ESOL/ESL Conversation Circles and Learning Circles

Photo of an English language conversation circle at the Peabody Institute Library in Massachusetts


Here's a great example of nonformal, library-based ESOL/ESL conversation circles, held at the Peabody Institute Library in Massachusetts. "Each of these free volunteer-led sessions meets weekly in a relaxed setting so that language learners can improve their pronunciation, build vocabulary and perhaps most importantly, gain confidence in their English speaking abilities. The program started with three circles; there are now seven weekly groups meeting for English practice. The concept recently expanded into offering circles for individuals (native English speakers) who wish to practice speaking Spanish and Portuguese."

Most states have had waiting lists for English language classes. Many libraries offer free English language conversation circles to help people while they wait for an English class. Some libraries also offer conversation circles as a supplement to their own -- and others' -- adult English classes.

Many libraries now also offer learning circles led by a trained volunteer. These include a free-to-the-learner, online English language course such as USALearns or Burlington English, or free online English learning resources such as Newsela.  Although most learning circles have not been explicitly for English language acquisition, in Rhode Island, Maine and Massachusetts World Education and Peer to Peer University have an eighteen-month pilot project, funded by the Dollar General Foundation, to offer and customize the learning circles model for English language learners on waiting lists for English classes. These are offered in a library-based family literacy program, a public school adult learning center and three community-based organizations. I am the internal evaluator for this project, helping the five sites to customize the model for adult English language learners.

Do you want to learn more about conversation circles or learning circles? If so, let's discuss them here. Are you a facilitator of a learning circle or conversation circle? If so, please tell us about your model.

David J. Rosen


David, this is a great conversation class, and I can see how it would supplement formal classes at the community college. The library is an important part in community education, serving as a link in the process of forming "Alliances" or "Networks" along the lines of the Philadelphia Literacy Alliance. For one thing, libraries often have a good group of tutors who can help to assist adults on the road to "life-long" learning, "graduating" from one program to another.

Paul, and others,

Libraries offer a lot to adult learner members of their communities or neighborhoods:

  • Classes or tutorials in English and adult basic skills. In many states, adult basic literacy tutorials, sponsored by volunteer adult literacy programs in libraries, are the primary way in which basic literacy skills (so-called zero to three reading skills for adults who are native speakers of English) are available to adults
  • English language conversation groups
  • Learning circles for a wide range of adult learners, but now also beginning to include adult English language learners and perhaps adult basic skills learners
  • Access to computers for adults who do not have reliable broadband access from home, needed for learning, job applications, and so much more
  • Loans to library users of portable digital devices, including laptops and hotspots
  • Individuals like you, Paul, Ed Latham, and others who are passionate about helping adults and young adults learn, and whose volunteer services as learning guides or navigators, coaches, tutors, and mentors are tireless, and so important to members of their communities.

That's my list. I wonder if anyone has other library-sponsored adult learning activities to add to it.


David J. Rosen