Helping women succeed through learning ESL

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Not being familiar with the local language can be a huge barrier to success. So over the last year, a committee of amazing volunteers have helped to give the women at our shelter the best chance for a successful new life by developing and teaching an ESL program to our residents.

“Language barriers can be a huge problem for anyone trying to adapt to a new culture or country,” says ESL volunteer Tawni Proctor. “The women at Interval House are already facing a huge series of challenges, and not being able to speak English adds another hurdle to the path toward becoming independent.” She adds that English is needed for daily life in Toronto. “In Toronto, you need to speak English in order to visit the doctor, buy groceries, use a bank, and perhaps most importantly, obtain work. The ESL program at Interval House gives women the tools they need to be independent and live for themselves.”

ESL volunteer Anne Eriksen agrees. “Being able to understand others and to make yourself understood is an essential part of participating in life, and in Toronto the most useful language is English,” Anne says. “I have seen women become dependent on their husbands, usually because domestic demands kept them from attending classes regularly. Then it becomes status quo in the family, and any change is seen as unsettling behaviour.”

A lot of hard work, planning and preparation went into developing the ESL program at Interval House. The first step—creating assessment and teaching tools—was completed in January 2015. “We focused on trying to create an assessment tool that would help determine at what level the clients could speak, read, write and listen in English,” says volunteer Kate Pilgrim, who helped to create the assessment and teaching tools. Kate explains that the Canadian Language Benchmarks were used as a guideline. From there, tests and activities were created to assess whether the women were in the Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced level, and units for each level and skill were then developed.

Kate says that they tried to include language and grammar in the program that would help women in their everyday lives, such as “health, education, employment, food and getting around Toronto.”

Since the program was developed in January, volunteers Tawni and Anne have been teaching ESL to our clients here at Interval House. Already, the impact has been incredible. “The ESL program at Interval House helps women develop practical skills in English so they can more easily accomplish essential tasks that native-speakers of English don’t even think about as being a challenge,” says Tawni. “In addition, the lessons are fun and foster a nice sense of community among women who are helping each other and working toward a common goal.”

Anne says the program helps women to break past the glass ceiling in the workplace that prevents them from growing professionally. “We have heard about the glass ceiling for women in general in the workplace. Lack of… English [skills] adds another, lower, glass ceiling,” says Anne.

Kate says that while her primary role was developing the program, she has also seen the positive impact learning ESL has had on the women at Interval House. “In my brief time working with the women, it was very obvious that they gained confidence and practical knowledge from studying and practicing English. I hope that they can take what they learn and use it to make their everyday lives even a little bit easier,” says Kate.

Image: Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0