Language learners

Motivated students learn English at the Martha’s Vineyard Adult Learning Program.

People hoping to be accepted by the Martha's Vineyard Adult Learning Program fill out information before taking a test to see if they qualify. —Caroline Brehman

What was so enticing that over 200 people happily stood in line for a couple of hours on a Tuesday night in early September at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School? Everyone was vying for a chance to spend three hours every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night for 26 weeks assiduously studying English for Portuguese speakers in Martha’s Vineyard Adult Learning Program (MVALP).

Applicants were interested in the course for a variety of reasons. Program alumni Sylvio Murando, who was helping people sign in, shared his motivation and experience for such a long, rigorous commitment.

“It was hard in the beginning, because I never had any classes in Brazil. This was my first class in English. The very first day I was excited and very nervous about it. But in the end, it worked out because my teachers were excellent, and the students surrounded me, and the environment was great,” Murando said. ”That’s what motivated me. I knew I needed English to succeed. It helped me with friends, work, and my wife, she’s an English teacher. That’s how I met her, through this program.”

Seventy applicants were accepted into the program, with the curricula designed by program director Jeanne Burke and Nicole Miranda, former curriculum coordinator, along with teachers. The curricula for all four levels are in alignment with the Massachusetts state framework. Burke explains, “There is actually a framework and benchmarks of success for students who are learning English in Massachusetts, and we adhere to that while focusing on themes that are important to their lives, like work and culture, speaking with their boss and neighbors, helping their child at school, shopping, etc.”

Lizzy Schule, a seasoned professional educator facilitating the Level I course for the second time, provides a snapshot of her engaging teaching style. MVALP uses an immersion approach, which means that once you step into the classroom, everything is in English; not a word of Portuguese is spoken, which is a good thing since Schule doesn’t speak the language.

Schule incorporates many modes of learning — visual, verbal, written, acting, and even singing. She uses role playing for practicing conversations. “I try to incorporate music because I find it very helpful in memorizing chunks of language or new vocabulary, and the pronunciation, because it’s to a tune. A lot of students seem to like that. So, let’s say I was teaching the unit about weather. The lyrics might be ‘It is rainy, it is stormy, it is windy,’” Schule explained.

How do students learn what the new words or sentences mean, since there is no Portuguese spoken? Well, Schule explains, “I might have some kind of video clip to illustrate a kind of weather like the wind blowing and then say, ‘Windy, repeat after me, windy.’ And I have a lot of visual aids. When we get to verbs I might have a picture of someone running or swimming. It’s fun also with the beginners, they’re learning a lot of nouns, so I’ll label things around the classroom.”

Schule also shares a favorite exercise: “Most of my students are landscapers, carpenters, housekeepers, maybe cooks, so there is a unit I really like where I have them bring in tools of their trade and we go through them so we have some kind of object with a personal connection to them. They might be kitchen supplies, tools for landscaping and carpentry, paintbrushes. Another way I use is to record them and then send them a little clip so they can hear themselves and work on their pronunciation.”

What keeps Schule committed to teaching three hours, three nights a week for a whole 26 weeks? “It’s a great program, and I find it really rewarding teaching this group because they show up every night. It’s pretty inspiring that people can work 9 to 5, go home and eat dinner, and then come to class because they want to improve their English. People are just so motivated, and the rewards in that are really pretty great. If I’m having a bad day, I think, Well, I get to see this group.”

MVALP is part of the Martha’s Vineyard Public School System. It is funded by Adult and Community Learning Services (ACLS) at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. To learn more about the free program, go to