Effectiveness of ESL Classes
“Education is the first public good that a government can confer on its people.” — Louis Lafontaine (Joint Premier of the Province of Canada prior to Confederation)
English as a Second Language training can play a vital role in your successful integration in Canada. Recognizing that fact, the Government of Canada and Government of Ontario both contribute a great deal of funding to provide free language programs to adult newcomers.
How do Canada’s language programs compare to the rest of the world?
Immigrants to New Zealand must pre-pay ESOL tuitions as part of the cost of immigration.
The UK’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program has long offered free language training for new immigrants, but recent budget cuts have severely lengthened wait times for people wishing to take advantage of the program.
Australia provides free English classes through their Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) for 510 hours (approximately 20 weeks at 25 hours per week) or until you are judged to have “functional English” (AMEP’s “advanced beginner” level). Compare this to The Government of Canada’s LINC classes that provide free training for three years from date of enrolment, which can translate to thousands of hours of free English language training. And there is no time limit of any kind on most of provincially-funded ESL programs offered by the Continuing Education departments in most of Ontario’s school boards.
The American Migration Policy Institute describes American ESL policy as “a “potluck” array of instruction programs offered in adult education classrooms around the [USA]”. Although some federal and state funding is provided, the United States has no national adult ESL policy and free language instruction throughout most of the country is funded and administered by a hodgepodge of state and municipal governments, trade unions, churches and advocacy organizations.
There is no doubt that our many free ESL options make this one of the best countries (and provinces) in the world when it comes to cost and opportunity for learning English.
What Adult ESL Training is Available in Ontario?
English as a Second Language (ESL) programs are offered by non-profit organizations (such as the YMCA or COSTI), school boards of Ontario, post-secondary institutions (colleges and universities) and private schools.
Programs funded by the provincial or federal governments are free (although there is sometimes a small registration fee).
Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada
The federal government, through Citizenship and Immigration Canada, offers the LINC program to eligible adult learners. In Ontario, every permanent resident or convention refugee who is at least 18 years of age is eligible. If you have received initial approval of your application pending an admissibility assessment you may also qualify but Canadian citizens and refugee claimants are not eligible.
You don’t have to be working or looking for work in order to qualify but you will be required to have your English language ability assessed by a Language Assessment Centre. Most LINC classes are offered by school boards, community colleges and immigrant and community organizations. Some classes are held in large classrooms with modern facilities, while other LINC classes are conducted in basements, shopping malls or community centres.
LINC classes can be large, so individual attention is not easy to get. And if you have special needs – for instance if your listening or reading ability is much better than your writing or speaking ability – instructors will usually be unable to work with you in order to improve in particular areas due to large class sizes. In other words, you pretty much have to take what you get. If you don’t like a particular class or a certain instructor, all you can really do about it is join a different LINC class.
LINC provides basic language instruction. At one time, they did not go beyond beginner level, but recent innovations (see Taking English Skills to the Next Level on page 15) enable students to take intermediate level LINC courses.
Whichever level you are at, you can enroll in full-time classes in order to speed up the learning process or take part-time classes, if you are working or need to fit the course into an existing schedule. Child minding is offered in some centres, where they will look after your children while you are in class – but this service is always in very high demand and there are usually waiting lists for courses with child minding. Even without child minding, there can be long wait times (up to six months) for training near your home. To put this in perspective though, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition speaks of immigrants waiting years to get into such programs south of the border.
On CIC’s own website, there is an evaluation of the LINC program which mentions that “the quality of services and teaching may not be consistent for all service providers”. This same evaluation suggests that “a standardized exit test is needed in order to accurately assess clients’ degree of language acquisition and to provide a recognized, credible measure of language ability for LINC graduates.” It is heartening to know that the government is always aware of the program’s shortcomings and is consistently trying to improve the program.
Free ESL Classes Through Your Local School Board
Many Ontario school boards offer LINC classes, as well as federally funded bridging programs for foreign trained professionals (enhanced and sector-specific language training).
But the majority of ESL programs in the schools are the ones funded by the Province of Ontario Ministry of Education and offered by the Continuing Education divisions of the larger Ontario school boards.
The very largest of these is offered by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). In fact, the TDSB delivers the largest Language Instruction for Newcomers in North America, serving 30,000 adult learners per year at over 140 sites across the city of Toronto.
The TDSB’s Continuing Education ESL courses range from general programs in speaking, listening, reading, and writing to advanced and TOEFL classes (for students with professional or academic goals such as requalifying for a profession or attending university).
TDSB even offers special courses such as bilingual classes where students can learn English from instructors who speak the same first language as they do. So if you find it too difficult to understand classes taught entirely in English you can take these classes to prepare for the regular programs. Continuing Education also offers courses for special needs students with learning or mental health difficulties, as well as courses for students preparing for the citizenship test and business communication courses for workplace preparation.
Who is eligible to register in these programs?
To get into TDSB’s ESL programs, you are required to show proof of Canadian residency. Acceptable documents include your Permanent Resident card, a dated Minister’s Permit, landed immigrant documents or documents proving you are a convention refugee or refugee claimant. Even Canadian citizens are eligible for TDSB ESL classes and there is no limit to the length of time you can attend these free courses.
Other school boards in major urban areas, including the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) and Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board (DPCDSB), offer similar, but smaller ranges of ESL programs.
The TCDSB Adult Education Program reaches 37,000 adult learners per year with full-time, part-time, day, evening and weekend programs. These classes are available free of charge to eligible adult permanent residents in Canada. Non-residents of Canada can register for a fee of $6 per hour if space is available. Classes are held at 120 day, 40 evening and 20 weekend locations.
TCDSB offers a full range of basic to advanced programs with courses such as Adult Literacy (for ESL learners who lack literacy skills in their first language), ESL/Workplace preparation courses (including programs that offer ESL) and computer skills instruction at the same time and courses that focus on a single aspect of ESL training such as pronunciation.
OCDSB offers classes ranging from pre-literacy to advanced levels, including TOEFL Preparation, conversation at the advanced level and more. The board offers approximately 40 day and evening classes from seven sites in Ottawa.
DPCDSB offers a range of Adult ESL, Citizenship and TOEFL classes from 18 locations in Mississauga. Greater Essex County District School Board in Windsor offers full and part time day and evening classes from three locations (two in Windsor and one in Leamington).
Most other urban school boards in Ontario offer ESL programs.
Outside of the cities
There are over 100 school boards across Ontario including 36 Catholic English language school boards and 14 French school boards. It is probably fair to say that many of them don’t offer a very wide range of ESL programs, if they offer any at all.
Outside of major urban areas, information about ESL programs is more difficult to find. For instance, if you look on the Rainbow District School Board website, it appears that the Sudbury school board doesn’t offer ESL. But ESL opportunities can be unearthed through some careful exploration of such websites as www.mysudbury.ca. There, you can find information about ESL day classes available at St. Albert Adult Learning Centre. There are no eligibility restrictions and they offer continuous intake throughout the year.
The only fee is a $40 refundable book deposit. The ESL in Canada website says that LINC classes are available in Sudbury at the Church of Epiphany.
Outside of Ontario’s larger towns and cities, LINC classes are pretty much the only option and you may have to travel quite a distance to the nearest urban centre in order to go to class.
The Grand-Erie District School Board (GEDSB) in Brantford offers adult ESL courses during the regular school year from two locations in Brantford and Simcoe.
In northern areas like Kenora, Ontario, the local ISAP settlement worker (an initiative funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada) working through the Kenora Multicultural Association can help guide you to appropriate language services.
But recent distance learning and in-home study initiatives (see At Home with LINC, page 18) are now offering alternatives to newcomers in need of ESL training in rural and remote parts of the province.
Other ESL Courses
Because there are so many good adult ESL programs available for free, it is difficult, if not impossible for private schools, colleges and universities to compete in this market. For this reason, most of the for-fee programs available at these institutions are aimed at international students rather than landed immigrants.
A 1997 story in the Toronto Star reported over 144,000 international students attending university, college, public and private schools and ESL programs across Canada. It is only reasonable to assume that the number has grown considerably since then.
There are, however, some schools and courses aimed at landed immigrants. They are usually very intensive courses aimed at preparing students for university entrance. These feature smaller class sizes and more modern resources than the free courses.
Individualized instruction is usually available.
Some institutions, like Algonquin College (which has campuses in Ottawa and Toronto) have special courses for newcomers residing in Canada.
Algonquin’s Intensive ESL program requires students to take a free placement test. It is a full-time program with a substantial fee, but you may be eligible for financial assistance if you have been in Ontario for at least a year, you can demonstrate financial need, and you have a Social Insurance Number. Graduation from Level 8 is a requirement for some regular Algonquin College programs but not for all of them.
Scholarships, internships and co-op programs can make enrollment in these institutions worth the extra cost of tuition for students who can afford it and who want to improve their English and find work in the shortest possible time. But since these courses attract fairly small numbers of students, most of the private schools such as the International Language Academy of Canada (ILAC) and Language Studies International (LSI) focus almost exclusively on international students.
When you are considering paid ESL courses, you should visit and speak to someone at the institution, gather all the information materials possible, compare prices and examine the credentials you will gain from taking the course (to make sure they will help you reach your goals). If you have any doubts, ask someone at a settlement or employment agency to help you decide which course to take.
ESL for School Age Children
There is good reason to believe that adults needing ESL support are faring better than their children.
According to People for Education’s Annual Report on Ontario’s Schools, Statistics Canada (StatsCan) figures show that between 2001 and 2006 there was a 24 percent increase in the number of students requiring ESL support, but no increase in the number of ESL teachers. They also report 53 percent of elementary schools and 27 percent of secondary schools with ESL students have no ESL teacher – substantial increases since the turn of the century.
ESL funding is given to school boards based on two factors:
1) the number of their students who have been in Canada for four years or less and who come from countries where English is not the first or standard language;
2) the number of children that in board’s area who most often speak a language at home other than English or French (according to StatsCan data).
The report also points out that “Boards are not required to spend their ESL funding on ESL programs” and points to evidence that many school boards took funding from programs such as ESL to cover core costs such as building maintenance.
Among schools with more than 10 ESL students, the percentage with no ESL teacher has doubled since 2000. Ninety percent of elementary schools in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) have ESL students, while just 54 percent have ESL teachers.
According to a 2004 Andrew Duffy story, “ABCs of Teaching ESL” in the Toronto Star, less than five percent of graduating students from the teacher education program at the University of Toronto had taken the ESL elective.
Where Improvement is Most Needed
A 2005 report entitled Renewing Toronto ESL Programs insisted that special attention should be paid to the needs of students who were born in Canada but are unable to speak English upon starting school because they speak a language other than English at home. One elementary school teacher reported dealing with this situation by bringing in untrained resource teachers (most likely fluent in languages common in the area) to temporarily work alongside regular teachers. The report recommended ways to find permanent fixes to replace this type of patchwork solution.
Progress has been made on some fronts since the Renewing Toronto ESL Programs report was released, but much more progress still needs to be made both inside and outside of the Greater Toronto area.
What Can You Do as a Parent?
Keep lines of communication open with your child’s school. Monitor your child’s progress with the teachers and go to administrative staff with complaints or suggestions for improvements you would like to see. Don’t hesitate to track down and talk to your local school board trustee to make sure that funding earmarked for ESL actually gets used for ESL.
Rest assured that speaking your first language at home improves, rather than hurts, your child’s likelihood of greater success at school. Ask if your child’s school lends out a DVD called Your Home Language: Foundation for Success(available in Bengali, English, Farsi, Gujerati, Korean, Mandarin, Punjabi, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tamil, Urdu and Vietnamese).
But be aware of how important it is for your children to get a good grounding in English before they begin in the English language school system. Use resources such as cartoons and Television Ontario educational programming.
As your children’s educations progress, be aware that the choices they make while in secondary school can hurt their chances of getting a post-secondary education. Choices made at that time are critical to their future.
n short – rather than just handing them over to the system and trusting that they will be taken care of – the best thing you can do is to get involved and stay involved in your child’s education.