Nov. 1, 2016

Schools: the first step to integration?

Education can be a powerful tool when it comes to helping refugees and other newcomers adapt quickly to life in Canada.


Rather than dividing people, languages can instead bring immigrant children from different cultures together in Canadian classrooms, says a University of Calgary researcher.

Given the world’s refugee crisis and the number of immigrant families accepted each year by Canada, school boards need to change their approach about teaching things such as English literacy, says associate professor Rahat Naqvi of the university’s Werklund School of Education. Some public schools in Calgary now serve children whose mother tongues collectively total about 100 languages, she says.

While many Canadians think being bilingual means speaking English and French, citizens whose mother tongue is Punjabi now make up the largest bilingual group in Alberta, followed by Arabic and Chinese, says Naqvi. A research associate at the university’s Language Research Centre, she sees such linguistic diversity as an opportunity rather than a handicap.

“Language awareness can be an important way to help build more innovative literacy programs in mainstream schools,” she says, adding this can be true for fluent English speakers as well as those with rudimentary skills. Funded by the Alberta Centre for Child, Family and Community Research, Naqvi explored this approach through two studies of students at schools within the Calgary Board of Education.

Her research includes a two-year study ending in 2010 that involved 106 kindergarten and Grade 1 students at a school in northeast Calgary. Largely consisting of immigrants from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the children were given dual language storybooks, with 20-minute readings conducted three times per week.

One book included pictures and text about a girl in Jamaica and the ingredients in her favourite soup, which was made by her grandmother. After hearing the story in English, children listened to it in Punjabi as read by the grandfather of one of the students.

A Sikh student described how the Jamiacan grandmother’s bandana looked like head covering worn by men in a “gurdwara,” or Sikh temple, while a Mandarin speaker pointed to the Punjabi grandfather’s turban. The grandfather taught the children how to say “patka” – a Punjabi word for a Sikh child’s head covering.

“The students are discovering the arbitrary link between word and object, and more interestingly, they are thinking about the sounds of the language,” says Naqvi, adding that such playing with linguistic forms is linked to early reading ability.

As they learned about different languages, the children were also exposed to other cultures, she says. “These can be used as teaching moments to talk about multiculturalism, which is one of the big mandates within school boards in the Canadian context.”

At the request of the Calgary Board of Education, which was concerned about a drop in literacy engagement by Grade 5 and 7 students, a further 10-week study was undertaken in 2015 as part of the language arts curriculum. It involved more than 80 students in Grade 5 and 7, many of whom were immigrants from the Philippines who spoke Tagalog and Spanish.

As well as the three readings per week that included guest readers, the students also kept language portfolios – online documents used to log things such as learning activities and exercises. Students were also asked to write their own bilingual stories at the end of the study.

Naqvi says that rather than keeping them out of regular classes until they can speak English, it is better to view immigrant and refugee children as incipient bilingual learners who can build on common language and literacy skills they already possess. “We are developing an actual manual where we will be specifically looking at the procedure involved in setting up something like this.”

Related: Refugee shelter design gains international recognition


Besides conducting research into new teaching practices, the Werklund School of Education is also helping immigrants through the Bridge to Teaching program, says associate dean of graduate programs Michele Jacobsen.

“It is meant to give teachers who hold bachelor of education or related education credentials from another country an opportunity to become certified to teach in Alberta schools,” she says. “Some of our students have spent their first couple of years in Canada working in jobs that don’t reflect their training.”

In addition to determining how many courses they need to take to upgrade their skills, Alberta Education also provides bursaries to help pay for students’ training. This includes a minimum of 10 weeks of classroom teaching under the supervision of a certified teacher.

More than 60 people have gone through Bridge to Teaching since it began in 2011, says Jacobsen, who is also the program’s co-ordinator. “School jurisdictions are highly interested in the graduates of this program because they are often multilingual, and they bring diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences that enrich the kind of learning experiences that we can provide for children in Alberta classrooms.”

girl using vr headset

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