Sunday, September 04, 2005


On weekends, I volunteer as a tutor for the local adult literacy program. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 tutor-learner pairs in the program, teaching adults to read or helping them improve their reading. Some slipped through the cracks or moved around a lot as a child. In this area, many also need to learn more English than the basic classes offer. My learner is one of the latter, from Taiwan.

She has been taking classes at the junior college, and I think she's doing a wonderful job, so far. She chose, as her first class, to take college-level US history, which would not have been my first recommendation for somebody unfamiliar with George Washington and still a shaky reader. Even though it took her a good three hours per chapter and no small amount of extra work to figure it out, though, she passed the class.

I usually have a fairly easy job, when it comes to tutoring her. She almost always has homework I can help with, so I don't really spend much time planning the lessons. Today, for instance, I just showed up there, and asked her what she wanted to do. To my surprise, today she replied, "Othello."

Now, I haven't read Shakespeare since high school, and I never read Othello before. As the textbook noted, Othello is not frequently taught in high school because of all the sex and violence. My initial reaction bordered on panic. Then it occurred to me that if I struggle to read Shakespeare, it must be nearly impenetrable to someone just getting her bearings in English.

So I picked the book with the best footnotes, and started reading it aloud. Shakespeare should be read aloud to bring out the meter and the rhyme. I read a passage just for the sound of it, then went back and started picking it apart, a bit at a time. In two hours or so, we plodded through most of Act I, and I think we both understood it better, for taking the time to read it together. Shakespeare really did know how to write a juicy story, and we ended up having fun. Now I hope I'll have to help her read Act II next week.


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