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February 9, 2004

Kathy Walsh Nufer column: Tutors help break down works, build vocabulary

From: Appleton Post Crescent, WI - Feb 9, 2004

Twenty-one-year-old Amanda Kranzusch dreams of working with her uncle in a photo studio one day.

The Town of Menasha resident has taken photography classes, but some technical language in her photography books still stymies her.

No wonder. When you are deaf and use American Sign Language (ASL) as your main mode of daily communication, English can seem like a foreign language at times, especially when there aren't signs to match words you need to know.

"I can really use extra help with my vocabulary," she says.

So every Thursday, Kranzusch heads to Neenah Public Library where she and sign language interpreter and volunteer tutor Kalyn Olson "break down" words that present major obstacles.

Kranzusch learned about the tutoring Deaf Empowerment Literacy Program offers from her adviser at Fox Valley Technical College.

Olson found the program by visiting the Deaf Empowerment Web site.

Now she has made it her mission to help Kranzusch read and write better in her second language. "We're making progress," Olson says.

Right now, the two are reading a photography book together. They also tackled cause-and-effect sentences, and medical history forms, namely questions doctors and nurses might ask in an emergency.

"We work with words and what they mean," signs Kranzusch. Although an interpreter accompanies her to class at FVTC, she says she gets overwhelmed. "It's easier one-on-one and I get better help here. When I'm in big classes, it is really difficult."

The value of these tutoring partnerships is priceless, says Melanie Blechl, Deaf Empowerment co-founder, who coordinates tutoring for four matches. She hopes more Fox Valley residents who are deaf or hard of hearing hook up with this free service.

Blechl, a sign language interpreter at Appleton's Edison Elementary School, notes that the deaf and hard of hearing have the same challenges with English that various ethnic groups face when learning a new language, but they often are overlooked.

"I think our society and educational systems are just beginning to learn that those who use ASL as their primary mode of communication really fit with English Language Learners (ELL), like the Hmong and Spanish-speaking populations," she says. "I've made presentations at local and state literacy conventions, and people comment they had never thought of that."

Many deaf and hard of hearing adults read at a third- to sixth-grade level, and it is often a matter of going back to basics to improve their skills.

Acquiring most languages is based on sound and phonics, she explains. "From the time a hearing child is born, and even in the womb, language is being acquired and processed. Just imagine how much life information is delayed or lost when one cannot hear it."

Tutors, all fluent in ASL, which is more conceptual and has a different syntax than English, tailor sessions to individual needs. Students may want to read a cookbook or newspaper, work toward a job promotion or understand their children's homework better.

"A lot of what we do may involve daily living skills," Blechl says. Forms — Social Security and bank notices, job applications, medical procedures — can be difficult to decipher.

"I think it's an important program, as it improves the quality of people's lives," says Lori Fuller, Deaf Empowerment co-founder. "We want to respect the ASL culture and language, but also help deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals get further in life. I also think it's important for people to understand that even though some deaf people, like myself, have a college degree, English is still difficult to understand at times."

Kranzusch agrees and recommends this service highly. "I told some of my friends about tutoring already."

Kathy Walsh Nufer writes a weekly education column. She can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 290, or by e-mail at knufer@

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