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‘He tells me to never give up’

Learning to read words in English is one thing. Understanding phrases like “a friendly sort of darkness” or “amazing photographic memory” is quite another for English-language learners.

But once students begin to comprehend the meaning behind metaphors, poetic phrases or, as freshman Carlos Borregos recently called “bad jokes,” they start to learn the nuances of the language, and in Carlos’ case, have a few chuckles.

He read dialogue in a children’s joke book:

“I can jump higher than a house,” said one character.

“A house can’t jump,” came the punchline.

Carlos stopped to absorb the knee-slapper with an amused Wayne Ondersma, his volunteer tutor. “These are really bad jokes,” Ondersma said.

Teacher Susan Faulk’s high-school English Language Arts for ELL  students are benefiting from one-on-one time with tutors who listen to them read books, or from online reading programs. Many have been in the U.S. for from less than a year to up to a few years. Native languages include Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Swahili, among others. Their English abilities are developing.

Along with Ondersma, local church member Marlene Bouwkamp, and Kelloggsville Board of Education member Jane Ward, are volunteer readers, each committed to read with students during Faulk’s third-hour class one morning a week. Their help gives students an academic boost by giving them time to practice important skills, Faulk said.

“Most of my students don’t hear English when they go home,” she said. “Their parents don’t speak English. People in their community don’t speak English… They don’t have a lot of opportunities to one-one-one practice speaking and listening to English.”

Tutors ask questions, discuss meaning and help students with pronunciation to improve fluency, comprehension and conversation skills.

“Sometimes it’s just conversation, and that’s important too. It’s just having the opportunity to practice English with a native speaker,” Faulk said. “Any time a kid can have a positive relationship with an adult, it benefits them.”

Freshman Carlos Borregos laughs at what he calls “bad jokes” with volunteer Wayne Ondersma

Reading Impacts Lives

Ondersma is a pastor at The PIER, a church held inside The DOCK, an after-school program that meets in a building located across the street from Kelloggsville Middle School. He has worked with youth for 35 years and directed programs at The DOCK for nine years. He said he loves the Kelloggsville community, and that reading with Faulk’s students over the past four years has been another way to impact lives.

“It’s really fun because you get to know the kids through reading and learn their life stories,” he said. “Reading leads to life. As they are able to read better, they are able to experience more life and grow. Reading is a great foundation for ELL kids.”

Carolyn Garcia has been reading with Ondersma for the past four years, starting as a limited English speaker who spent seven years of her childhood in Mexico. She plans to to attend Grand Rapids Community College this fall for nursing. She and Ondersma have enjoyed reading poems and discussing their meaning.

“She does a really, really good job with that kind of reflection,” Ondersma said. “When we started we struggled with basic communication. Her reading has really improved, but  I think, too, her character has changed. She has become stronger… She has great people skills.”

Carolyn said she appreciates having someone to read to and talk with.

“Sometimes I have problems and he tells me to never give up,” she said.


A Patient and Kind Friend to Newcomers

Senior Maria Cedillo reads about mermaids with volunteer Wayne Ondersma

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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  1. Such an inspiring article, it is important for us as humans to always help each other to grow and improve to help overcome our difficulties. Reading definitely helps in allot of ways. It doesn’t just improve our knowledge but also reading aloud helps us overcome fear of public speaking and any language barrier.


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