Campus & Community

Readin’, writing’ still on curriculum:

8 min read

Literacy programs for staff, students, faculty at University

Illustration of newspaper figures
‘[…] I’ve found that I can help her with more than just English. We’re building a friendship, and I think that’s the most important part of the program.’ (Illustration by Georgia Bellas)
It’s National Literacy Week, and all over Harvard, teachers and learners are engaged in an ongoing, multilevel effort to improve reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.

People from all over the world are drawn to Harvard. They may be postdoctoral scholars conducting cutting-edge research or recently arrived immigrants working as hourly employees. But whatever their jobs or place of origin, they are likely to need help dealing with the often difficult, often confusing foreign language – English.

Harvard employees and community members seeking to improve their English literacy have a wide spectrum of services to choose from. What follows is a description of some of the programs currently available.

The Harvard Bridge to Learning and Literacy offers worker education for hourly employees. Beginning with a pilot program in the fall of 1999, the Bridge has grown from an initial enrollment of 38 students to a current total of 460.

An extremely comprehensive program, it begins on the most introductory level for people who have little or no knowledge of English and proceeds up to classes in computer skills and preparation for the GED, TOEFL, and SAT exams.

“What makes this program fly is that we’ve been able to meet the needs of all our students,” said Carol Kolenik, program director.

The program is also flexible enough to adjust to the learning styles of individual students. Following a “no employee left behind” policy, teachers hold regular meetings to discuss the problems of students who are experiencing difficulties keeping up. Teaching assistants and tutors are available for students who need extra help grasping crucial concepts.

“We have enormous flexibility that allows us to really respond to students who are struggling,” said Kolenik.

Head teacher of the Bridge program Judy Hikes, who has been teaching literacy for 35 years and was at one time coordinator of all workplace education programs in Massachusetts, said that the Bridge “is one of the most effective programs I’ve ever worked in. A big factor is that the students get release time from their jobs. Programs that don’t have that feature usually aren’t as successful.”

The Boston Health Care and Research Training Institute is a collaboration of eight major employers in the health care and research sector. The Harvard Medical School (HMS) and School of Dental Medicine are participating in this new collaborative to build the skills of Harvard employees.

The institute grows out of Bridges to the Future, an existing career ladders program (Harvard Medical School and School of Dental Medicine were among the founders), and other career ladders efforts by the participating employers.

The institute’s goals are to address shortages of critical skills among health-care and research employers, thus enabling them to fill vacancies requiring skilled staff. Providing multiple levels of training for front-line employees helps them to move along career pathways that provide sustaining wages while increasing job retention.

One of the institute’s offerings is a volunteer program in which staff members provide one-on-one tutoring to other staff members in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). Linda Pierpont, who works as an executive assistant to the Medical School’s dean for clinical teaching, is one of about a half-dozen staff members who have gone through a 12-hour training program to prepare them to work with ESOL students.

Pierpont’s student is a laboratory assistant whose native language is Chinese. Pierpont has found the relationship a fulfilling one.

“I’ve become a mentor to her, and I’ve found that I can help her with more than just English. We’re building a friendship, and I think that’s the most important part of the program,” Pierpont said.

Pierpont and her student meet for an hour once a week to work on grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. Usually the sessions resemble conversations more than lessons, with the two covering things like office procedures, the workings of the American medical system, or issues of daily life. Pierpont has found the experience of mentoring enriching for herself as well.

“It’s educational and engrossing for me, too. It forces me to think about the rules of English and why you say things a certain way. Plus, I’m learning about another culture and gaining a friend in the process.”

HEALTH Now! (Helping Education And Literacy Through Education) is another volunteer program in which Medical School students work with a variety of agencies serving immigrant groups in the Boston area, combining literacy tutoring with the discussion of medical issues. The program was developed by Jean Hess, community service liaison with the Medical School’s Office of Enrichment Programs.

“I have a passion about this whole intersection of health and literacy,” Hess said. “It’s very inspiring to work with immigrant populations who are so intent on fitting into this complex culture.”

Medical School students not only tutor immigrants in English and help them to better understand and navigate in what may be an unfamiliar and difficult environment, but they also help them comprehend medical language, allowing them to communicate with their doctors and thus receive a better level of care.

HEALTH Now! is only one aspect of the Medical School’s community service activities, Hess said. In fact, more than 50 percent of the students do community service at some point during their medical training.

The Department of Social Medicine (DSM) Writing Seminar for International Postdoctoral Fellows targets a more specific population – Southeast Asian postdoctoral fellows studying medical anthropology in the Department of Social Medicine at HMS.

One of the biggest challenges during their year at Harvard is writing effectively in English. As with most postdoctoral programs, writing for publication in professional journals and generating compelling research proposals are among the major goals of the five fellows who, this year, are all psychiatrists from Indonesian and Chinese universities.

Although most fellows selected for these programs publish regularly in their own languages, penetrating the English language journals and garnering the attention of major funding sources with English-written proposals is often a major threshold that researchers and scholars need to reach in order to obtain international visibility.

In response to this fundamental need, organizers of the two DSM fellowships (the Freeman Foundation Chinese and Southeast Asian Fellowship and Exchange Program, and the Fogarty International Clinical, Operational, and Health Services Research and Training Award) have incorporated a writing seminar into their curricula.

Coordinator Robynn Maines says of the program: “Although grammar and vocabulary are always an issue in second-language writing, the more challenging and fascinating aspect of the seminar has turned out to be the cultural differences in writing style.”

According to Maines, students must learn that part of effective writing is adopting a kind of assertiveness both in tone and structure that is unique to English and especially to the American style of writing.

“As Americans we are taught from grade school on to assert our arguments or main ideas with confidence, early in the piece, and with authority. Supporting evidence and even counterevidence, we are taught, should always operate in service to the main idea. And so a good share of the art and craft of writing in English deals with promoting an argument gracefully yet assertively.”

Maines finds that other cultures, Asian in particular, don’t necessarily value this assertive, to-the-point style to the extent that English-speaking cultures do. Respecting or deferring to the ideas of others, or tempering one’s arguments with a mild, indirect tone is often considered a very positive thing.

“In the two years I have been teaching the seminar I have again and again heard the fellows say how enlightening this concept is to them. I’ve become convinced that it is among the most essential aspects of developing what I call a second-language voice,” Maines said.

The Postdoctoral Fellows’ English as a Second Language (ESL) Program at Harvard Medical School is a unique opportunity for postdoctoral fellows who are non-native speakers of English to perfect communication skills necessary in presenting scientific data both in discussion with peers and in more formal seminars.

There are over 300 postdoctoral fellows from all over the world conducting research at Harvard Medical School. Relating their research to others, both in written and verbal form, is an important aspect of training as a fellow, but in many cases these individuals struggle with both spoken and written English.

Dorothy Berkoben of the Office for Postdoctoral Fellows, Linda Manning, a language specialist who manages international and language programs at the Harvard Medical School Office of Enrichment Programs, and Assistant Dean for Faculty Affairs Roslyn Orkin conceived the program last year.

The program started up in the fall of 2002 and enjoyed a successful first semester. Classes resumed again after the holidays, and the number of participating postdocs has increased. Manning coordinates the program, which consists of three ESL class sections and serves approximately 50 postdoc language learners.

The program continues to grow as Berkoben promotes the classes to incoming postdocs. For these three HMS administrators, this program has provided an encouraging example of how departments can collaborate to produce quality programs. As for the postdocs, a quote from one learner says it best, “The English classes give me the confidence I need to work and live in the U.S. And it’s fun, too!”