Newcomers illiterate in native tongue struggle to learn English

Non-profit programs are looking for ways to teach English to newcomers who are illiterate in their home language.

Programs look to overcome education shortfall while integrating immigrants and refugees

Reading material lines the shelves at the Calgary Immigrant Education Society in Forest Lawn. (Mackenzie Hermann )

In partnership with Mount Royal University's Bachelor of Communication-Journalism program and the Calgary Journal, CBC Calgary is publishing a series profiling some of the immigrants and refugees who moved here and how they're helping shape our city. 

They sing songs, memorize the days of the week, learn how to hold a pencil and practice writing their names. Donna Clarke's adult students are all newcomers who, for various reasons, lack literacy in both English and their native tongue.

That lack of education is just one of many challenges confronting refugees and immigrants learning English — something that is expected of anyone residing in English Canada. But several Calgary-based organizations are actively working to overcome these challenges.

Among them is the Calgary Immigrant Education Society, where Clarke works. She teaches one of 76 different classes offered by the society.

What makes her class different is that it caters to students with less than eight years of education in their native language.

Educational barriers

That lack of education may be a result of gender, age, poverty, geographical challenges or family responsibilities.

In many instances, Clarke's students are refugees whose education was interrupted by conflict.

This can make learning English extremely difficult.

"If a student is educated in their native tongue, they understand learning schemas. They understand the concept of a verb or a noun or a sentence," said Clarke. "My students don't have those concepts to think about and go, 'Yeah, I know what this is in my native tongue so I get what this is in English."

Colyn deGraaff, the manager of e-learning and communications for the Calgary Immigrant and Educational Society, says lack of basic education for newcomers is an issue that organizations need to be able to identify and address.

"We look at language masteries — listening, speaking, reading, and writing — demographic backgrounds, years of education in home countries and accessibility to our services based on geography. With the increase of new immigrants coming to the city, we've seen a sizable growth in beginners and literacy level needs," said deGraaff. 

We teach real life, practical, settlement skills. We are a settlement program- Donna Clarke

That's why Clarke's class focuses on the development of those language mastery skills. But it also emphasizes practical tasks, like filling out a new-patient form at the doctor's office, applying for a job, or getting a bus pass and reading a transit schedule.

"We teach real life, practical, settlement skills. We are a settlement program… It's real and tangible," said Clarke. "When it's real life, it's much easier to interpret. Little children are sponges. They soak up everything you teach them, but if you want your students to remember at the adult level, it has to be really meaningful content."

Treated like children

Many other literacy and English language teachers use the same strategy. However, because it must be taught so basically, some students feel infantilized.

This is an issue faced within the Calgary Bridge Program, a branch of the Calgary Separate School district. It began in 2005 to accommodate a large influx of refugees from South Sudan who also had limited or no schooling in their first language.

Leslie Davis, a former English teacher for the program, said her students ranged from not knowing the alphabet to a grade three level of education. However, they still expected content that would not only challenge their language skills but meet their maturity.

"There was an idea to work with them to make figures out of plasticine and make a little film out of it. It was a great idea to teach them and engage them," said Davies. "The kids hated it. They totally rebelled, saying, 'we are not babies.' To them, plasticine was just a child's thing, so it was very interesting in that regard, working with them as young adults."

Infantilization is less problematic in classes with older adults, as many of them have their own children to pass their learning on to.

"We try as much adult content as possible, but we've been singing head shoulders knees and toes for a month now and they love it," said Clarke.

She helps them to feel ownership over their learning by conducting a needs assessment to determine their interests.

Need to work

It is this process of finding the needs of the students that helped Davies identify another challenge facing young adult English language learners.

Through home visits, she learned that many of her students came from difficult family situations. Most only had mothers, if they had parents at all, because their fathers had been killed overseas. In order to help support their families, many students work.

"We worked with them on trying to find part-time jobs. We helped one young man get a job at the concession at the Flames games and another young man get a job in a restaurant as a busboy. But they'd have no clothing, so we'd find them clothing," said Davies. "It was really just an all-around program to try to help them get a leg up in life."

That work also meant the students' priorities were divided, an issue alleviated by making accommodations with employers.

"They really needed to be in the classroom everyday so that they could be working on their English and perform the jobs they had," said Davies.

While there has been some disagreement on how to properly help improve literacy in newcomers and many circumstances that make the goals of these organizations difficult to achieve, there are tangible results.

"I'd get asked: 'why do you even bother when you can't help them all?'" said Davies.

"For me, it was, 'yeah, you're right. I can't help them all,' but if I can make the difference — make a difference — for one, two, three, 12, however many, then I feel I've tried to do something."