Program at the library
Michael Cadigan and Beatriz Dominquez work together as part of the adult literacy program run out of the Half Moon Bay Library. Photo courtesy Emily Smith

For those who don’t count English as their first language, the ability to read, write and speak the language can be a critical element when applying for jobs or taking tests.

That may be one reason why San Mateo County Libraries Community Learning Department has seen its Adult Literacy program grow in popularity in recent years.

Emily Smith became the program coordinator in December. Under Smith, there are more than 50 pairs of volunteers helping non-English speaking individuals and families in the Adult Literacy program. And there is a substantial waitlist of adult learners.

Along with the weekly Conversation Club meetings, these are free opportunities for English learners to pick what they want to learn, from helping children with homework, increasing computer knowledge, working on a high school diploma or GED, or taking the citizenship test.

Tutors don’t need a background in education, as the library provides teaching materials. The sessions are available to those 16 years or older who meet with tutors an average of two to four hours per week. Though the program is particularly important for the local Latino community, it’s open to anyone who wants to improve in English. Smith explained that a strength of these tutoring sessions is the adaptability to each learner and whatever skills they want to improve on. Goal tracking and consistent feedback are key pillars.

“They should be able to leave their tutoring sessions and directly apply real-world skills with their learning,” Smith said.

The growth of these programs highlights a number of issues. According to the nonprofit group ProLiteracy, each year 1 million immigrants come to the U.S. lacking a high school education and proficient English speaking skills. Children whose parents have low literacy levels are 72 percent more likely to have a lower reading level themselves. Though tutoring is only currently available at the East Palo Alto and Half Moon Bay libraries, as demand increases the programs are likely to expand to other county libraries.

“We know it’s a great service for our learners,” Smith said. “We’re always hearing from learners about how it’s boosted their confidence and changed their lives. We have tangible examples of people saying, ‘I literally got a better job because I could read and write better.’”

But these lessons are also impactful for volunteers. The program serves as a bridge to connect families and cultures that otherwise may not be in contact. Smith highlighted one pair that has been together for 13 years.

“It’s a great program in terms of breaking down barriers between cultures, language, class and all the ways our society can feel segmented,” Smith said. “This is a wonderful example of a program that provides a context for people to develop friendships and partnerships.”

Visit for more information on the program.

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