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South Salt Lake Journal

ESL Center: Connecting communities through language education

Feb 17, 2020 02:24PM ● By Bill Hardesty

Participants worked together to complete the alphabet during an ESL Center Level I English class. (Bill Hardesty/City Journals)

By Bill Hardesty | [email protected]

The English Skills Learning Center (ESL Center) is as relevant today as it was when it was founded in 1988 as the Literacy Volunteers of America-Wasatch Front (LVA-WF). Back then, their goal was to provide basic adult reading skills and English as a second language classes. Now, they offer skill-based classes across the Salt Lake valley. They changed their name in 2003 to reflect this broader mission.

"Part of our vision is to help all community members feel empowered, secure, and reach their self-sufficiency.... We often use the tagline 'Connecting communities through language education,'" Katie Donoviel, the associate director of the ESL Center, said. 

"We work with people who are just starting their language learning journey. Many of our students haven't had access to formal education in their home countries, so this is their first experience learning English in a school setting," Donoviel said.

They offer citizenship classes, empowering parents classes, life skills classes, and work training classes. All of their classes contain literacy skills because as refugees can communicate better, they are able to get better employment and make connections with the greater community.

"This is what makes us stand out compared to other organizations, we build our curriculum in-house. We have knowledgeable professionals building the classes," Shareen Kayyali, the marketing and training direction at the ESL Center, said.

All their classes are free and are taught in 31 locations including schools, libraries, community centers, apartment buildings and workplaces. A common barrier for refugees is transportation and time. The focus is to bring classes to the participants rather than bring the participants to the class. Often refugees work non-traditional hours and often classes are taught early in the day or later in the evening to allow attendance.

They are partnering with organizations like Promise South Salt Lake, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Welfare Services, Catholic Community Services of Utah, Granite School District, Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, Refugee & Immigrant Center-Asian Association of Utah, and many others.

They serve over 1,000 adults from more than 45 countries. They use more than 150 trained ESL teachers and are always looking for more. Volunteers receive 18 hours of training and are assigned a mentor. They need to commit for six months and complete at least 100 hours. For volunteer information, go to

Graduates of the ESL Center citizenship classes have a 98% pass rate, which is a good thing since it cost $640 to $725 to apply and take the English and civic tests. The Application for Naturalization (Form N-400) is a 20-page form with 18 parts. The course is built around this form and the English and civic tests.

A United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) officer assesses an applicant's ability to read and write English by having the applicant write correctly one of three sentences and read out loud one of three sentences. The applicants English speaking ability is assessed throughout the interview process.

An oral civic/history exam is given. Up to 10 questions of a possible 100 questions are asked. An applicant must answer six of the 10 correctly to pass.

One of the citizenship classes is taught by Paul Wichelson at the Utah Refugee Education and Training Center (250 W. 3900 South). Wichelson earned a Ph.D. in American Studies. After teaching at the University of Utah for a while, he became a stay-at-home dad.

"I looked for opportunities to give back to the community," Wichelson said. He mentioned the reason he selected this volunteer opportunity is "because I wanted to be part of the conversation of the political discussion of who belongs."

In one of his classes, he discussed the U.S. political system and the right to vote. Students learned how political parties work, how individuals are elected, and how voting rights were extended to various disenfranchised groups via constitution amendments 15, 19, 24, and 26.

"This is the reason why we are here. We want to have a voice," Dinora Garcia, an emigrant of 19 years from El Salvador, shared with the class.

There’s an English level I class taught at the Deseret Industries in Sugar House by Christina Balls and Heather Oswald. They have been teaching for two years.

"When I heard President Uchtdorf’s [of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] talk on refugees years ago, I knew I had to do something," Balls said. She brought along her friend, Oswald.

When each student arrives, there are hugs and throughout the class students helped each other even though they are from different countries and speak different languages.

The instructors pointed out a student and said, "Two years ago, he never looked up. He was very quiet with little interaction. Now he laughs and is involved in the class because his English skills have improved."

Even though the instructors spend four hours once a week, the students come every day with different instructors. This instruction is part of their training program at Deseret Industries.

The students worked on recognizing letters (upper and lower case), speaking short words and phrases, writing letters and words, and learning how to tell time.

The instructors use repetition and classroom games. Balls was helping a student count with noodles and the student's face lit up when she realized she was getting it.

"A lot of our classes are open enrollment. So, students can jump in anytime and that is important for adult education because they have busy lives like we do. So, our curriculum is built kind of circular. It will go through a couple of units and then cycle back for a review or new instruction for a new participant," Donoviel explained.

If you are interested in participating in a class, go to the ESL Center offices (650 E. 4500 South, Suite 220) on Tuesday and Wednesday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. or by appointment to register. In some programs, you can join where the class is taught.