for tutors, where we can ask and answer questions and generally share our experiences. That apart, this is an entirely self-motivated program, and the only metric of success is that beaming smile and that “Oh!” when a grammatical pattern suddenly makes sense. How long will it last for my learner and me? I have no idea. As long as I can be useful, I suppose.
I know that we SLD-ers can be inveterate volunteers and that it’s easy to become over-extended and all volunteered out. So if any of this is news you can use, great. If not—well, it’s been fun telling you about it.
Liv Bliss, an ATA-certified Russian to English translator, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, in case you have any comments or questions about the WHLC program—or about anything else, for that matter. This article has been seen and approved by Dr. Marina Sherkina-Lieber, founder of the Wonder Heritage Language Centre.