For well over a century, American public libraries have offered a gateway to immigrants learning English. In some cities, free library-based ESL classes are so over-subscribed that lotteries are held to determine who gets in. Countless additional ELLs participate in library-based conversation groups.
Yet, remarkably, many ELLs who take English classes elsewhere in the U.S. are unaware of what a treasure trove awaits them at their local public library. And thanks to the Internet, certain of the public libraries’ resources may even be accessible well beyond America’s shores to students studying English around the world.
Here, in a nutshell, are some of the ways in which I introduce my adult ESL students to what their local public library has to offer:
First, I encourage all of my students to get public library cards. It is one of the first homework assignments I give them. Many immigrants are amazed to discover that a public library card costs nothing and is available in many parts of the country regardless of immigration status.
Next, I bring in audiobooks from the library to show my students how they can use them as pronunciation and vocabulary-building tools. Depending on the level, I might bring in anything from children’s classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ferdinand the Bull or A Cricket in Times Square to Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father (read by the President himself) or Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World.
I play portions of the audiobooks in class and let my students follow along with the text of the hard-copy book (also borrowed from the library), which I project on a screen using a document camera or which I just hold up for the students to see. I show them how to listen, pause, and replay the audio CDs one sentence at a time so that they can try to match their voice to that of the reader as a way to improve their pronunciation. If a student insists he or she has no time to listen to audiobooks, I encourage multi-tasking: listening while in the car or on the bus, while they are cooking dinner, or while they are folding laundry or doing the ironing.
Once a couple of students discover the magic of audiobooks, I have them bring their audiobooks to class and preview them for their classmates. Then I show the class how to use the online systems that many public libraries now have which allow library card holders to reserve audiobooks as well as hard copies of library books via the library’s website and have them delivered to their local library—all for free. It is my experience that students often become interested in reading what their classmates are reading, and are excited to discover that it costs them nothing to “place a hold” on a book that sounds interesting to them because a classmate has talked it up.
Because smartphones are now so common in ESL classrooms, I also explain to my students that they can download e-books and audiobooks from the library directly to their phone or tablet. This can be a somewhat involved procedure that may require a trip to the library to have a library staff member explain the ins and outs of the free downloading process. But once students get the hang of it, they typically become enthusiastic advocates of the public library’s free downloads, which makes listening to authentic English completely portable and puts a huge trove of e-books and audiobooks at their fingertips.
Students studying English outside the U.S. should be aware that a library card is typically required for the free downloads. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other resources available to them through some of the American library systems. In Westchester, New York, for example, the public library’s website includes a link to a section entitled Learn English on First Find that gives students free access to a vast array of listening and reading materials, dictionaries, and grammar and vocabulary resources. Those who visit that portion of the website do not need a library card to log in. The Learn English Using Online Resources section of the New York Public Library’s website is another rich source of resources for ELLs around the world.
Finally, many public libraries offer a cornucopia of events and activities of interest to adult ELLs. I routinely show my students how to access their local public library’s online monthly calendar of events and encourage them to take their young children to the library’s story hour or bring their older children to the library for the free homework help and summer reading programs that many libraries offer. For adults ELLs who rarely have a chance to speak English outside of class, a children’s story hour is a great place for both them and their children (or grandchildren) to hear authentic English. Libraries’ film and speaker series and their free citizenship classes, discussion groups, benefits workshops, and cultural programs are also remarkable resources for our adult ESL students and a way for them to connect to English-speaking members of their community.