Dennis (DJ) Dolack: Increasing Intelligibility at Baruch
Dennis Dolack, Communications Tutorial Coordinator and Program Coordinator for the Tools for Clear Speech Program
Dennis (DJ) Dolack, of Baruch’s Student Academic Consulting Center (SACC), is one of those Baruchians whose work addresses several goals of the college’s Strategic Plan. As communications tutorial coordinator and program coordinator for the Tools for Clear Speech Program, Dolack heads an initiative that expands the school’s participation in online education, increases the academic caliber of students, and creates staff development and training opportunities. That’s pretty impressive for a program that’s only a few years old.
Idea for a New Resource
Dolack, who grew up in northwestern New Jersey, earned a BFA in writing from Emerson College and an MFA from Vermont College. This focus led him to the Writing Center at Baruch, where he began work as a consultant in 2006, later teaching English composition as an adjunct and working as writing tutorial coordinator for the SACC.
“I noticed that many of my students were non-native English speakers and were having a difficult time participating in class discussions and sometimes even extracurricular activities.”
When (recently retired) SACC director Carol Morgan asked if he wanted to take over the ESL speech lab in 2012, he jumped at the chance and began developing the Tools for Clear Speech (TfCS) Program. “I thought about how the growing English Language Learner (ELL) populations were underserved because there was a bit of a blind spot in the College’s academic support structures, and we weren’t meeting the needs of the campus community.”
Tools for Clear Speech has since grown enormously. “We have 15 professional speech consultants, a workshop series, conversation hours, a fully revised website, and we’ve recently focused our efforts on building distance learning modules so that students can go online and practice on their own,” says Dolack. “We also built our own oral communication video assessment, which is unique to Baruch College and offers students the opportunity to build a personal portfolio of their progress.”
A Truly Unique Program
The program has been a tremendous success. During the 2014-2015 academic year, Dolack’s team conducted approximately 2,000 one-to-one sessions, and served around 500 ELL students.
“We cannot find another program that is doing what we’re doing, encompassing real-world, task-based areas of intelligibility.”
One of the program’s main features is pragmatics instruction, “not just clear speaking, but the idea of intelligibility and social interaction and how it can differ so greatly in different cultures,” explains Dolack. “Students new to the country may not pick up on idiomatic phrases or sarcasm, and that’s very difficult for them to navigate in a community that moves so quickly."
Not Accent Reduction
The center is also open to native English speakers who wish to communicate more clearly, but, “We don’t want to rid students of their accents,” says Dolack. “That’s part of living and interacting in a global community.”
“One can have an accent and be completely understandable. We’re interested in intelligibility, which has to do with pronunciation and grammatical control.”
In fall 2014, Dolack began implementing Oral Communication Assessment videos for ELL students who participate in the TfCS program. “We assessed and scored over 160 students; they will continue to take that assessment each semester, so that at the end of their career at Baruch they’ll have a visual portfolio of their progress.”
Most Fulfilling Aspect of His Job: “Hearing students say that the workshops and the conversation hours have truly worked for them, improved their speaking ability, but more than that, improved their confidence in the classroom to raise their hand and add to the discussion.”
Goals: “Rolling out a full distance-learning effort; our customized practice module is called TfCS To Go. Students can practice from wherever they are, as long as they have internet access. We’re also putting a lot of effort into making our services available to the entire college, faculty and staff; many of our students are in classrooms with instructors who are also non-native English speakers, so we want to help facilitate that communication.”
For more information about Tools for Clear Speech, visit http://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/tfcs/