Literacy Program Helps English Learners In Central Illinois | WGLT

Literacy Program Helps English Learners In Central Illinois

Jan 7, 2020

On a day off from his 70-hour work week, David Cruz met with a tutor who helps him with language skills he hopes will bring him closer to his dream of a better job and U.S. citizenship.

Cruz came to the U.S. almost 20 years ago seeking the same economic opportunity that drives most immigrants across the border. He took jobs in hotels and restaurants where employers didn’t care much about English proficiency.

Cruz learned enough to get by with co-workers and others. But he said the ability to read and write the new language has taken more effort.

“With time, I noticed that English is very important," Cruz told WGLT. "It’s important for me to have good communication with my co-workers, my employer, and also it helps me better understand the U.S. culture."

For the past year, Cruz has met volunteer tutor Scott Bolbock Saturday mornings at the Bloomington Public Library. Their work is part of the Sharing The Ability To Read (STAR) Adult Literacy Program in Bloomington, which has about 100 students who meet with 80 volunteers for one-on-one tutoring.

About 80% of the students are part of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. The others speak English, but get help with reading, math and other basic skills.

In Illinois, nearly half a million people over age 25 have less than a 9th grade education. State data show 2.7 million speak a language other than English at home.

In McLean County, 2,300 adults have skills below a 9th grade level. Almost 1,100 live in households where English in not the primary language.

The STAR model runs on a shoestring budget: local donations and $70,000 from the Illinois Secretary of State Literacy Office. The project covers McLean, DeWitt and Livingston counties but currently only works with volunteers in McLean County.

"They're living every day hiding a secret that could crumple it all up."

STAR Co-Director Sheila Diaz said the flexibility for students to meet tutors at convenient times at 16 locations makes learning possible.

"Many of our students are balancing more than one job with hours that may change weekly, and children. And maybe they don’t have a car,” said Diaz.

Students range from 18 years old to 72. Diaz said they may lack reading proficiency, but more than make up for it in survival skills.

“I always say our students are smart. If we had to get through life with the skills they have acquired, I would say they’re doing pretty good. If they have a place to live and some kind of employment, they’re going good. But they’re living every day hiding a secret that could crumple it all up,” said Diaz.

Tutors teach English in English. Volunteers don’t have to be fluent in another language to work with students.

STAR Co-Director Robin Landry said students speak Spanish, French, Arabic, Portuguese, and dialects from Ghana and European nations.

Landry said the pool of volunteers includes retirees and those still working. She said volunteers and students may leave the program and return when they have more time. Study sessions require about two hours a week.

Why They Seek Help

The reasons for seeking help with language skills “are as many as leaves on the tree,” said Diaz.

For Cruz, better language skills are part of his goal to obtain a GED, a better job and someday pass the test to become a U.S. citizen.

The 42-year-old immigrant works two shifts—8 hours and 6 hours a day—at two companies in Normal. He said he needs the long hours to cover his expenses and help support his teenage daughter.

Cruz has completed paperwork to work in the U.S. Diaz said legal status doesn’t matter.

“We don’t ask, we don’t report and we don’t divulge” information about a student’s immigration status, said Diaz.

“We don’t want to put them in a position that may endanger them,” she said.

Diaz said the commitment to focus solely on education makes students feel safe.

Forging A Friendship

Tutor Scott Bolbock said the student-teacher relationship with Cruz gradually evolved to student-mentor—and then to student-friend.

“He always listens very well, like when I have any problems, when I have questions, since I don’t really know how this country works. He always has a better answer for me. I will say he’s a good friend,” Cruz said of his tutor.

Bolbock and Cruz now go to outings beyond the classroom, including a car show and coffee shops.

Bolbock is the director of continuing education effectiveness at Heartland Community College in Normal. He said personal satisfaction is part of his reward for spending his Saturday mornings with Cruz.

But he said he has also learned from his student as they work through a social studies text.

“I’m finding a lot of stuff I forgot or didn’t really know, so I’m learning alongside David on some things. And then the other real bonus is that David and I often end up talking Mexican politics or Mexican history,” said Bolbock.

The literacy program tries to help students with immediate needs. In David’s case, that meant help with a resume and a referral letter for a co-worker.

The adult literacy program offers English-speaking students a chance to master skills they missed as children. Diaz said like their counterparts in the ESL program, the reasons they ask for help are as varied as the students themselves.

Some are former special education students who want to add skills. Others have found themselves laid off after decades and need job training. 

Many don’t know how to navigate the internet. Others come from transient families whose frequent moves left childhood education gaps.

The adults usually develop ways to hide deficiencies.

The National Adult Literacy Survey estimates 44 million Americans can’t read well enough to complete a job application and get a better start on following their own dreams. The STAR Literacy program would like to help more of them learn in libraries, community centers, and wherever they can meet tutors.

STAR is looking for more volunteers. There is a waiting list of students. Landry said the flexible schedule and tutor training make the program attractive to people who want to help in the community. People interested in becoming a tutor may call (309) 834-9222 or visit