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 they are not working, these women are typically isolated at home and are responsible for taking care of the home and family. 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 take the menial jobs that others rush to leave for better positions. They keep their culture and values alive in their families, and 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 are based on those in the Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks (CCLB) publication, ESL for ALL (CCLB, 2022). The stories 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 skills?

Learner 1: Aiesha

Aiesha is from Yemen. She had six years of education in her home country and has been in Canada for eight years. Her learning has been interrupted by civil war and family demands. With her family’s help she manages the family finances. She also works full-time as a janitor at a local school and goes to English class four nights a week.

When she started her English studies in Canada, she was 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 has developed a good relationship with her classmates. She enjoys group work, particularly when she has a chance to share her experiences of living and working in Canada. She has some difficulties with grammar but knows how to express her ideas and opinions. She is a good listener who politely listens to different opinions.

Aiesha knows how to use prediction strategies to help her read simple documents like forms and posters. She also knows how to ask for help when she needs it and regularly asks her instructors to check her work. She is learning where to find information and how to use her ID to complete simple forms. She struggles with reading and writing but can recognize patterns in spoken English. She has a bank of sight words, which she sometimes confuses. She needs to improve her sound-letter correspondence and her word recognition strategies to help decipher unfamiliar words.

Aiesha has trouble changing quickly from one task to another. Although her math skills are good, she finds it hard to locate information on a receipt or bill. She has basic Word skills on the computer but struggles to use the internet, even with help. Despite her busy schedule with work and family, Aiesha is a highly motivated learner who wants to improve her English so she can have a better life in Canada. She wants to become more independent, find a better job, and support her children in reaching their goals.

Learner 2: Shakira

Shakira is from a small village in Afghanistan, where education for girls was not permitted. At 18, she entered an arranged marriage, then she and her husband fled to Pakistan to escape war. While there, they had four children, but her life changed dramatically after her husband passed away suddenly. To support her family, she worked as a cleaner, and after several years, she immigrated to Canada with her children.

Shakira is now in her second year of ESL literacy classes. Prior to taking these classes, she had no English or literacy skills. She enjoys her courses and often arrives early to socialize with her classmates. She also likes the English program volunteers and always greets them warmly. At home, she loves to cook and take care of the three children still living at home.

Shakira is a highly motivated student and rarely misses a class. Her favourite classroom activities are playing games and doing quizzes. During class, she works well independently but also likes group work. Her speaking skills are good, and she is developing an awareness of structure. She writes slowly because she hates making mistakes. She often spells and reads aloud. Shakira’s instructors are encouraging her to transfer her learning to her home and community because her children often need to do things for her. She is the only person in her class who speaks Dari.


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