Chapter 7: How Literacy Affects the Settlement of Immigrant Women

Adult Literacy, Life Skills, and Settlement

Section-Specific Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you should be able to

  1. Describe how second-language literacy relates to settlement and integration success
  2. Describe the relationship between adult literacy and life skills
  3. Apply these learnings to a reflective response for this topic

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) defines the settlement of immigrants in Canada as the following:

[A] short period of mutual adaptation between the newcomers and the host society, during which the government provides support and services to newcomers. Integration is a two-way process that involves commitment on the part of immigrants to adapt to life in Canada and on the part of Canada to welcome and adapt to new peoples and cultures (IRCC, 2022, section 2.3).

How does the Canadian government measure the outcomes that demonstrate that a newcomer has achieved settlement and integration? The benchmarks are measured by Canadian Certified Language Assessment Centres that are situated in immigrant-serving agencies or in designated colleges that offer language programs to newcomers. The following is a summary list of the services provided by the Government of Canada Settlement Program:

  • Support services that enable clients to access services
  • Needs and assets assessment and referrals
  • Information and orientation
  • Language training
  • Employment-related training
  • Community connections

(IRCC, 2022, section 3.3)

One of these six service areas is language training, which is explained as “Services that support clients in developing official language skills required for the labour market and/or navigating life outside work” (IRCC, 2022, section 3.3d). Language acquisition includes both oral language (listening, speaking) and literacy (reading, writing), and one of the first services that newcomers are offered is language training. Learning one of Canada’s two official languages in addition to settlement services are what support the ability of newcomers to “navigate” life in Canada and the degree to which they do so independently.

This section of the chapter will explore the following two questions :

  • What is the difference between oral language ability and literacy ability?
  • How does literacy development affect life skills?

You will explore these questions to subsequently understand the degree to which newcomers successfully settle and integrate into their new society.

Lack of Education Does Not Equal Lack of Ability

Today, day-to-day activities presume that adults have a basic level of literacy. Many life skills require the ability to read and write, including employment applications, banking, healthcare information, and transportation. Low literacy ultimately leads to limited independence. Fundamental reading, writing, and numeracy, as well as basic critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, are the literacy foundational skills that give adults control over their environment in everyday life.

In parts of the world where education is available to all, literacy skills are developed starting in an individual’s formative years and according to a child’s physical and cognitive development. If these literacy skills are missed during the cognitive stage of development and no additional explicit pedagogical instruction is received, then acquiring the foundational skills required to live independently as an adult is challenging. Learning as an adult is different than learning as a child. Learning as a child is defined as pedagogy, whereas learning as an adult is call andragogy:

  • Pedagogy: Content is at the centre of learning, and teachers develop instructional methods to teach content. A child’s learning is a process that develops according to their increasing ability for higher-order thinking. The ability to learn skills is related to a child’s physical and cognitive development.
  • Andragogy: The term “andragogy” refers to the methods and principles used to teach adults. Adult learning is a self-directed pursuit that is motivated by choice and/or need. Adults acquire knowledge or skills in a specialized field to expand knowledge for personal enrichment (Brookfield, 1986) or for employment-skills training. They learn new skills and knowledge when they see a purpose in learning. Knowles explains: “As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal” (Knowles, 1984).

Literacy – What is it? How does it fit into the settlement process?

Literacy is described by Statistics Canada as having five levels that are based on the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) scale (Statistics Canada, 2022).

The following data is from Table 1.1 Literacy, which compares Canadian literacy levels to the five levels of literacy on the PIAAC scale (Statistics Canada, 2015). The table is based on research by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).


Score range

Percentage of the population aged 16 to 65

Characteristics of literacy tasks



1% of populations across OECD and 1% in Canada can successfully perform tasks at Level 5.

At this level, tasks may require the respondent to search for and integrate information across multiple, dense texts; construct syntheses of similar and contrasting ideas or points of view; or evaluate evidence-based arguments. Application and evaluation of logical and conceptual models of ideas may be required to accomplish tasks. Evaluating reliability of evidentiary sources and selecting key information is frequently a key requirement. Tasks often require respondents to be aware of subtle, rhetorical cues and to make high-level inferences or use specialized background knowledge.



12% of populations across OECD and 14% in Canada can successfully perform tasks at least at Level 4.

Adults scoring at Level 4:
• 11% OECD
• 13% Canada

Tasks at this level often require respondents to perform multistep operations to integrate, interpret, or synthesize information from complex or lengthy continuous, non-continuous, mixed, or multiple type texts. Complex inferences and application of background knowledge may be needed to perform successfully. Many tasks require identifying and understanding one or more specific, non-central ideas in the text in order to interpret or evaluate subtle evidence-claim or persuasive discourse relationships. Conditional information is frequently present in tasks at this level and must be taken into consideration by the respondent. Competing information is present and sometimes seemingly as prominent as correct information.



51% of populations across OECD and 51% in Canada can successfully perform tasks at least at Level 3.

Adults scoring at Level 3:
• 39% OECD
• 38% Canada

Texts at this level are often dense or lengthy, and include continuous, non-continuous, mixed, or multiple pages of text. Understanding text and rhetorical structures become more central to successfully completing tasks, especially navigating of complex digital texts. Tasks require the respondent to identify, interpret, or evaluate one or more pieces of information, and often require varying levels of inference. Many tasks require the respondent to construct meaning across larger chunks of text or perform multistep operations in order to identify and formulate responses. Often tasks also demand that the respondent disregard irrelevant or inappropriate content to answer accurately. Competing information is often present, but it is not more prominent than the correct information.



85% of populations across OECD and 83% in Canada can successfully perform tasks at least at Level 2.

Adults scoring at Level 2:
• 34% OECD
• 32% Canada

At this level, the medium of texts may be digital or printed, and texts may comprise continuous, non-continuous, or mixed types. Tasks at this level require respondents to make matches between the text and information and may require paraphrasing or low-level inferences. Some competing pieces of information may be present. Some tasks require the respondent to

• Cycle through or integrate two or more pieces of information based on criteria
• Compare and contrast or reason about information requested in the question
• Navigate within digital texts to access and identify information from various parts of a document



97% of populations across OECD and 96% in Canada can successfully perform tasks at least at Level 1.

Adults scoring at Level 1:
• 12% OECD
• 13% Canada

Most of the tasks at this level require the respondent to read relatively short digital or print continuous, non-continuous, or mixed texts to locate a single piece of information that is identical to or synonymous with the information given in the question or directive. Some tasks, such as those involving non-continuous texts, may require the respondent to enter personal information onto a document. Little, if any, competing information is present. Some tasks may require simple cycling through more than one piece of information. Knowledge and skill in recognizing basic vocabulary, determining the meaning of sentences, and reading paragraphs of text is expected.

Below 1


Adults scoring below Level 1:
• 3% OECD
• 4% Canada

The tasks at this level require the respondent to read brief texts on familiar topics to locate a single piece of specific information. There is seldom any competing information in the text and the requested information is identical in form to information in the question or directive. The respondent may be required to locate information in short continuous texts. However, in this case, the information can be located as if the text were non-continuous in format. Only basic vocabulary knowledge is required, and the reader is not required to understand the structure of sentences or paragraphs or make use of other text features. Tasks below Level 1 do not make use of any features specific to digital texts.

Note: The percentages do not add up because of rounding.

Reprinted from Table 1.1 Literacy – Description of proficiency levels (Archived content), by Statistics Canada, 2015. Reproduced under the Statistics Canada Open Licence. This does not constitute an endorsement by Statistics Canada of this product.

Note: UNESCO defines literacy as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed, and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society” (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2022).

ESL low-literacy descriptors (CCLB, 2022a) and the ESL Literacy Assessment Tools project (CIWA, 2017a) defined the levels of foundation literacy given in the table below. Compare these levels with “Below 1” level on the PIACC scale in the previous table; note that the literacy levels are much lower than the “Below 1” level on the PIACC scale.

Learners may be preliterate, non-literate, or semi-literate, as defined in the table below (CIWA, 2017a):




These learners come from oral cultures where the spoken languages do not have current written forms or where print is not regularly encountered in daily life.

They may not understand that print conveys meaning or realize how important reading and writing are in Canadian society.

These learners do not read or write in any language, even though they live in literate societies.

These learners have some basic reading and writing skills but are not yet functionally literate.

The following Language Instruction for Newcomers (LINC) survey (Table A-4) conducted by Canada Immigration (now Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) in 2008 identified that the percentage of immigrant women at the L (Literacy) level was 4.2% and at the CLB 1 level was 13.9%.

LINC Learner Characteristic

LINC Population (2008)*

LINC Survey Respondents

LINC Case Study Survey Respondents










LINC CLB (Canadian Language Benchmarks) level

L (Literacy)




























Adapted from “Table A-4: Survey respondents compare closely to the LINC population,” in Evaluation of the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) Program, by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Government of Canada, 2011.

The following chart shows the estimated rate of language acquisition based on a study conducted in 2004 by Deirdre Lake and David Watt (Lake & Watt, 2014):

Benchmark Adult Rate of Second Language Acquisition and Integration

Language Component

Number of Years of Education

Number of Hours Required to Move to Next Benchmark Level According to Education and Language Strand

CLB levels




















































































Something to think about:

Review the chart above. What is the highest benchmark level that those with 0 to 7 years of education (low-literacy learners) achieve according to this study?

Did you know?

The CLB level that is required to take the Canadian Citizenship Test is CLB 4. Immigrants require proof that they have achieved CLB 4 or the equivalent before taking the test.

The Causes of Low Literacy for Immigrant Women

Definition of Literacy in Different Stages of History and Cultures

Literacy standards have evolved throughout history to meet the level of complexity of the systems that society has created for the day-to-day transactions that are required to keep up with the pace of everyday life.

Life has become progressively more complex since the early 1900s, starting with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century and continuing with the fast pace of technology and science in the 21st century. The complexity of the systems that society has created over the past 120-plus years has dramatically increased the literacy skills required to live and work in society.

Watch the video Endemic Illiteracy (Rockall-Schmidt, 2021). This video will take you on a journey through the development of literacy standards throughout time to demonstrate how literacy levels have advanced as our communication systems evolve in complexity.

Do the following while watching the video:

  • Take note of how someone with no functional literacy skills would adapt and succeed at these different stages of literacy.
  • Reflect on how technology has shaped the skills required to maintain the increasing technical complexity of our appliances and entertainment systems. New skills are also required for banking through ATMs and online banking, a change from the time when only limited levels of reading, writing, and numeracy were needed to go to a bank to perform transactions such as deposits and bill payments.

For an immigrant woman who does not have basic reading, writing, and numeracy skills, adding another layer of literacy is challenging and intimidating.

How does literacy affect life skills? What literacy level is required to navigate independently?

ABC Life Literacy Canada explains the literacy skills needed to function in a literate society:

Having adequate literacy skills means being able to understand, evaluate, use, and engage with written texts. It also means being able to participate in society, achieve your goals, and develop your knowledge and potential.

Research shows that adults who have inadequate literacy skills are more likely to have poorer overall health, lower salaries, and lower levels of participation in their community (ABC Life Literacy Canada, 2022).

Health Literacy

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “[h]ealth literacy represents the cognitive and social skills which determine the motivation and ability of individuals to gain access to, understand, and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health” (World Health Organization, 1998). For LFLL immigrant women, access to health care is complicated by any number or combination of the following factors:

  • Inadequate language and functional literacy skills that would enable them to understand and access healthcare services and know their rights
  • Differences in cultural beliefs about personal health
  • Low confidence, which prevents them from advocating for themselves or accessing health care when needed
  • Restrictions on independence and dependancy on others to help them identify where and how to access health care

Settlement organizations offer health literacy in programs and services for immigrant women. Settlement workers often become advocates for immigrant women and connect them with same-language speakers to help them access appropriate healthcare services. There are settlement organizations across Canada, including Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), the Somali Immigrant Aid Organization (SIAO), and the Regina Open Door Society.

The services that the Immigrant Health Program at ISANS offers are listed below. Similar services, often in the native languages and cultures of the clients, are offered by settlement organizations across Canada:

  • Evaluation of the healthcare needs of immigrants and their families
  • Advocacy support for access to specialized healthcare services
  • Orientation to the Canadian healthcare system, patient rights, and services and supports
  • Connection to the Newcomer Health Clinic for access to family doctors and healthcare screening

Healthcare services such as Edmonton’s New Canadians Health Centre are supported by immigrant-serving agencies in Edmonton such as the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers or the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative. The article The New Canadians Health Centre aims to help refugees thrive (Rutherford, 2022) describes in more detail how this centre supports immigrants and works with other immigrant-support organizations to aid immigrant women and their families. The centre also offers opportunities to immigrant mental health professionals and former medical professionals who are not yet certified in Canada to work as volunteer cultural brokers for immigrants with the same language and cultural backgrounds.

The Primary Care Network (PCN) Mosaic Health Centre in Calgary has a similar goal. The centre offers supportive and culturally sensitive health care and mental health services to immigrants, most of whom are LFLL immigrant women. The centre also offers workshops to build health literacy in languages common to the clientele of the centre.

Strengths of Low-Literacy Adults

According to well-known researcher and educator Jim Cummins (1980), there are two levels of competency in second-language acquisition (Cummins, 2016; Colorín Colorado, 2019):

  • Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) are language skills needed in social situations; that is, the day-to-day language needed to interact socially with people. BICS are the language learned in ESL classes and through interaction with English-language speakers.
  • Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) refers to the form of academic language learning related to higher-order thinking skills such as problem solving and conceptualizing, as well as professional language proficiency (PLP), or industry-specific language. This type of language is learned in academic, professional, or industry-specific settings.

BICS, or oral skills, are skills that most immigrant women with LFLL build quickly, even though their CALP skills take longer to develop. Therefore, immigrant women’s oral skills develop much stronger and faster than their reading and writing skills. It is not uncommon for someone who has few to no foundational reading and writing skills in their native language or in English to master an intermediate level (CLB 4 or 5) of listening and speaking.

A low level of literacy is an obstacle that limits the potential for full participation in society, especially being able to secure stable and above-minimum-wage employment opportunities. The lack of literacy creates dependency on others who have a higher level of functional literacy and better English-language skills. In situations where the head of the family has little to no literacy, the oldest, first-educated child may become their link to the literate world.

How Immigrant Women with Low Literacy Navigate the Literate English-Speaking World

What are the compensation strategies that LFLL immigrant women use?

During the first stage of immigration, women who have limited English-literacy skills reach out to family, friends, and volunteers from religious and ethnocultural community settlement organizations to provide translation and interpretation. Reaching out to others is the initial survival strategy.

Children who learn language and literacy skills can soon become a link to the English-speaking literate world. Two stories are provided below. One story is from the 1960s, and the other is from 2014. The strategies are the same regardless of the time period, but when the basic factors are the same, a child’s literacy progresses faster than the literacy of their parents. The first story is from a personal lived experience, and the second one is from a situation that was encountered by the Language Training Manager and Childcare Senior Manager at the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA).

Learning Activity 2: Immigrant Women’s Stories

Read the two stories below to prepare for the activity that follows.

LFLL Immigrant Woman’s Story 1

An Italian immigrant grandmother settled in Canada in the early 1950s with her husband, son, and daughter-in-law. The grandparents grew up in a time when education in rural Italy was not an obstacle for basic life skills in rural communities. The grandfather had never attended school, but the grandmother had. They came to Canada after the Second World War, when there was a significant influx of European immigrants. The family came from a wartime period when survival trumped education.

When the family arrived in Canada, they relied on relatives and the Italian community to establish housing and find employment. Access to English-language classes was not common at that time, and they did not see the need to learn English, other than what they picked up informally through social contact outside the home. Their limited literacy skills in their first language created dependence on the development of oral language skills. More importantly, it created dependence on those within their community of friends and relatives, because they required help to engage in complex tasks such as housing, health care, banking, and the paperwork needed for immigration, taxes, birth certificates for children, and so on. Once the first child born to the family entered public school and learned to speak, read, and write English, the dependence on others for interpretation and tasks that required literacy support changed from family and friends to their daughter, Angela. From the age of eight, Angela was expected to handle requests to read mortgage documents, fill out postdated cheques, translate at lawyer’s offices, interpret at parent-teacher conferences, attend medical appointments, call utility companies to decipher bills and payments, accompany family members to the bank, and even sit with her grandfather on Sundays to teach him to read the Italian newspapers.

LFLL Immigrant Woman’s Story 2

Sara is a refugee from Eritrea. She had no formal education because war and refugee camps took away her access to school. In 2014, Sara attended LINC classes five hours a day, four days a week at the immigrant settlement nonprofit organization where she was a client. She was placed in Literacy Level 1 (L1) in the LINC program, which is a pre-literacy level. Sara’s oral skills were basic, but they were progressing faster than her reading and writing abilities. In her ESL literacy class, Sara learned how to use a writing tool to practise writing shapes, letters, and numbers. She progressed to writing her name, learning time conventions, and building basic numeracy skills in English. She developed decoding skills for letter-sound recognition that she applied to basic reading skills.

While Sara went to ESL class, her daughter Fatema was enrolled in the organization’s childcare program. Fatema started at the childcare centre when she was one year old. Sara also accessed other support services and programs within the organization. Settlement workers and language professionals helped her to problem solve her day-to-day life skills challenges. Sara had a support system at the immigrant settlement organization that advocated for her and intervened on her behalf when she ran into life skills issues, such as reporting to Alberta Works for financial support, negotiating rent issues with landlords, filling out employment applications, and filling out subsidy forms for child care. All these fundamental life skill issues were a result of her lack of adequate literacy and language skills that consequently held her back from gaining independence.

Although Sara progressed slowly through her LINC program, her daughter, Fatema, quickly developed her oral and social skills at a pace that competed with her mother’s progress. Sara often deferred to her daughter to speak English for her. One incident demonstrated Fatema’s growing leadership skills—one of the activity centres was a dress-up centre with costumes representing different characters such as princesses, fairies, police officers, and firefighters. The children acknowledged that Fatema was the leader and gathered around her to wait for her direction. Fatema decided which child would wear which costume. She also decided the scenario that the children would play. She organized and directed her classmates through the game and the story that she created for them.

This story is relevant to this discussion because it shows how this balance of power showed up in the parent-child dynamics between Fatema and her mother. While her mother relied on the support systems around her, her daughter took the role of leader in the relationship. By the time Fatema was five years old, Sarah had started relying on her daughter to translate and navigate the literate world. It would be safe to predict that as Fatema matures and moves through the school system, her literacy and oral skills will surpass her mother’s. Sara will most likely rely on her daughter as the first level of support and as the bridge between her and the complex literate society.


Select the best answers to each of the questions. More than one answer may be chosen.


These stories about immigrant women with limited functional literacy skills are also about children who take on the role of translators and cultural brokers to connect their adult family members to the literate world. These two stories illustrate that although literacy learners are more likely to develop oral skills more quickly than literacy skills, it is the literacy or CALP skills that are needed to build independence in a literate world with complex life skills.

A relevant insight from a thesis, “Adaptation and Survival Strategies of Refugee Women with Disabilities In Saskatoon, Canada” by Florence Osei Poku (2018), shares the experience of LFLL immigrant women. The following excerpt from the thesis about the ESL class experiences of Ankita and Nadia demonstrate how confidence and independence grows from opportunities to learn English. These learning opportunities minimize the amount of dependency on translators such as their children:

Since the supervisors could speak their dialect, the women felt comfortable and trusted them with their documents. These services, however, were not always available. According to Ankita, “sometimes when I go to Open Door Society and the Global Gathering Place to see my supervisors about letters I have received and other government applications, they are sometimes busy or sick, but I need someone who is more committed.” As a result, the women depended upon their children to serve as interpreters when other translators were not available. Nadia, for example, often relied on her daughter for translation services (Osei Poku, 2018).

Attending ESL classes is a real challenge for LFLL immigrant women because of their many family responsibilities, the pressures to work to contribute to the family, and the isolation in a community that is not supportive of the continuous learning of adult women.

The research of Geronimo, Folinsbee, and Goveas (2001) about the settlement needs of newcomers with low first language skills concludes that the essential purpose of acquiring language and literacy skills is to overcome basic survival skills:

Basic survival needs take precedence over the need to develop literacy skills, and as a result, the cycle of poverty, isolation, and lack of literacy skills becomes a common pattern if the basic survival needs of newcomers are not met (Geronimo, Folinsbee, & Goveas, 2001).

Digital Literacy

The infiltration of digital literacy into the adult literacy matrix of the 21st century has complicated the range of required literacy that LFLL immigrant women are expected to incorporate into their learning. Basic literacy has added digital literacy to reading, writing, and numeracy. In his master’s thesis, “Exploration of the Role of Digital Literacy in Refugee Migration and Resettlement” (2021), Manaal Nauman states:

For someone who may even be illiterate in their own mother tongue to learn a new language such as English, and then to also become educated in navigating the World Wide Web, can be overwhelming. Nowadays, technology has become the standard for many tasks that used to be done in person; for example, applying for jobs. Refugees and newcomers struggle with finding employment as they are unfamiliar with many technological advances in recruitment practices as “companies are increasingly moving toward the use of web-based hiring practices” (Novak, 2016, p. 293). The digital divide sometimes exists even within a family household of parents and children, a point emphasized by researchers highlighting children as “digital natives.”

In community ESL literacy programs, instructors incorporate learners’ cellphones into their instruction. A story that is typical among the learners in ESL literacy programs is that of Hamza, a Somali woman who had a cellphone but did not know the cellphone’s number. Her husband showed her which button to push to reach him in an emergency because she was not literate enough to read numbers and letters. The instructor used Hamza’s cellphone to find her phone number, then Hamza used the numbers to practise forming numbers and to read, speak, and memorize the phone’s number. Mastering a basic survival skill that involved technology was her first step to independence.

Learning Activity 3: Reflective Activity

  1. Think of examples from real-life experiences with family members, community members, or clients that exemplify how adult literacy affects life skills.
  2. Write out your thoughts in your learning journal.



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