Students Write: Why We Like the Washington English Center

At the end of winter term, several students in the Advanced Plus class were so enthusiastic about their experience that they volunteered to write the following short essays for the blog. Elvia is from Colombia, and Abdallah is from Sudan. Thanks to both!

Learning about Different Cultures in Our Advanced Plus Class

By Elvia Cortés

In this competitive business world to be successful and get a better job, we need to learn English. A good option for all new immigrants who arrive in Washington, DC, is the Washington English Center, located in Our Lady Queen of the Americas Church.

WEC offers a high quality, affordable English language program, a good computer lab with programs to learn English, and a warm and welcoming environment to support students.

In the winter term, for example, we focused on American values, attitudes and cultural patterns. It’s a very important topic, not only for foreign businesspeople, visiting scholars, or government officials, but even for tourists.

Culture influences every single aspect of business communication: how to show politeness and respect; how much information to give; how to motivate people; when, how much, and how loudly to talk and laugh; how to organize a letter; even what size paper to use.

Let me compare the two cultures: North American and Latin American. One is an individualist society and the other a collective society, so we have different relationship styles and communication patterns that can generate conflict and misunderstanding.
Each Latin country has its own particular history and cultural background. Latin cultures are the result of their Indian, Spanish, African, French and, lately, North American heritage.

Latinos are sensitive, warm, affectionate and demonstrative; as a group we tend to avoid competition or activities that will set us apart from our own group. For Latinos, the parents, the family, and the friends are the most important in life. Family members visit one another frequently.

American ideas of self-reliance and equality within the family are necessary to sustain the ideals of freedom, democracy and progress. In an individualist society like the United States, communication is more efficient than in a collective society. American people speak directly and to the point, while the word “No” for Latino people can hurt relationships.

Finally, I consider that every culture is right in its own way and to be bicultural is as useful as to be bilingual. Each culture can contribute. Latinos can learn and understand from Americans their traditional value system: to be self-reliant, to be competitive and hard workers. Americans can learn about the contributions of the Latino community in the United States. Both cultures share the same Continent, and Spanish is the most spoken non-English language in U.S.A. homes. Americans can learn more about our countries and our culture, and share and enjoy our delicious food recipes.

Congratulations to the terrific Advanced Plus class at Washington English Center! This picture shows about half the class and includes students from Sudan, Argentina, Vietnam, Mexico, and Colombia, plus four of us teachers. Abdallah is in the back row second from left, and Elvia in the front third from left.

The Advanced Plus class at Washington English Center. This picture shows about half the class and includes students from Sudan, Argentina, Vietnam, Mexico, and Colombia, plus four of us teachers. Abdallah is in the back row second from left, and Elvia in the front row third from left.

Why We Love the Washington English Center

By Abdallah Abualgasim

We are honored to be students at Washington English Center and we would like to say thanks very much to the WEC administration and all its staff for giving us this great opportunity to learn the English language in the United States and helping us grow as immigrants.

And we would like to say a humble thank you very much to our great teachers. We appreciate their devoted efforts and their punctuality, focus, good explanations, and smiling faces. Kehan and Chris, Louise and Larry, Kelsey and Josh, Cathy and Alayna — we love all of you and God bless you.

We love, admire and cherish this place because it gives us a chance we believe we can’t get elsewhere right now. Among the strong points of WEC are these:

  • WEC is a good program that helps us improve our English skills!
  • WEC has qualified teachers who have experience with different types of immigrants and who are committed to their teaching.
  • WEC gives us a good opportunity to meet people from different countries and cultures, which makes the classes very interesting.
  • The teachers are of different ages and professions and have different teaching styles.
  • The rooms are comfortable.
  • The books are good.

We are wondering if WEC could offer these things:

  • More slang, idioms, expressions, and grammar
  • More tips on American culture, for example, living in DC
  • More pictures and videos
  • TOEFL exam preparation class
  • More information about US laws, including workers’ rights

I think we could have some activities like drama, acting scenes from our experience, writing poems, and singing at the end of the semester.

We learned a lot this winter, including these idioms:

  • Thank God it’s Friday
  • Give someone an earful
  • Not all things that glitter are Gold
  • Brown bag
  • Pink slip
  • Turn the other cheek
Abdallah receives his certificate for perfect attendance. Congratulations!

Abdallah receives his certificate for perfect attendance from teacher Kelsey Lyle at winter term graduation. Congratulations to all the students at Washington English Center!

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Helpful ESL Websites for Teachers and Students

Over the past few years, our volunteers have passed on websites that they have found to be helpful when teaching grammar, listening and reading exercises, and short videos that work well as a warm-up. They are not limited to use in the Language Lab and can be used by students outside of class as well. Here are a few of the top sites recommended to us. If you have found helpful websites that you use in class or refer to students, let us know in the comments! is a website put together by Dr. Ron C. Lee who has created an extensive ESL website, updated regularly and linked to other ESL websites. There are sub-categories for Spanish Speakers, Business English, Grammar, Writing (for all levels, including Beginners), Listening, Idioms and Slang and resources and tips for teaching and lesson planning. streams hundreds of hours of spoken audio in English–classics, short stories, lectures, and author interviews. is a reading website with various categories and interactive elements and a great section for children’s stories and fables. Voice of America is a good site for ESL news and current events in short clips. They also have a section called Idioms in a Minute (can also be found on youtube), which would be good for most intermediate to advanced-level students. is The British Council’s website for all English learners, adult or children, and all English Educators. They have great listening exercises and videos, grammar and vocab exercises and sections on Business English and Academic Writing (Writing for a Purpose) The Reading Room gives students the opportunity to practice your reading skills and improve vocabulary. Students can practice their reading comprehension by using the True/False questions at the end of each story to test their understanding and receive instant feedback. Best suited for more advanced students. is a Global Education Community for more advanced students who wish for lessons on math, social studies, science and health English Language Arts. This site is also great for teachers looking to find full courses, lesson plans or practice exercises for all levels, submitted by ESL professionals. Divided into activities for students and resources for teachers, is a good place to read teaching tips, find ESL jobs, identifying and helping students with dyslexia, and TEFL articles. For students, it’s a great base site for games, quizzes, forums, jokes, vocabulary, writing, reading, pronunciation, grammar, articles and ESL Exams (TOEFL, TOEIC, and the Cambridge ESOL).

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The New Lending Library at Washington English Center

By Michele Pagan, Class 2A instructor

One of the most surprising things that a student once asked me was, “What else can I do to improve my  English?”

That was hugely surprising to me, because I was thinking that they are immersed in English, just by living here.  They are living a total-immersion course -  an opportunity that I myself never had.  Yet, here was this person asking me what else they could do to increase the content of English in their daily lives.

I now have the answer for anyone wanting to make serious progress in their understanding of English:

Have you heard about the new LENDING LIBRARY at the WASHINGTON ENGLISH CENTER?

The library is set up in the room opposite the Volunteer Lounge, and students may borrow books on the Honor System: all they need to do is write down their name and the name of the book they have borrowed.  They can read the book any time they want to, bringing the book to class to ask their instructors for help when they just can’t get past a particularly difficult passage.

Lending Library

How do I know this activity helps to improve an understanding of English?  It’s because I learned that myself, when I was studying French.  I had only studied French for 3 years in high school, but as an adult living in Washington DC many years later, I began taking classes at the USDA Graduate School, in the evenings.  One day, while visiting some French friends at their home, I picked up a copy of The DaVinci Code which was lying on a table, and “Voila!”, I was able to read the first page!  Then, I was able to read the 2nd page!  It wasn’t totally error free, but I was able to understand about 90% of the content that I read, needing only to look up a few words in each paragraph.

After that experience at my friends’ house, I returned home and ordered myself a copy of this book from, in French, of course.  From that, I began to listen to French radio at the same time that I sat down to read my French copy of the DaVinci Code.  With one hand on a BiLingual Dictionary, the other hand holding my novel, and my ears hearing both French voices on the radio, and my own voice speaking French aloud, I made huge advances in my French language abilities.

I now tell my students that this is the absolutely BEST way to improve their English:  sit down to read your English novel, turn on any talk-radio program on the radio, and read aloud to themselves.  It’s like being in English class, at any time of the day or evening.  This practice creates a multi-sensory way to learn English: your ears are hearing English conversation on the radio, your ears also hear you speaking English, your eyes are reading English, and your mouth is developing the muscles to speak English correctly.  Best of all, your brain is tying all these sensory experiences together, to help you understand and speak better English. Your brain really needs to hear you speaking correct English, and it will!

Try it, you’ll like it, and you will amazed at how much your English improves.  I tell my students that improvement won’t happen immediately, but they will definitely see a huge improvement over time.

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Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and More: Foreign Language Classes in DC

By Cathy Sunshine

Does teaching English ever make you want to be on the other side of the desk for a change, learning a language, or brushing up on one you learned a while ago? It has had that effect on me. For one thing, I wonder if the experience of studying a language, which I haven’t done for years, might help me become a better English teacher — or at least understand better what my students are going through.

So I’ve started looking around for Spanish classes, just to see what’s out there. In the process, I found that DC has an incredible array of resources for learning just about any language you can think of. Universities, community colleges, commercial language schools, cultural institutes, embassies, nonprofit community groups and churches offer classes. There are also many informal opportunities to practice speaking a language, such as Meetups.

Below is a very partial list of what’s available in our area. The list focuses on group classes that individuals can enroll in. It doesn’t include schools that only offer private or semi-private instruction, or single individuals giving lessons. Details of levels, times, start dates, locations, and cost are usually available on the program’s website.

I didn’t make any attempt to rate quality. YMMV. Some of the questions to ask before signing up with a program: Is the class taught entirely in the target language? Will the instructor be a native speaker? What’s the average class size, and is there a cap? How do they place you in a level, and if it turns out to be the wrong level, what options do you have? What’s the policy on make-up classes if you have to miss a session?

A teacher at Global Language Network, a nonprofit organization offering affordable classes.

Global Language Network, a nonprofit organization, offers affordable classes taught by volunteers.

Educational institutions

Universities and community colleges in the area offer a wide selection of language classes, some of which may be available to nondegree students. Instruction is likely to be on the formal side and, particularly if you want academic credit, may be costly. Two institutions that offer classes specifically for nondegree students are:

Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School
Part of the DC public school system. It mainly serves ESL students, but also offers conversational Spanish for English speakers at its campus in Columbia Heights.

Graduate School USA
Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Urdu
Previously known as the US Department of Agriculture Graduate School. Day, evening, and weekend classes downtown in the L’Enfant Plaza area.

Commercial language schools

Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic
One of the original language schools, now a global franchise. Downtown, Thomas Circle.

Casa Italiana Language School
Downtown, Judiciary Square area.

Fluent City
French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Hebrew
Evening classes in Dupont Circle area. The program is run out of Brooklyn, NY.

Go Spanish Now
Classes at locations in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. It’s not clear from the website exactly where — it seems to vary by class.

International Center for Language Studies
Portuguese, Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Russian
Evening classes downtown.

International Language Institute
Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish
Large program with many languages and levels. Dupont Circle area.

International School of Languages
Spanish, French, Mandarin, Farsi
Bethesda, MD.

Middle East South Asia Language Institute
Persian/Dari, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Pashto, Amharic, Armenian, Darfuri, Hebrew, Kurdish, Turkish, Sudanese Arabic, Tigrinya, French
Foggy Bottom, Farragut, and Dupont Circle locations.

Spanish Tutor DC
Evening classes in the Farragut North area.

A class at Spanish Tutors DC.

A class at Spanish Tutor DC.

Cultural institutes and embassies

Alliance Française
Dupont Circle area, about a block from Washington English Center.

Dutch-Flemish Language Courses in Washington, DC
Classes at the Belgian Embassy in DC, with another location in Virginia. Aletta Schaap, a 2B teacher at Washington English Center, says, “I recommend these classes highly.”

Downtown, Gallery Place area.

Italian Cultural Society
Bethesda, MD.

Japan-America Society of Washington, DC
Farragut North area.

Korean Cultural Center
Dupont Circle area.

Middle East Institute
Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish
Dupont Circle area.

A class at GoSpanishNow.

A class at GoSpanishNow.

Nonprofit community programs and informal groups

Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle
Dupont Circle area. Charges a fee, but much less expensive than the commercial schools.

Global Language Network
More than 60 languages (a selection of languages and levels is offered each term)
Classes are taught by volunteers who are native speakers of their language. This program’s enrollment model is unusual, basically a lottery system. The more popular languages fill up quickly. You pay a deposit and then get most of it back if you miss no more than two classes. Classes meet in Foggy Bottom and various other parts of the city.

Various languages
Meetups are informal get-togethers focusing on a shared interest. They typically meet in a public place like a restaurant, and different people may show up each time. There are many different language-focused Meetups in DC and its suburbs. In a some cases the organizer may charge a token fee. Several of the language Meetups seem to be associated with language schools and may serve to attract students to fee-based programs. Meetups aren’t for everyone, but if you don’t mind a loosely organized encounter with an ever-changing cast of strangers, it can be a good way to practice your favorite language with no formal commitment and almost for free.

Members of the DC French Meetup enjoy dinner at a restaurant.

Members of the DC French Meetup enjoy dinner at a restaurant.

Posted in Community Resources, Language for Exploring the World | 1 Comment

Surviving a Washington Winter: Advice from Our Students

By Cathy Sunshine

When the polar vortex swept into DC in January, a number of my students were shocked and awed. Several have recently arrived from warm countries and are experiencing a US winter for the first time. Suffice it to say they’re not happy. “It is my first time in DC during winter,” one student wrote. “I am from a warm part of Spain, so this situation of extreme cold is unusual for me. I do not know how to handle it. I realize cold is not for me.” “There is no way I can stay warm,” groaned a student from Sudan.

Our students didn't sign up for this...

Our students didn’t sign up for this…

Others are more upbeat. Veterans of several winters here take the weather in stride, while students who hail from cold countries seem downright gleeful. “I do like winter,” wrote a student from Kazakhstan. “I with impatience wait for the first snow every winter. When everything covers with snow and everywhere is white, it is amazing! Moreover, I don’t know how to tell you how it is an awesome feeling for a walk on the snow and under the snowflakes. It is just perfect!”

Since the cold has been on our students’ minds, my team has been encouraging our students to talk and write about it. We asked three questions: Is this your first winter in Washington? Do you like winter — why or why not? What advice would you give to someone who is experiencing winter for the first time? The responses below (just as the students wrote them) come from my Advanced Plus class and from several 3B and 4B classes. Thanks to Leah and Heidi and to the other teachers who surveyed their students. Following the students’ comments are a few tips for buying warm winter clothing in DC.

Hardy DC pedestrians brave the cold. Winter 2014 so far has been the coldest and snowiest in three years.

DC pedestrians bundle up against the cold. Washington hasn’t had so much cold and snow since the blizzards of 2010.

Is this your first winter in DC?

In my case it’s my first winter in DC. I hate the winter because anything becomes dangerous!! All my friends had warned me that the winter in DC is hard, the worst for me is that practically you can’t do anything and it’s boring!! I had to buy a lot of clothes because I arrived in august and I didn’t expect this cold.

It’s my first winter. The first couple hours snowing were exciting but after I observed, played and enjoyed the snow I really hated it. I can not go outside wearing confortable clothes. Landscapes are really nice till a car drives over the snow and the snow becomes black. In addition, this cold interrupts my routine, because it is hard to go from one place to another. It is clear I do not like winter.

No, it isn’t my first winter in DC. It’s the third winter here. The last two winters were less harsh than this one. I realize that when snows in DC, the city stops. It’s not prepared for this winter event, like the north cities like New York, Chicago.

No, it’s not my first winter. I have enjoyed this season for six years in DC. This is a perfect city to sightsee, wander or take photographs. In DC there isn’t too much snow like in other cities, like Boston, Chicago or NYC.

This is my first winter in Washington, DC. I am from Kazakhstan. There is much colder than here. Therefore, the cold weather and wearing heavy clothes are not new thing for me.

Do you like winter? Why or why not?

I like the snow, it reminds me of my home country in winter.

No I do not like winter because I was born and raised in a warm country where we don’t wear coats or boots, gloves, winter hats etc.

I do like winter. I enjoy gong for a walk when it snows. Also, I love to build a snowman with my friends, and go skiing.

No, I don’t. I only find negative points from the winter. The winter doesn’t permit me practice street-sports. It’s hard even to take a walk. In addition, I need to wear a lot of layers of clothes.

Yes I do. I like to enjoy the season by going skiing, riding a bike on the trails, taking pictures. The city and trails are beautiful covered with snow, its like another place.

I don’t enjoy winter; I accept it because there is not choice. You have to survive. I prepare buying winter clothes to keep warm.

Yes, I do. I like winter, because it is a white season. I mean there is fresh air and I might do skiing and skating. In winter there is a beautifill view.

I don’t like it because is so cool and my fingers get frozen.

As I said the cold weather is not new thing for me. So I wear very warm clothes and eat well-calory food. Also, I do always exercise to stay warm during the winter.

I think that for foreign people the winter as a white landscape looks beautiful as a new experience; but it isn’t a good idea when you feel under skin the deep cold every day.

Winter in Washington can be beautiful. Photo: Joshua Lanier/DC Spotlight Newspaper.

Strolling along the National Mall on January 21, 2014. Photo: Joshua Lanier/DC Spotlight Newspaper.

What advice would you give someone who is experiencing winter for the first time?

If sumbody suffers of winter cold, he must buy a warm clothing. There is no bad weather, there are bad clothing.

Wear warm clothes — gloves, hat, scarf, shoes (boots) — so you don’t get sick. Go snowboarding. Make a snowman — take pictures. Go ice skating.

I would advice first time experience to dress warm if they can because if they don’t have this kind of winter in their country they can get sick or cause frostbite.

Somebody told me put hat, big sweater, jacket, boot and scarf.

You should wear down coat, and wool coat, eat hot chilly, and use 4 blankets.

My main advice is to stay at home as much as possible. You should go to the street only if it is necessary. Secondly, I suggest wearing warm clothes such as gloves, scarf, down coat. Finally, I recommend to buy a powerful heater to mantenance your house in an optimate temperature.

Cook vegetables soup with hot spices.

I suggest drink hot beverages and keep warm your throat and feet.

I think you need to stay home and eat six meal a day. 20 cops of tea 10 cops of coffee, wear all your clothes.

It’s my advice. 1. Be careful, take care of yourself be good. 2. Prepare the essential clothing like: fur coat, wool sweater, scarf, gloves, winter hat, down vest, winter boots. 3. Prepare special equipment: skis, sleds, skates. 4. Prepare your car, you should change anti-freez and tires.

My suggestion for who is experiencing winter for the first time is: first, buy some special base-layer, this is like a shirt, light, soft with long sleeves made with a special fabric that allow you to be warm without a bunch of layers. It’s expensive but worth it. You can buy in the sports shops. Second, cover your head and ears with a good hat no matter how ridiculous you look :)

To stay warm in winter the recommendation is have adequate winter cloth with wool and another synthetic material; eat food with high calories, proteins, vegetables; have a good heating at home and do exercises. Historical winters show us that the winter in DC havent been so hard. Life continues, enjoy the winter season, going out to visit museums, visit the zoo, going to the art and musical activities. Washington is an alive city in the day and at nights.

Who is experiencing winter for the first time, I would say them: “Just enjoy with this winter!” Keep warm and go for a walk, go to ski! When the snow melts or you have to go back to your tropical country, then you will miss it. Enjoy with the snow and have fun!!!

A warm winter jacket is "puffy."

A warm winter jacket is “puffy.”

Where to Buy Warm Winter Clothing in DC

My class talked about how to dress warmly, and the different materials that clothes can be made from. Down jackets and wool sweaters rate highest for warmth. Jackets with synthetic filling such as polyester can work if they are thick enough. Puffy is good. If you look like the Michelin tire man, chances are the jacket is warm. Cotton is not warm at all, so sweatshirts and hoodies are pretty much useless in winter.

Where to find winter gear? If you want to spend big bucks, no problem. Sporting goods stores (REI, Bean’s, Patagonia, Hudson Trail Outfitters, Eddie Bauer, City Sports, etc.) will be happy to sell you a new down parka for $150 to $250.

Those who don’t want to spend that kind of money will need to get creative. I’m a big fan of secondhand, thrift, and consignment stores. You have to spend time hunting, but you can often find bargains — high-quality, brand-name used clothes, cheap. Some of our students already know about these stores, but others might appreciate the tip.

One of my favorites is Unique Thrift in Silver Spring. It’s actually two enormous, warehouse-like thrift stores side by side, with a vast inventory and good prices. In the District, there’s Frugalista in Mt. Pleasant, which has a nice selection of new but “remaindered” brand-name clothes, as well as some used. I also like Martha’s Table, which runs a small thrift shop on 14th St. NW. The selection is limited, but the people are friendly, prices are rock-bottom, and the clothing sales support a good cause. You can also try Amvets on Georgia Ave. NW; Goodwill on South Dakota Ave. NE and in the suburbs; and the Savers chain, also with many stores in the suburbs.

Martha's Table thrift shop at 14th and V Streets NW.

Explore thrift shops to find bargains in winter clothing. This is Martha’s Outfitters at 14th and V Streets NW.

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