Chapter 7: How Literacy Affects the Settlement of Immigrant Women

Summary and Conclusions: The Evolution of Strategies for Low First-Language Literacy (LFLL) Women in Canada

Section-Specific Learning Outcomes

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

  1. Summarize the evolution of strategies for LFLL women in Canada
  2. Describe or outline what strategies support successful program models
  3. Apply learnings from this chapter to offer solutions to case studies of immigrant women with LFLL

Beneficiaries of Resilience

In the process of researching and writing this chapter, there were minimal resources and limited research related to the experiences of immigrant women in Canada who have low first-language literacy skills. The Canadian Ranking System, also known as the Immigration Point System, favours immigrants with higher English-language skills and higher education and professional skills (Government of Canada, 2021). The C.D. Howe Institute publication, The Power of Words: Improving Immigrants’ Literacy Skills (Mahboubi, 2017) identifies in their study of the literacy skills of immigrants who apply to come to Canada that refugees have the highest literacy-skills gap (compared to non-immigrants) at 44% (see Figure 1: Literacy-skills Gap Between Canadian Immigrants and Non-immigrants by Program, p. 6). The lowest literacy-skills gap is in the Economic (12%) and Other (10%) categories (Mahboubi, 2017, p. 6). Those who come through the point system in the Economic category make up 12% of the overall immigration category. Most LFLL immigrant women come as refugees. Their high literacy skills gap makes it difficult to contribute to the economy of Canada as quickly and effectively as those with higher English, education, and professional skills.

LFLL immigrant women find themselves in low-paying service jobs where language is not a primary requirement. Positions as cleaners and maids, and labour jobs that most likely pay minimum wage or less and are not secure are the fate of immigrant women in this low-literacy category. If not working, these women are typically isolated at home and are responsible for taking care of the home, family, and children. Prospects for learning and improving their independence and quality of life are limited. These are the women that immigration and community settlement organizations have forgotten. Most of the funding from the Canadian government is for programs that promote more skilled and better-educated immigrants and refugees to prepare them for the workplace or post-secondary education.

So, what is the value of LFLL immigrant women? They are the caretakers of the family, they allow children to succeed in education and work, and they may even be the caretakers of their grandchildren. They keep the culture and values alive in their families. They take the menial jobs that others rush to leave for better positions. They are the thread that keeps the family together. Fortunately, non-profit organizations are moving beyond conversation clubs and informal language programs to developing and offering ESL workplace and literacy training programs. These program models give LFLL immigrant women opportunities to realize their potential and advance their personal and financial situations.

In this last section of the chapter, challenge yourself to see the value in supporting the education of LFLL immigrant women. After reviewing the chapter sections, resources, and videos, reflect on the following questions:

  • What do you think is the value of combining adult and child literacy in early literacy programs?
  • Which program models and services would best support immigrant women with low literacy to successfully settle in Canada?
  • Do you think that a biliteracy language approach would lead to success? What do you think would be the challenges of implementing this methodology in ESL literacy classes?

Learning Activity 7: Summary Activity

The following stories have been taken from the Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks (CCLB) publication, ESL for ALL (CCLB, 2022). The stories are real and are representative of many immigrant women with LFLL who struggle with literacy and English-language skills.

Choose one of the stories below of immigrant women with LFLL. Based on the programs, strategies, learning challenges, and needs presented in this chapter, answer the following questions:

  • What do you think were the underlying causes of the woman’s low literacy skills?
  • Do you think that she would be able to progress to a higher level of literacy?
  • What are the skills and strengths that she brings to her Canadian settlement experience?
  • How do you think her low literacy and low English-language skills affect her ability to achieve independence and become part of Canadian society?
  • What are the strategies that you think she is using to overcome her low literacy skills?
  • Which programs and services do you think would help her overcome the limitations of low literacy and English?

Learner 1: Senet 

Senet is from Eritrea. She has been in Canada for seven years and had five years of education in her home country. Her learning was interrupted at several points because of violent civil actions and family demands. She speaks Bilen, Tigrinya, and Arabic, which are languages with non-Roman writing systems. With the help of family members, Senet manages her household and expenses. She also works full-time as a cleaner at a hospital and attends English classes four evenings a week.

When Senet entered her program, she was initially assessed at Listening CLB 3, Speaking CLB 3, Reading CLB 1L and Writing Pre-Benchmark L (Foundation). She was placed in a supportive ESL Literacy class where she gets along very well with others and enjoys working in groups. Senet likes to share her knowledge of working in Canada so that her classmates can learn from her experience. Although her grammar is often faulty, she can express her ideas and opinions to a sympathetic listener. She is polite when others have differing opinions.

Senet can use prediction strategies to figure out forms, posters, and notices. She is very good at accessing help when she needs it and likes to check her work with a volunteer or the instructor. She is learning where to find information and can use her ID to complete simple forms. She can recognize patterns in oral English but has difficulty with reading and writing. She has a bank of sight words, but sometimes confuses them. She lacks a solid understanding of word attack strategies and sound-letter correspondence.

Senet finds it difficult to change quickly from one task to another. She has basic arithmetic skills but has difficulty finding information on a receipt or bill. She can follow basic steps to use Word on the computer, but has difficulty using the Internet, even with help. Although often tired, Senet is motivated to learn and improve her English to improve her life in Canada. She would like to get a better job, become more independent, and support her children in reaching their goals.

Learner 2: Fatemah 

Fatemah comes from Afghanistan, where she was not permitted an education. She entered an arranged marriage at the age of 18. When war broke out, she and her husband fled to Iran, where her four children were born. Fatemah’s life changed when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. She worked hard cleaning homes and schools for several years before immigrating to Canada.

This is Fatemah’s second year in ESL Literacy classes. When she began, she had no English and no literacy skills. She enjoys coming to school and usually arrives early to socialize with other learners. She likes working with the volunteers and always greets them with a warm smile. At home, she devotes herself to cooking and cleaning for the three children now living at home.

Fatemah is highly motivated to learn and attends classes regularly. Her eyes sparkle during games and quizzes. She speaks well and is developing an awareness of structure. In class, she works well alone and with others. She writes very slowly and does not like to make mistakes. She usually spells and reads aloud. Fatemeh is encouraged to transfer her learning to her home and community; currently, her children do many things for her. She is the only Dari-speaking learner in her class.

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