Council teaches ‘survival English’ to give immigrants a life-boost

By Irfan Shariff
Northwest Asian Weekly

Students receive a practical application of learning to read labels and recipe instructions. The class is held at the North Highlands Community Center and is taught by Ali Washington. (Courtesy of Literacy Council)

“When you don’t know English, you can’t make progress in your life here,”  said Sharon Victor, president of the Literacy Council of Seattle. In its 40th year, the Literary Council aims to “teach adults the English skills they need to be successful in their job, families, and the community,” according to its mission statement.

“We deal mostly with ‘survival English’ so people can be self-reliant and communicate with others about civic issues,” said Victor.

According to Victor, nearly half of the Literacy Council’s curriculum focuses on survival or functional literacy. They go over things like how to pass citizenship exams, run one’s personal life, or communicate with teachers, doctors, postmen, or agencies. She feels that by engaging in these everyday things, people can gain confidence, find work, and advocate for themselves.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a person with functional literacy “can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective function of his or her group and community.” UNESCO further describes a literate person as one “who can, with understanding, both read and write a short simple statement on his or her everyday life.”

Most organizations count figures of adult literacy beginning at age 16. For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) in 2003 found that nearly 30 million adult Americans are at a below-basic prose literacy level. In addition to prose literacy, which it defines as “the ability to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts,” the NAAL measures quantitative and document literacy as well.

The Literacy Council identifies nearly half of students as Asian and more than 80 percent as women. Most of these are of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, said Victor.

“[Chinese students] are well educated, but have a problem communicating,” she said. “Reading in the Chinese population, for example, is well ahead of oral communication.”

The 2003 NAAL showed that foreign-born adults in the United States are growing and had “lower average scores on all three literacy scales compared to … the U.S.-born population.”

The assessment also showed that the foreign-born Asian population lagged slightly behind its foreign-born white counterparts in prose literacy, both still scored lower than U.S.-born.

Starting with the Vietnam War and with the increase in immigrant populations, Victor has noticed that the Council’s literacy classes are more focused on English as a Second Language (ESL). About 85 percent of classes teach ESL, while the rest teach Adult Basic Education (ABE), meant for native English speakers.

Victor, who joined the Literacy Council in 1990 as a volunteer, “was fascinated by the notion that you can teach people English and not know their language.” She has noticed a trend back to teaching more ABE classes.

The Literacy Council is one of 1100 affiliates of ProLiteracy, an international organization that supports adult literacy. ProLiteracy stems from the missionary work conducted by Frank Laubach in the Philippines in the 1930s.

The Literacy Council teaches a modified Laubach system while many literacy organizations in the area use the methodology developed by Tacoma Community House, said Victor.

“It’s somewhat lacking as to where to start and how to do it,” she said about the other system, although she finds that the Laubach system also has shortcomings, especially around integrating workshops.

In addition to one-to-one tutoring, the council offers 16 group classes held in partnership with the Seattle Public Library and various community centers.

Theresa Mayer, manager of outreach services at Seattle’s Central Library, believes they “have had a very effective partnership” with the council. “Our ESL partnership classes are also very popular, and tend to fill rather quickly.  We have crowds on our registration days,” she said. The Literacy Council conducts all ESL classes at the Central Library.

The library also runs an English conversation group called Talk Time, a citizenship class in partnership with Literacy Source and beginner computer classes.

“We tend to see more ESL learners in our computer classes as compared with native English speakers,” said Mayer. The library hopes to recruit an ESL coordinator to help serve these partnerships better.

“Part of our service is to the volunteers looking for meaningful things to do,” said Victor. She said many look to get further involved with the community, while others gain skills in teaching and has noticed the tutor count increase year after year. Tutor training is held six times a year.

She has found that posting flyers, having commercial spots, or even partnering with organizations like Rotary Club hasn’t helped to drive awareness.

“Most people come to us through the Internet. We are at the top of Google searches,” said Victor.

The Literacy Council will be holding its yearly World Music Fest, April 18, at its offices under the Crown Hill United Methodist Church. “The music festival gives us a chance to celebrate together. And it gives students recognition among their peers and teachers.” ♦

For more information, visit

Irfan Shariff can be reached at

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2 Responses to “Council teaches ‘survival English’ to give immigrants a life-boost”

  1. Finding this post solves a problem for me. Thanks!

  2. Irfan:
    Thank you for giving me a preview of your article about Literacy Council of Seattle. Good choice of photo leading off.

    I have a few problems with the quotations attributed to me. Please see Word document by return e-mail.

    Also, some of the statements about Chinese and Asians is sort of darogatory. So I have made some suggestions.

    While I suppose I have no right to edit your work, I really cannot authorize publication of the article as it is.


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