Monroe County library’s VITAL program offers English free tutoring

A program at the Monroe County Public Library powered by volunteers helps people improve their English skills — whether they’re learning a second language or want to pass a high school equivalency test.

VITAL stands for volunteers in tutoring adult learners, and the program has been around since 1977, starting out solely as a literacy program. In the 1980s, the English-language portion of the program was created and it has grown into the primary audience for the program. It is completely free and all of the resources are provided.

The program offers one-on-one tutoring and English language groups where adult learners can enjoy conversation while practicing their language skills in a relaxed environment.

Bethany Turrentine, VITAL coordinator, said the conversation groups encourage people to practice language, meet people and ask questions.

“We have so many people who are new to Bloomington or new to the United States who want to live and work here and they want to raise their kids here and they have this massive language barrier,” Turrentine said. “A lot of people who come to VITAL, this might be the only place they speak English all week.”

Turrentine said some people are not aware that local residents struggle with adult literacy.

“Everyone sort of assumes everyone knows how to read because a lot of people walk through life and are highly functional and have full-time jobs and have become very adept at navigating the world without being able to read,” Turrentine said.

Turrentine said VITAL helps people read and speak English so they can pass tests such as the citizenship test, a drivers test or the high school equivalency exam.

“If you’re a beginner we have a set curriculum we suggest,” Turrentine said. “Once they are at the point of speaking simple sentences, they might need language for applying for a job or going to the doctor and then we direct the volunteers toward those resources.”

Turrentine said most of the staff is volunteer which makes them crucial for providing the services. VITAL asks that volunteers stay for at least 6 months at a time so they can build up a relationship with the people they are tutoring, but they can also work with 3-4 month time frames. The program is constantly looking for volunteer tutors due to the long list of people who want to learn.

“That 6 months really gives people time to get comfortable with each other and develop confidence, that’s probably the most important component,” Turrentine said. “We provide all of the resources like the pencils, papers, books, what we really need is for those volunteers to come in.”

Turrentine shared a story about one of the learners who wanted to get her driver’s license and did not know how to read. Turrentine said they were able to get her audio resources so she could listen to the drivers handbook.

“The driver’s test is hard anyway, so doing that without the ability to read is really difficult,” Turrentine said. “When it comes to taking the test they will actually read the test to you, so it took her a while but she was able to pass the test.”

After all was said and done, the learner told someone they knew, who also wanted to get their driver’s license, about the program.

“The fact that she had that experience and was able to tell her friend, ‘Hey you should go to the library and check out this program’ was so much more meaningful than any billboard we could put up,” Turrentine said.