Practicing casual English with VOICE Program mentors

Written by: 
Shannon Crowley
A student meets with a missionary volunteer at the VOICE program.


English as an international language students have the opportunity to practice conversational English with the VOICE Program, which is run by the BYU–Hawaii senior missionaries. Having “conversation buddies” to practice speaking English with, in an informal setting, leads to reduced anxiety amongst students, according to officials who oversee the program.

Its function

Sister Stephenson, a senior missionary from Pennsylvania, serves full time in the VOICE Program. Talking about who the VOICE Program is for, she said, “It’s specifically designed for EIL students, which is English as an international language, because they test into something and they have a certain level that they test into.”

Amanda Wallace, an associate professor in the English Language Teaching and Learning Department, supervises the VOICE Program, the EIL tutoring program, and the Teacher’s Assistant (TA) program. She suggests her students participate in the VOICE Program.

“So many of our EIL teachers will assign students to go there for conversation practice, or they’ll give it to them as an option and they’ll say, ‘Here’s something available to you.’”

Speaking directly on what the VOICE Program is, Wallace explained, “It’s general conversation practice for academic assignments from [the EIL] teachers. They go to our EIL tutors, who work with academic English assignments, or to the VOICE Program tutoring [which] is much more casual.”

Stephenson explained her role as a conversational tutor. “We’re not supposed to help them with their writing assignments  [because] it’s supposed to be speaking or conversational English. We’re not supposed to answer their grammar questions...but I just tell them, ‘If I don’t know the rule behind what you’re asking, I can at least tell you if it sounds right. If it sounds correct, it probably is.’”

Wallace said the VOICE Program tutors are “actually conversation buddies… and they can talk with students about anything they want to converse about just [so the students can] get to practice speaking in English.”

Explaining their availability, Stephenson said, “That’s what we do and we’re here from 9 [a.m.] to 4 [p.m.]. We have lunch from 12 to 1 [p.m.] and occasionally we make special allowances or appointments with students that either work or have classes and can’t get here during those hours. We’ll try and help anybody who needs our help.”

Expounding on how one gets started in the VOICE Program, Wallace said, “You can just go and sign up,” referring to the schedules on a table in the Aloha Center where students can sign for appointment times.

According to Wallace, the location of the VOICE Program has shifted around in the past, but the Aloha Center location has shown to be “the most successful place, to have it.”

Wallace expressed her appreciation to the Aloha Center officials for lending the program its public space in the hallway between the HUB and student leadership offices.

Who runs it and how

On who tutors for the VOICE Program, Wallace said, “It would be either service missionaries or full-time missionaries working there generally.

“[The missionaries] really, really enjoy it, and it’s a way to get to know the students. The students appreciate the connections and opportunity to practice as well.”

Further explaining how missionaries are assigned to the VOICE Program, Wallace said, “There’s actually a process where missionaries are assigned to VOICE and that’s through [Human Resources], so we don’t actually go and recruit.”

Stephenson noted she’s the only full-time missionary working in the VOICE Program. “Right now I don’t have any other full-time people with me. I have four part-time people, so it’s making it a little more tricky schedule-wise [for students to get in to practice their English].”

Explaining how she goes about helping EIL students with their English communication skills, Stephenson said she uses a whiteboard to communicate when she wants to teach them how a word is spelled phonetically or how it sounds phonetically.

“If I don’t understand what they’re trying to say, I ask them to try and write it down and we figure it out.

“We have magazines, church magazines, or the Ke Alaka‘i. They learn lots of new words and then we help them look up those words and learn what the definitions are.

“I really encourage the students to take notes and to write down the vocabulary words and what they mean. Some really try to incorporate them into their everyday language, and it’s amazing to watch.”

Wallace mentioned the support she has felt for the program and said, “We really appreciate the support we’ve gotten for the VOICE Program. I thank the personnel in the Aloha Center and other people who have helped... all the missionaries who’ve been working, managing, and running it and, just everybody that helps support it.”

Its effect on students

“I’ve really seen them blossom,” said Stephenson. “They really blossom by the end of the semester. A lot of them don’t come back. They feel confident enough to progress on their own.”

Wallace said she enjoys the effects she’s seen the program have with students. “It’s engaging and it helps them feel more motivated for language learning.”

She continued, “It’s a safe way to practice language and to build skills. I think [overall] it’s just a positive, well-used, program. Language learning… helps [students] to feel more at ease in talking or with any aspects of conversation, like pronunciation.”

Stephenson said, “I think they sense this is a safe environment because I’m not their peer. I’m an auntie, or a mother, or a grandmother figure, and they just feel safe here. We talk about all kinds of things. We talk about dating or marriage if they want to.”

As he was writing his name down on the schedule for a tutoring time, Jessup Lee, a freshman majoring in computer science from Korea, said, “I’m signing up for my first time. My classmates and my EIL professors introduced me to the program, and I came with my friends... to practice conversational English speaking skills.” Lee said he is enthusiastic to begin coming to the tutoring program.

This type of enthusiasm in EIL students toward the VOICE Program is backed up by Wallace as she said, “Students really appreciate the opportunity to just talk and practice with somebody. It’s a friendly environment... and it’s not academic. Students can talk about academic things if they want to, but it’s really not an academic approach to conversation practice.”

Wallace concluded by saying, “I think it’s a really valuable language learning resource on campus, and we appreciate having it. We appreciate the students who suggested it, and we just look forward to keeping it going.”


Date Published: 
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
Last Edited: 
Tuesday, December 4, 2018