Language opens doors

Susan Moss understands the importance of words and language. The sense of self-sufficiency that comes from knowing the language of a country one visits or lives in – as she did with Spanish – deepens a sense of peace and an ability to satisfy curiosity by exploring the culture. “If you get lost you can ask for help. If you get in trouble you can work your way out. You can find friends,” she says.

When Moss retired she wanted to do meaningful work. She had been an Episcopal priest in a Spanish-speaking community and because of her experience learning Spanish she was drawn to language education and the Minnesota Literacy Council.

The Literacy Council was started 45 years ago by a group of women volunteers who met in a Roseville church. They believed that if one person taught someone to read – and that person taught someone else to read – they would spark a movement. Today the Council’s services reach nearly 70,000 children and adults each year and support 450 community programs across the state.

Moss volunteers as an English and citizenship teacher at the Literacy Council’s Open Door location on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Currently she works one-on-one with adults in a citizenship class.

When a parent can speak the language her child speaks in school, she can know how to read to her child, how to advocate for the child at conferences and how to understand materials that are being sent home, Moss explains. She works with Open Door because she also meets adult students who are seeking better-paying jobs, want to return to school, and want to communicate directly with others, like a doctor, without relying on a bilingual child. Knowing the language spoken where you live is “a fundamental pathway to self-sufficiency, community, education and employment no matter who you are.”

In the process of teaching English, Moss learned that she was also teaching – and learning – cultural literacy. Many people, for example, do not grow up knowing slang, such as “ATM” or “ID.” “Sometimes an English Language Learner has trouble decoding slang or understanding a joke.” Based on her experience in a culture other than her own, and learning the perspectives of her students, she became aware of how much we take for granted about the nuances of language.

Teaching English has been like a “window into immigration and refugee settlement in the metro area,” she says. “I’ve learned why so many people are coming to the United States, what countries they are coming from, what refugee camps they lived in, what languages they speak, what religions they practice.” She has seen how hard her students work to gain literacy in English and become citizens. “Some will come to a three-hour language class after a full day’s labor. One student would leave language class and go to work at 11 p.m.”

In a class unit focused on renters’ rights, it was apparent that if you are not fluent in the language it can be hard to get a damage deposit back from a landlord. One student shared her story with the class of taking photos, writing a letter and filing a complaint before finally getting back her deposit. “It was an example to all the students of why they were there, learning how to stand up for themselves,” Moss says. And the student? “She was proud of herself. We were all proud of her.”

“I have a deep compassion, respect and admiration for these students. I want them to succeed. Learning what their joys, hopes and realities are has been a huge education for me,” Moss says. “It makes we want to work even harder. It’s a privilege to struggle and laugh and share life experiences with them.”

FFI: Minnesota Literacy Council
In 2016 the Council trained 2,500 literacy volunteers, and more are needed. To volunteer, call 651-251-9060 or email

For information on free literacy classes, citizenship resources, volunteering and resources for educators go to