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In my assignment at the Delaware County Literacy Council, I teach English to English Language Learners, and I also assist learners who are already more proficient in English and who are in pursuit of a GED.  Our learners are all adults, most facing significant economic challenges, and their ultimate educational goals are really a stretch for them.  We have a dropout rate much higher than we would like.  The prevailing opinion in our culture is that dropping out of anything is simply failure resulting from not trying.  That has not been my experience of the individuals I have worked with.  Although I have been quite frustrated by this at times, I have come to realize that success can come in many forms, not just the ultimate goal, or even the goals I think important.

Several years ago, I was tutoring an English language learner one-on-one, and he was having a great deal of difficulty understanding spoken English and making himself understood.  I was also somewhat frustrated by my inability to help him along, so I resolved to make my tutoring more concrete and real-world.  A perfect opportunity came our way one day when he related to me that he had not been able to make himself understood in ordering coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts store.  The nuances of answering questions from the server about with or without sugar and cream, cream “on the side,” or extra sugar were simply too much for him.  More importantly, from the way he described his experience that morning, I had the impression that the servers at the shop that morning had been somewhat derisive because of his difficulty.

So, he and I reviewed and practiced how to order what he wanted, and what possible directions the dialog could take, and back we went to the same Dunkin’ Donuts store.

We went in together, but my learner stood in line first, and ordered coffee for both of us, the way we wanted it.  He took extra sugar while I took none.  This time, there was no problem, or condescension, from the servers.  I doubt that my friend’s pronunciation was any better than previously, but the servers maybe tried a little harder to understand him.  They now knew, and my friend knew, that he had an American friend who would stand up for him.  I realize now that we were both successful that day.


Peter Matthews is an IVC volunteer in the Philadelphia area.  He’s been with the IVC for 7 1/2 years, and all of his volunteer experience has been with the Delaware County Literacy Council.  The DCLC is a nonprofit which assists adults who are English Language Learners from other countries.  It also assists adults who are working on improvement of basic literacy skills and/or pursuing completion of a GED.  The organization serves about 500 individuals per year. Before volunteering with the IVC, Peter’s career was with the federal government in Philadelphia and in Providence, RI.  Peter and his wife, Michelle, live in Garnet Valley, PA.  They have three adult sons and five grandchildren.

5 Responses to “Success”

  1. Sharon Mussomeli

    Thanks Peter. I have lived overseas most my life, and have always been an avid study-er of languages. I have taught English in from Slovenia to Cambodia and in between, not to mention the United States. Having been on the receiving end of someone graciously listening to my mixed up syntax, grammar and vocabulary when I try the local language in other countries, and having found that when I need to, I can speak English just about anywhere anyway ==whether to order coffee or receive medical care–I have great admiration for immigrants to our country ==their bravery and persistence in the face of smug native speakers, and their energy and hope in pressing forward despite these roadblocks. I am grateful for your service.

  2. Madeline Bialecki

    Thanks for sharing, Pete. I remember that day so well. Your reflection reminds me of work I once did (called Citizen Advocacy) recruiting community members to be advocates for people who have disabilities and have no one to speak on their behalf. I used to talk about how important it was to have a “valued” community member standing next to someone who was seen as less valued. While my work was with people who had disabilities, it can be true for anyone who is marginalized and seen as different from mainstream culture. Your very presence added value to your student and gained him respect. Well done! (I may still write about this, too, if you don’t mind).

  3. Kate Hyzer

    Peter, what a great example of how you have changed the lives of the people you teach! We really value your service to so many of our past and current students.

  4. Richard Shea

    Peter: Thanks for your contributions to IVC and for going the extra mile with your student. Your presence in line at Dunkin’ Donuts with your student quite possibly (I would guess probably) influenced the success of his verbal transaction. I’m an IVC volunteer from the Chicago Region, and am proud to be thus related to you in the IVC family.


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