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Largo library offers students free tutoring in learning English

LARGO

When Lucia Martinez, a single parent who moved to the United States from Mexico 10 years ago, is at home with her daughters, ages 6 and 12, they all speak Spanish.

However, when the girls head off to school, they leave their Spanish behind.

That is why Martinez and an English tutor, Elaine Villafane, spend Tuesday afternoons in a tiny room at the Largo Public Library.

"I'm here because my children wanted me to speak English with them more,'' said Martinez, 34.

The pair, one of about 45 student-tutor teams currently enrolled in the library's English Language Learning program, began meeting about two months ago to sharpen Martinez's English skills.

The library's ELL program has served hundreds of people since it began in October 2010, according to Nancy Coleman Romanos, the librarian in charge of the program. It continues to attract participants who came to Pinellas County from countries around the globe, including Mexico, Peru, Russia, India, Ukraine, Indonesia and Turkey.

Last Tuesday Martinez, who works for a uniform manufacturer, and Villafane, a real estate agent, spent about one hour focusing on pronunciation. In particular, they worked on the letter "R.''

"In Spanish, the 'R' is a sound coming from behind the teeth," explained Villafane, 62. "But in English, the 'R' is pronounced completely different, from deep back in the throat."

Together, the women repeated words along with a voice on a CD player.

"Road.''

"Faster.''

"Sharp.''

According to library director Casey McPhee, the program was started because there were lots of inquiries from mid-county about English tutoring.

"When people would ask for help, the closest place we could send them was Dunedin,'' McPhee said. "We really felt strongly that this was a core service we needed to provide.''

The library wasn't sure if people would step up to be tutors. The program runs on a shoestring, with donations from the Greater Largo Library Foundation, and McPhee was banking on community members volunteering.

"It was a situation where we thought we'd have people willing to help, but we just had to see what would happen. It turned out to be a success,'' McPhee said.

The volunteers range from retired businessmen to college students gaining experience in their quest to become educators.

Villafane became a tutor because she felt sharing her experiences overcoming language barriers would benefit others. She moved to the mainland when she was 19 after graduating early from the University of Puerto Rico. "Even though I have a master's degree in biochemistry, and although I write and read English all the time, I have felt singled out because of my accent,'' Villafane said. "I know the struggle, and meeting this girl, meeting Lucia, is seeing a part of myself.''

While Villafane and Martinez worked on pronunciation skills recently, upstairs in a different room, Elizabeth Gonzales was meeting her tutor, Chris Paige, for the first time.

Before moving to Florida 11 years ago, Gonzales worked as a pharmacist in Peru. However, to work as a pharmacist here she must hold a Florida certification. To get it, she must pass the "Test of English as a Foreign Language," commonly known as the TOEFL test (pronounced Toe-Ful).

"I've tried eight times, and I've completed parts of it, but I have not passed the entire test,'' said Gonzales, 46. "So I'm here to get help to pass."

Romanos has seen others in the same position. "We have had three other pharmacists who have transferred from their native country who have had trouble with the TOEFL test,'' she said. "The test is a challenge because part of it is listening to a conversation and then only having a certain amount of time to answer questions."

Romanos, who joined the library last July after living with her husband, Raymond Romanos, a retired architect, in Costa Rica for six years, stresses that although Gonzales plans on taking the TOEFL in two months, there is no deadline for her to complete her tutoring sessions at the library. "She can come to get tutored for as long as it takes her,'' Romanos said.

Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 pcastillo@tampabay.com.

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