Renewing Toronto's ESL Programs: Charting a Course Towards More Effective ESL Program Delivery

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By: Sheri Regier, Tam Goossen, Miriam DiGiuseppe and John Campey
Org: Community Social Planning Council of Toronto
Date: 2009

This report, the result of a two-year study of ESL programs available in the City of Toronto, suggests that there are numerous significant gaps in language instruction service delivery which need to be rectified in order to better integrate newcomers into Toronto's civic community. Recognizing that appropriate language training is one of the most critical elements of many newcomers' successful settlement, effective ESL services in the city are vital.

The report examines the impact of increasing immigration in the GTA on the ESL services available for newcomers, icluding a history of how ESL services were developed and have evolved in Toronto. Increases in language diversity, and most particularly the number of households where neither English nor French are the primary language, have had a significant impact on the city's composition and the educational needs of both adult and young learners.

The report developed eight core principles which were central to the development of effective ESL programming. These principles were:

  • Equitable access for all who are in need of ESL programming. An effective ESL system will ensure that all individuals, regardless of age, home country, first language, gender, length of time in Canada, work status, and ability to learn a second language, have equitable access to ESL programs.
  • An accountable and effective programming framework designed to meet student needs. The need for ESL programs continues to rise with the increase of foreign-born residents. However, the lack of accountability is hampering the effectiveness of the programs. Accountable programming and funding, built on sound frameworks, creates the foundation for an effective ESL system.
  • A thorough and consistent assessment process for all ESL students. A defined assessment process includes assessment, placement, and guidance/counselling/referral system. This includes consistent assessment procedures, use of translation and first language literacy assessment at convenient assessment sites.
  • Placement that reflects ESL students’ potential. Assessment and placement must guard against the streaming of ESL students to help reverse the historical tendency toward placing a disproportionately high number of ESL students in lower, non-academic programs.
  • Specific ESL literacy components for those students facing literacy challenges. Each student who has been professionally assessed as a literacy learner should be placed in a literacy or ESL literacy specific program that addresses the needs of literacy learners.
  • Ongoing monitoring of individual student progress through appropriate assessment methods. It is difficult to assess which monitoring and testing methods provide the most accurate results while creating the least amount of harm. In Ontario, elementary and secondary ESL students are required to take the same ministry-mandated tests. However, ESL students require different assessment instruments than do native English speakers.
  • Inclusion of ESL methodology, cross-cultural and equity studies in all teacher education programs. All education programs in Toronto, whether in early childhood education, kindergarten, elementary, secondary or adult, most likely have a high percentage of ESL participants. It is imperative that all teachers be required to take ESL teaching methodology and cross-cultural studies in their teacher training.
  • Support structures that enable the progress of ESL students through community and family involvement. Immigrants face an enormous task of adjusting to life in Canada. Every ESL program must provide a network of support structures that enable students and their families to access guidance, counselling, social, and settlement services.

A total of 39 recommendations are made to the provincial and federal levels of government as well as to organizations and school boards offering ESL programming for adults. These recommendations include:

  • Provision of profession-specific or technical ESL programs (e.g. Nursing or Engineering) be supported, but not at the expense of accessibility to ESL programming for the broader community of need.
  • ESL program funding models be developed to reflect full cost so community agencies are not required to subsidize programs from core funding.
  • Initiatives such as transportation assistance and childminding be renewed to ensure equal access for all students.
  • Support for federal government ESL classes and settlement services for new immigrants be maintained as the new Canada-Ontario Immigration Agreement initiative is being considered.
  • Students and parents be given clear guidance and information about the implications of secondary school choices.
  • Every adult ESL/LINC program be attached to an ISAP or other settlement program that can professionally assist new immigrants and their families.
  • The whole EQAO test structure be revised particularly as it applies to ESL students.
  • The Boards support and strengthen city-wide cultural and linguistic parent liaison groups in order that these parents can participate and their needs be addressed.
  • Translation and interpretation services be recognized as a priority in all of the Boards’ budget setting processes.

Report Conclusion

With the acquisition of English, immigrants of every age can integrate with more ease into our society and life in Canada. Many levels of governments, boards of education, and organizations have contributed to create programs that serve this need for the knowledge of English. These programs have gone through many changes and today we find that our immigrants are at a serious disadvantage when learning English as a Second Language. We have not kept pace with the increasing needs of newcomers entering our city. Our ESL programs are in need of expansion and renewal.

This report has not only raised concerns about issues facing newcomers to this city, but has also charted a course on how we might best serve immigrants in their quest for learning English. It is time that we listen to the voices of immigrant parents, children and students. As a civil society, we simply cannot afford to cut ESL programs with relative impunity as we have done in the past (Coelho in Duffy 2004f). We cannot allow the creation of an “underclass” of citizens in our country (Duffy, 2004c). We must act now to remedy the situation and chart an effective course. This course must invest in research and advocacy for equality for immigrant students. This course must invest in desperately needed long-term solutions and frameworks set in place by governments and school boards, frameworks that will withstand political change.

Toronto has the highest rate of immigration of any Canadian city. We also have the highest rate of potential in working with immigrant adults and children to maximize their success in this country. We must not squander this resource. We must renew our ESL programs in Toronto. Rebuilding these programs using the eight core principles outlined in this paper can provide the foundation for this renewal.