Chapter 7: How Literacy Affects the Settlement of Immigrant Women

Theories, Strategies, and Settlement Models that Support Immigrant Women with Low First-Language Literacy (LFLL)

Section-Specific Learning Outcomes

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

  1. Describe or outline theories and strategies that identify the settlement challenges of immigrant women
  2. Identify successful program models implemented by community groups and settlement agencies to support immigrant women with LFLL
  3. Describe the benefits of the strategies and program models implemented by educational and settlement sectors to support immigrant women with LFLL
  4. Apply these learnings to create a reflective response for this topic

The Importance of Adult Literacy

Watch Why 36 million American adults cannot read enough to work – and how to help them (PBS NewsHour, 2019). Although the video does not represent immigrant women, it demonstrates the importance of adult literacy and the challenges that are universal in a literate society.

Did you know?

Hilary Clinton brought the HIPPY program to Arkansas in 1986. Watch this video to find out more about this early literacy program that supports both parent and child literacy.

Family literacy programs such as the HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Pre School-Youth) program at CIWA (Mothers Matter Centre, 2019) provide opportunities to LFLL immigrant women to develop their literacy skills by teaching them how to teach their children through the early cognitive development period. Through a home-based parenting and the early childhood enrichment program, parents gain the skills to be their children’s first teacher. HIPPY offers an intensive parent-focused 30-week curriculum that enhances the literacy skills of preschool-aged children (three to five years old) and supports the literacy development of their parents. In addition to improving literacy skills, HIPPY has a community development approach—HIPPY staff are trained and receive ongoing information about available community resources and services. Families targeted through HIPPY are low literacy and low income, so home visitors and the coordinator provide parents with information and education about the services that are available to meet the unique needs of each family.

Community ESL literacy programs focus on recruiting families from communities known to have high numbers of low-literacy and low-income immigrant families. These high-risk, vulnerable families often experience a great deal of isolation in the community.

Many families are unfamiliar with available services and resources in their communities, and as such, they are unable to get the support they need. By focusing recruitment on specific communities, Early Family Literacy programs help low-income immigrant families gain skills and knowledge about resources to help themselves move out of poverty. In these programs, children of immigrant families receive guidance and support to help with school readiness and stand a better chance of integrating into the community and achieving positive results in school. Through group meetings, families connect with other parents living in their communities and learn about resources. The overall integration process for the families involved in these programs becomes less intimidating, they access resources and services, and their children successfully transition from a single cultural environment at home into the Canadian community and school culture.

Social Capital and Immigrant/Refugee Women

Social capital is an individual’s ability to interact with others and contribute to their social group by sharing similar values and individual practical and problem-solving skills that contribute to the betterment of their social network.

It is difficult for LFLL immigrant women to gain social capital because of their limited literacy and English-language skills. English-language and literacy classes provide these women with skills that in turn lead to self-sufficiency, independence, and opportunities to give back to society instead of leaning on the support of translators, family, community, and grown children to navigate day-to-day survival and settlement.

The list below is a summary of the goals of Canadian settlement services and programs that support LFLL immigrant women and focus on developing learners’ literacy for life skills:

  • Networks
  • Belonging
  • Safety
  • Reciprocity
  • Participation
  • Citizen power
  • Values-led living
  • Diversity

The program models are designed to give LFLL immigrant women agency in their own lives to move beyond dependency to independence.

Civic Engagement Programs

Civic engagement programs help promote and enhance the quality of life in a community and can include political activism, environmentalism, and community services. An example such a program is the Civic Engagement for Immigrant Women Program offered by the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA). This type of program helps immigrant women and girls achieve full and equal civic participation in Canada.

Immigrant women and their families receive civic education through activities that present an overview of Canada’s government structure and offer support for them to exercise their civic duties in Canada, such as taking the citizenship exam and voting. Program manuals are available in English, Spanish, French, Hindi, Farsi, Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Polish, Russian, Tigrinya, and Korean, and support is provided for those who have difficulty with first-language literacy. As always with programs that serve immigrant women, child care is available.

Community-Based ESL Literacy Programs

From 1986 to 1992, the Calgary Board of Education ESL department received Alberta Initiative funding to offer a community-based ESL program that reached out to immigrant women who were primarily refugees from South America, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Chile. Called Stepping Out, the target group profile was refugee immigrant women from rural areas who had low first-language literacy.

The program model consisted of three phases and transition points:

  • Phase 1 – Home instruction with first-language tutors. Introduction to Canadian society and adaptation to life skills supported immigrant women who were recent arrivals and needed transitional support from a tutor who spoke a common language.
  • Phase 2 – Community-based classes in church basements, community centres, and student homes that were within walking distance of immigrant women. Free child care was provided that also provided literacy education for children. Foundational literacy and English for settlement and life skills was the focus of the language training.
  • Phase 3 – Transition to traditional classroom ESL programs that were more academic and workplace focused.

Stepping Out was successful in helping immigrant women with low foundational literacy to develop their literacy and English skills in a safe, supported environment that started in their homes and transitioned to more independent learning as their confidence and skills increased. This program model influenced other types of community-based ESL programs that accommodated women who would not reach out independently to ESL classes because of their lack of confidence and awareness of these opportunities. Immigrant women were contacted through direct community, including the most basic and direct form of outreach—door to door. First-language tutors knocked on doors in immigrant neighbourhoods to promote the classes and offer to come to students’ homes to teach for one to three months, and then help the students transition to community classes.

Another program that supports the English language and literacy development of LFLL immigrant women, is CIWA’s Pebbles in the Sand program. The program grew out of the Stepping Out program. Participants are immigrant and refugee women who often come from remote rural areas of the world or from countries that have been affected by political unrest or war; for example, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. For these women, living in Calgary is likely their first experience in an urban environment. Upon entering Canada, many remain isolated in their homes because of a lack of English communication ability, literacy skills, and fear and trepidation about the unfamiliar environment and culture.

These women face multiple learning barriers, including age, learning disabilities, attitude towards education, difficult family situations, health impediments, and low self-esteem. The highest percentage of program participants (90%) are women with no previous education, no English-language skills, and no literacy skills in their first language. These obstacles keep them economically and socially disadvantaged in society.

Watch this YouTube video to hear the perspectives of ESL instructors who work with low-literacy immigrant women: Teaching Literacy Learners: A Conversation with Instructors from “Pebbles in the Sand” (CIWA) (Literacy Centre of Expertise, 2022).

The Somali Women and Children’s Support Network

Another example of a non-profit immigrant settlement organization is the Somali Women and Children’s Support Network in Toronto, Ontario. It is a multicultural, non-profit, community-based organization that provides services to immigrant women and children with the intent to help women develop leadership skills and move from dependency to self-sufficiency. The organization offers programs and services that help women develop self-sufficiency skills to be able to connect to “mainstream” services with support from the community.

Learning How to Learn

Paulo Freire‘s participatory approach to language learning (HW, 2007) encourages learners to take control of their learning by participating in the evolution of a program’s curriculum and dialogue with the instructor or facilitator about their learning needs; the learner is also seen as an educator. The previous experiences and knowledge that each adult learner brings to the classroom adds value to the learning experience of others, including the instructor. This process and approach are used in the life skills, job-shadowing debriefing, cultural competency, and networking components of this type of program model.

How is Freire’s philosophy applied in community-based ESL literacy programs?

Freire’s philosophy (Freire, 1970) supports a learning model that develops the social capital of immigrant women who have been isolated from society because of their limited communication and literacy skills. This model enables learners to take charge of their lives by encouraging problem solving, critical thinking, and goal setting. The development of critical consciousness (Kayser & Starks, 2021) is an ambitious but attainable goal in addition to the development of practical language, literacy, and life skills.

The following three approaches to learning support Freire’s philosophy of participatory education:

  1. Teachers and students learn from each other, and learning is a collaborative process. Students identify what they need to learn English for and address their immediate needs. Teachers support the learning with resources that are authentic and relative to the everyday needs of the learners.
  2. Implementing active-enquiry strategies in the learning process encourages learners to question what they are learning, why they are learning, and how they will benefit from what they are learning. This critical reflection gives learners a voice for discussing and understanding how their world will be improved through learning the functional literacy skills that will improve their independence and self-reliance.
  3. Developing critical literacy strategies is as important as functional literacy skills such as reading, writing, and numeracy. These skills are viewed as passports to critical literacy.

These three ways of applying Freire’s philosophy are summarized in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), and are the basis of the models used in community-based ESL literacy programs.

The tools used in these programs allow learners to determine their goals beyond basic survival and work identified in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Serhat, 2020), ranging from physiological and safety needs to love and belonging in their adopted culture to esteem and self-actualization (Hopper, 2020).

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Biliteracy Program Strategies

Two approaches to using biliteracy development have demonstrated that providing foundational literacy in a person’s first language is a strategy that develops foundational literacy skills that can be subsequently transferred to learning a second language.

The Calgary Chinese Community Services Association’s Stepping Stone ESL Program for low-literacy Chinese learners uses an ESL first-language facilitator to build first-language literacy as a bridge to literacy skills for English-language learning. The first-language facilitator works in collaboration with the ESL instructor to decode and decipher English-language concepts that interfere and stall the progress of learning new English vocabulary and functions. Language and literacy instruction is taught in the context of the life-skills goals identified by learners. Learners recognize the value of computer-literacy training in addition to English and literacy skills because they are very aware that digital literacy is an essential skill that will help them become more independent.

An initiative that explored the bilingual literacy strategy for LFLL immigrant women was a research project by the CanLearn Society that produced a curriculum framework for biliteracy education (CanLearn, 2021). The rationale and strategies behind this framework are to teach first-language literacy skills alongside English-language literacy skills. This approach facilitates a learner’s ability to transfer literacy skills developed from a familiar reference point to learn English as a second language. The resources used to teach foundational literacy have been developed for Farsi, Nepali, and Tigrinya. This research project would be worth exploring for English-language training, and bilingual education methodology may be increasingly adopted in second-language practices to advance the development of literacy skills for LFLL immigrant women.

Learning Activity 6: Reflection Activity

  1. Review theCanLearn research project A Curriculum Framework Biliteracy Learning with Adult ESL Literacy Learners.
  2. Reflect on two pros and two cons of implementing a biliteracy learning approach into an ESL language class.
  3. Write your observations in your learning journal.
Image Credit

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by J. Finkelstein, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported


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Canadian Settlement in Action: History and Future Copyright © 2021 by NorQuest College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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