ESL Literacy: Making a Name for Itself

When you arrive in your new country, one of the first things you do is register at the local ESL school to improve your language skills. But what if you never had the opportunity for education in your home country? If you don’t read or write in your first language, you don’t understand that print conveys meaning. You sign your name with an “X.” Your new literate world is confusing and you feel out of place. This is the reality for an increasing number of refugees to Nova Scotia and it is having an impact on their acquisition of language skills.

Despite coming to Canada with many skills, ESL literacy learners lack the traditional study skills and learning strategies that assist ESL learners with English. These include coming to school regularly, participating in class, practicing at home and learning how to learn. These challenges can considerably slow the rate of learning and often cause a slower integration into the community and workplace. The strategies that ESL literacy learners must acquire in only a few years took us over 12 years in school.

ESL literacy learners who have never been to school begin with foundational skills: holding a pencil, differentiating same and different, and understanding directionality of print. They then learn the alphabet and phonetics, count numbers and money, use basic math and tell time. At the same time, instructors work to empower students with survival communication skills, like making doctor’s appointments and using the transit system.

ESL Literacy is now seen as both a distinct and distinguished part of ESL. With increased knowledge and awareness, there has been a move to be more strategic when it comes to addressing the specific needs of these learners. At Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, ESL literacy learners are now able to receive the support and time it takes through the Program for the Acquisition of Literacy Skills (PALS) to help them be successful, contributing members of the community.

Due to the specialized nature of ESL Literacy, instructors need additional training and support to be able to deliver the best program for their learners. Two years ago, Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia received funding through HRSDC to develop an 8 week Online ESL Literacy Teacher Training Program. Instructors from across Canada took part in the very successful pilot. Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia hopes to offer this program again in the near future.

 ~ Arleigh Hood, ESL Instructor