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Bridging the Gap for Adult English Learners

Mei Chen didn’t speak or understand English when she first arrived in Colorado Springs as an immigrant from China. But thanks to two teachers at Springs Ranch Elementary School and more than a year of instruction and practice inside a D49 classroom, Mei Chen can now speak, read and write in the most common language in her new home country.

Adult English learner at Springs Ranch Elementary.

“It was just over a year ago when Grant Geis, [coordinator of culturally and linguistically diverse education (CLDE) in D49], approached me about teaching an adult English class,” said Linda Hagedorn, CLDE teacher at Springs Ranch. “Initially, he thought we could partner with the library, and they could learn on the computer … but I quickly learned that we needed something more engaging.”

Hagedorn and Kindergarten Teacher Cindi Harper lead classes every Monday evening at Springs Ranch Elementary to teach English as a second language to adults, many of whom are new to the United States. “Initially I joined Linda to offer childcare, but then we figured out I could float around and help during the classes,” Harper said. The duo currently has 16 adults who attend classes regularly, and the students represent a variety of countries, including China, Cuba and Mexico. Most have children who attend D49 schools, but classes are open to the greater community.

For some of the students, the classes are about supporting their child’s education. For others, it’s about helping them land a job. “We tell them to continue their native language, but we encourage learning English too. We’re not trying to replace [their native language], just add to it. Learning English will help them navigate success in work, school and life,” Hagedorn said.

The instructors designed the curriculum and established four key learning targets for the classes: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Their lessons include interactive games, instructional videos and a lot of speaking exercises. “We do some assessments to see if they are getting the different concepts … we can see their confidence has grown noticeably … I don’t see the fear anymore when I ask them to speak,” said Hagedorn.

Linda Hagedorn helps adult English learners practice past tense verbs.

“Our students feel a need to understand the rules, and they follow them to a ‘T.’ When they come up with something in English that doesn’t follow the rule, they struggle and ask a lot of questions,” Harper said. One such concept is irregular verbs. That’s where engaging activities like Bingo or relay races to practice those verbs are helpful.

Hagedorn and Harper see the classes are making a difference. “One of our students was intensely wanting to learn the language quickly. After two or three classes, the student shared she needed to take a test. That test was to earn certification as a nursing assistant. We helped her practice reading and writing, and the following week, she passed and was able to get a job,” Harper shared.

However, the learning goes well beyond speaking, reading and writing. It’s also about culture. “Students from China were uncomfortable with the interactive exercises at the start. The first time was a bit painful, but students became comfortable with it. Instead of being shy around each other now, we have fun. They want to learn … they have lots of questions, and they are very interested,” said Harper.

American holidays have served as a theme in classes. “We hosted a Thanksgiving dinner, so they could try turkey, pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes,” Hagedorn said. “We also organized a White Elephant Gift Exchange during the holidays and played an Easter game with Peeps.”

One day last January, the group went shopping together at Kohl’s. “We taught them how to read sale signs, how to approach an employee to ask a question and how to read a label. People learn faster when you make it relevant.” Hagedorn added.

The two educators agree that giving up personal time every Monday evening is worth the investment. “I feel so good after our classes. This is following a career path that is meaningful to me,” said Harper. “I have learned so much about the needs of these families as a general education teacher.”

“They are very disappointed when we have school breaks,” Harper added. So, last summer the teachers took their English learners on field trips to places like the zoo, and catered a lunch from Texas Roadhouse. “It’s about giving the families a cultural experience.”

Adult English learners play Bingo to practice irregular verbs at Springs Ranch Elementary.

“We are here sometimes long after class has ended … sometimes from 7:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night. But when we are finished, we feel so energized,” Hagedorn said. “There is a misconception about families that come to the U.S., but we see they want to learn our culture, our language. They want to be productive citizens. That’s their goal.”

Anyone interested in learning more about adult English classes in District 49 can reach out to Iraida Galan at or Yudelki Gonzalez Perez at in D49’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education Department. You can also learn more at Adult English classes are also available at Falcon Elementary.

Amy Matisek