ELL Program Members Credit: Needham Community Council

It’s a warm early summer day, and a group starts to gather outside the Community Council building on Hillside Avenue. Eager to get moving, they head toward Rosemary Lake with the perfect conditions for an English Language Learners Walk and Talk. 

The meetup, part of the longstanding English Language tutoring program, allows native English speakers and those learning the language to practice speaking in real-life situations. As with many innovations in the past few years, this concept was born out of pandemic restrictions. 

Julie Tovar, ELL program manager for the council, heard about other towns trying something similar and thought it was a great idea. “Especially during the pandemic, it was good to get out and do something social and support our English language learners at the same time,” she said. 

Beth Crastnopol, a tutor and occasional leader of the walks, said it’s a very nice social time as well as an opportunity for practicing English. “It’s just a lovely way to spend a relaxed time getting to know each other and practicing English,” she said. “We walk around Needham and practice vocabulary and talk about what we see.”

The tutoring program has been in place since 1980 and has paired individuals from around the world with fluent English speakers. Right now, the council is working with participants speaking 24 different languages hailing from 32 countries. The walk and talks, which began in the fall of 2021, go beyond the traditional curriculum, said Suzanne Baker, director of development & PR for the council. 

Credit: Needham Community Council

“Tutors [may] talk about how they picked names for their children,” said Baker. “You never know where the conversations will go beyond the book and the brick and mortar. It’s organic, spontaneous conversations.” At Thanksgiving, for example, the group walked to Sudbury Farms to talk about the different foods prepared for the holiday meal. 

The group often includes both Needham residents and individuals who work in the town. 

“We are welcoming so many new people to Needham – living or working here,” Baker said. “We have DPW employees, golf club staff — it’s great to make those connections.”

Cleber Da Silva, who lives in Everett but works in Needham, has participated in several of these walks. He moved to the United States with his wife in 2016. He said his English has greatly improved from attending both the tutoring sessions and the about-town conversations. 

“For me it’s very, very good,” said Da Silva. “I came to the United States just five years ago, and now I feel my English is better for coming here. It helped in important ways.” 

The walk and talks are open to anyone and have begun to evolve into more of a community walk to help create a greater sense of belonging. Tovar said this is true even for the native English speakers.

“We’re looking at the English Language program not just as one way of helping a certain group of people,” said Tovar. “But we acknowledge that immigrants are part of the community, and it’s more of an exchange. It’s always a great opportunity to learn something you wouldn’t have otherwise, and that really comes out in the program.”

Tovar said she was nervous to introduce the program because she wasn’t sure how it would work. “But it’s been well received and has had a great impact on a lot of people in good ways,” she said. “I’m glad Needham residents have been up for trying this.” 

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