|Li Ying from China and Adela Barillas from Guatemala discuss some vocabulary words
with program coordinator Kathleen Mercer during Tuesday’s class.
Union Leader Correspondent
|Luz Rodriguez, originally from Colombia, marks vocabulary
words in her copy of “The Bridge To Terabithia” during
Tuesday’s class. Rodriguez, who now lives in Derry,
has been attending the English class since last September.
“My husband can speak very well and I asked him to teach me some foundations, so I could read most simple words. But I could not speak a complete sentence when I first came here,” said Lei, 33, who now lives in Derry. “I had no friends and I couldn’t talk.”
So when Lei found some free English classes through Adult Learner Services of Greater Derry, she said her new language skills began to open the doors to American life.
“Without this class, I didn’t know any place I could practice, because many students like me, in our families we speak our native language,” said Lei. “But here everyone is like you. They come here to learn a second language, and you don’t have any pressure because no one competes.”
Lei is one of about 40 students who meet twice each week in Derry to practice their reading, writing and conversation skills, said Adult Learner Services program coordinator Kathleen Mercer.
On Tuesday, Mercer and her morning class spent about an hour reading aloud from young adult novel “The Bridge to Terabithia,” pausing after every few passages to discuss vocabulary words and plot content.
“This is a community-based program, so the first emphasis is on communication,” she said. “It’s a multi-level class, so as students advance, then we can go further.”
The center offers morning and evening English as a Second Language classes, along with a menu of other free adult base education and GED preparation courses.
Adult Learner Services receives some state and federal funding through the umbrella of the Derry Center for Adult Education in the Derry Cooperative School District, said Mercer, but most classroom teachers volunteer their time to the cause.
And with an army of volunteer tutors, Mercer is able to match students with natives-peaking partners to meet for a few hours of practice during the week.
Mercer, who got her start with the Adult Learner Services in 1992 as a volunteer tutor, said that the program’s tutoring component makes it unique in the area.
“The beautiful thing about having one-on-one tutoring also is that you can work on the specific goals of the ESL students,” said Mercer. “We get a lot of people coming from Manchester and other towns because there’s not a lot of ESL tutoring out there.”
And with students from more than 15 different countries, Mercer said the class is about more than just learning American language and culture.
“We emphasize getting to know each other’s cultures; it’s not about Americanizing people. We value their cultures, too,” said Mercer. “A couple of times a year we have everyone bring in things from their countries, with costumes, food, maps. It’s a multicultural, sharing kind of a thing.”
Seventy-two-year-old Adela Barillas of Salem has been attending classes and tutoring for about three years with her husband Samuel, 75. The couple is originally from Guatemala.
“When I came (to the U.S.), in the company where I worked, they all spoke Spanish and my children were in the schools, so they knew English,” she said.
“When they were all grown up and married, I said I want to learn to speak English because I have a problem if I can’t even to go to the doctor,” she said.
“It feels not so good.”
Lei said that breaking through the language barrier is a difficult move for many.
“In the United States, I believe there are a lot of people like us,” she said. “We all come here for different reasons, but we can’t all speak very well or even write. This program helps us to communicate with other people and that’s a very big step. If we cannot communicate with other people, we are stuck.”
And with a year of English lessons behind her, Lei is taking another big step toward her future by participating in GED preparation classes through the Adult Learner Services program.
Nancy Tolan, a volunteer GED math teacher and tutor, said she has seen a number of former ESL students come through the GED program in her five years with Adult Learner Services. Many continue on to pursue college degrees, she said.
“I am amazed at the dedication that these people bring, especially those for whom English is a bit of a barrier,” she said. “I can get up there and spin it five ways to Sunday, but they need to be involved and they need to want it. These students have a drive to get there and you can just tell.”
For more information about Adult Learner Services of Greater Derry, visit