Hand holding food in bowl (Culinary Literacy Center)
Chana masala is one of six popular recipes featured in the Edible Alphabet curriculum. (Culinary Literacy Center)

Sharing food is a communal practice that transcends cultures. Though cuisine and preparation style can vary, the act of coming together with friends and family for a meal is universal.

The Edible Alphabet program, run out of the Culinary Literacy Center at the Free Library of Philadelphia, harnesses the universality of food to help immigrants and refugees improve their English literacy. The center has a commercial-grade kitchen — equipped with burners, convection ovens, refrigerators, and stainless steel work tables — that doubles as a classroom.

“Cooking is the vehicle through which students are learning, practicing, refining and expanding their literacy in English,” said Lindsay Southworth, who teaches the class.

Learning through food

Created in 2015, the free course is offered to nonnative English speakers in the Philadelphia area and welcomes students of all levels of English proficiency. Every class has one culinary instructor and one language teacher, who collaborate to make cooking exercises both educational and delicious.

Class typically begins with an interactive warmup, where students converse and review key language concepts from the week before. After a reading- and writing-based activity or game, the day’s recipe is announced, new vocabulary is introduced, and food preparation begins.

Row of people preparing food along long table (Culinary Literacy Center)
Students are grouped so they can’t speak their native languages. (Culinary Literacy Center)

“Even though we have varying levels of English proficiency in the class, students work together, they’re excited, we have a sense of community,” Southworth said. “That helps bridge the gap between some people who might have pretty advanced levels of English and some people who may be beginners.”

More than cooking and learning English, the curriculum also integrates a library skill each week. One activity involves learning about the employment resources and business opportunities available at the library. Interested students sign up for one-on-one appointments with career counselors.

Hoping to expand

Program coordinators have developed “kitchen carts” and “kitchens in a box” that hold the necessary supplies to host a class. Efforts are being made to expand the program to smaller library branches across Philadelphia, making the class more accessible to the wider English-language-learning community.

“One of the things that makes cooking a really interesting and engaging vehicle for an English-language-learning class is that people are coming together around a communal table, sharing food,” Southworth said. “It’s an important experience across all different cultures and language groups. It brings people together.”