New language program to benefit older immigrants at Jones Library 

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-04-2023 8:47 PM

AMHERST — Older immigrants to the region, including those without English skills and a formal education, will benefit from development of a new curriculum for a program that will be housed in the long-running English as a Second Language Center at the Jones Library.

The ESL Center at the Jones Library recently received a $121,000 two-year innovations grant from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service that will allow ESL and Citizenship Coordinator Lynne Weintraub to create classes tailored specifically to older beginners, to field test an age-friendly curriculum and then disseminate that curriculum to other elder-serving programs throughout the United States.

“I don’t know of any age-friendly beginning-level ESL/citizenship curriculum,” Weintraub said. “So this project gives me a way of sharing the materials I am developing with providers around the country to help them do what I’m doing.”

Weintraub has overseen the ESL program at the Jones for the past 37 years. It has about 100 volunteer tutors who teach English, U.S. culture and citizens preparation.

The infusion of the federal money, she said, will mean expanding the volunteer one-to-one instruction for adult newcomers, whatever their level or age, though she will still have a challenge in finding volunteers, especially for the lowest level of beginners, including those who are older and have little or no formal education.

In fact, Weinbtaub took it upon herself to start teaching a small group of older beginners in 2018, taking a break when the library was closed during the pandemic. Even with this need, though, she had trouble finding enough time to do all the lesson planning on top of her other responsibilities in a 20-hour work week.

“So the availability of USCIS funding to keep the class going seemed like a great stroke of luck, and I applied for an innovations grant when the opportunity was announced in July,” Weintraub said.

Amherst received one of 12 innovations grants across the country. The idea is to foster creative approaches to preparing immigrants for naturalization and encouraging the civic, linguistic and cultural integration of immigrants into their communities. The grants will also focus on including individuals who have been historically and traditionally marginalized, specifically those who are elderly and those with limited education.

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The classes currently offered at the Jones emphasize practical speaking skills, social integration and functional literacy. But Weintraub observes there are a few similar projects aimed at elderly English language learners elsewhere, in part because there is no dedicated funding stream for it, unlike money available for workforce development for those who are younger and more proficient.

“So the few classes there are for older students are often staffed by volunteers or part-time instructors with little or no training, and without suitable instructional materials,” Weintraub said.

The library currently has room in its existing “senior beginner” ESL class, and is encouraging families, neighbors and friends to refer beginning-level immigrants who are 50 and older to the free program. The class emphasizes practical speaking skills, basic literacy, easy citizenship test questions, getting to know the local community, social expressions and customs, and enjoying time with new friends.

“I can’t recruit students directly because, of course, they can’t speak or read English,” Weintraub said. “I’m hoping to get English-speaking relatives, neighbors, friends and service providers to refer students to me.”

For more information, or to refer a student, Weintraub can be reached at esl@joneslibrary.org 413-259-3093.

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