It’s a system meant to help newcomers to Canada learn English. But critics say it prioritizes testing — at students’ expense

Hard balance to strike between the need for accountability through testing of progress and pedagogy:

After having his education stalled by war, Fahed Diab was thrilled to have a chance to return to school in Canada. But before he could apply to college, the Syrian refugee needed to enrol in adult English classes.

In those classes, the then 21-year-old worked to learn a foreign language from scratch while, more importantly, rebuilding his self-confidence and mingling with other newcomer students like him who were also trying to learn the history, values and cultures of their adopted homeland.

“I wanted to be able to communicate with people and learn how to ask for help, go to a doctor and book an appointment,” said Diab, who resettled in Canada with his family via Lebanon in 2015 under a refugee sponsorship.

“I went to classes and met friends in similar situations as me. I enjoyed interacting with people from different backgrounds and learning about this country. My self-confidence was getting better.”

However, when changes were made to the federal immigration department-funded Language Instruction for Newcomers (LINC) while he was about halfway into his one-year program, Diab, now studying engineering at Lakehead University, said he lost his drive as a result of the frequent in-class assessments required to prove the students’ progress.

“We had two or three tests a week, sometimes for writing and reading, or listening and speaking. We must pass all these tests to move up to the next level,” said the now 27-year-old Hamilton man.

“All the tests distracted me from the learning. I was obsessed with passing the tests rather than learning the language and culture.”

After about a year enrolled in the immigrant English classes, Diab quit and moved to an academic credit program for adults at a school board to finish his Canadian high school diploma as a bridge to the language requirement for post-secondary education.

He could’ve met college admission English requirement if he’d reached LINC level 7, which requires the learner to be able to communicate “comfortably and reasonably fluently” in most common daily situations.

Based on the Canadian Language Benchmarks, LINC goes from level 1 for low beginners to level 8 for high intermediate learners. While most Canadian colleges require minimum scores in standard language tests such as IELTS and TOEFL, they also accept adult immigrant students who have completed at least level 7 in LINC.

Adult immigrant students do drop out of English classes once their language proficiency reaches the level they need to navigate their day-to-day life; for many, it’s just a means to obtain the certificate to meet the bar of the language requirement for citizenship applications. Immigration data shows as many as half of all students discontinue after completing one level.

However, students and instructors say the portfolio-based language assessment or PBLA introduced in 2013 is taking the fun — and class time — out of learning for students such as Diab.

The language assessment system, which has been rolled out incrementally since then, is meant to provide a standardized tool to measure the program’s impact on participants’ language learning and track their progress at each English benchmark.

According to its practice guidelines, PBLA is a “comprehensive, systematic and collaborative approach to language assessment” based on the use of real world language tasks throughout the teaching and learning cycle.

Teachers and participants together are supposed to set learning goals, build a body of work to showcase the student’s language proficiency over the span of a school term and use it to make plans to advance the learner’s journey.

According to the immigration department’s most recent review of its language program, 87,140 or 16 per cent of adult newcomers admitted between 2015 and 2017 enrolled in formal language training. Women accounted for 62 per cent of the enrolment and three quarters of the students were between the ages of 25 and 54.

Students surveyed told researchers they were in classes to improve English for daily life (78 per cent), to help get a job (67 per cent), to better communicate at work (61 per cent), to learn about Canada (58 per cent) and to meet people (53 per cent).

About two-thirds said PBLA was helpful in encouraging them to learn more, that in-class assessments were useful in showing they are learning (64 per cent), and that the frequency of tests was just about right (67 per cent).

Instructors who did not find the assessment approach helpful complained the process took too much preparation (88 per cent) or classroom time (80 per cent), and that learners might not be comfortable with or understand the goal-setting (76 per cent).

“The PBLA may be useful ‘as a learning tool,’ but ‘not as an assessment tool,’” said the 75-page report, released in May. “PBLA is time consuming, and that training for PBLA is in high demand.”

Kelly Morrissey, who has taught English to immigrants and refugees in Toronto since 2010, says the tool looks good on paper but is so labour intensive when applied to a class of 20-plus adult students that it turns into sheer test-oriented learning and assessment rubrics.

PBLA requires students to collect what’s called artifacts — evidence of success in applying vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation in group activities — throughout the term. They need 32 artifacts in writing, reading, listening and speaking based on the instructor’s assessment to move up each ladder. There are eight LINC levels in total.

“Language needs a lot of repetition in different contexts. You need to give the brain as many ways to acquire the language skills as possible. You need to bring in all the senses,” said Morrissey.

“Language is one of the humanities. It’s not like a hard science. You can’t treat language students like laboratory rats.”

Morrissey tailors her curriculum to what her students’ needs are and those needs vary from cohort to cohort.

For a lesson about grocery shopping, she would go to a local store to take pictures of aisle signs, bring empty food packaging to the class and turn the classroom into a supermarket to allow students to do role-playing and learn English in that setting. Sometimes, that would also include a field trip to a store.

While the task-based learning approach that many instructors have already been doing is fantastic, says Morrissey, the paper work involved in PBLA has cut into the time students spend on those activities.

And it doesn’t help that instructors have to develop their own course content outside of the class based on rough PBLA guides. Those hours are unpaid.

“PBLA focuses on test, test, test, test. I had refugees from war-torn areas in my literacy class, experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. I wanted more than anything to protect them from stress of these tests,” said Morrissey. “I think it’s unethical to be asked to do that to them.”

Ethiopian newcomer Ibsa Abdurzak, who was sponsored to come to Canada by a community group in 2017, spent six months in the language program in 2018 before quitting. While the assessment helps students get a sense of their English levels, he said he became hung up with making the grades.

“The best way to learn a language is through practice. But there’s too much assessment and it was too tedious for students,” said the 28-year-old, who had a degree in education back home and now studies business accounting at Mohawk College.

“We don’t like to be judged. It makes people nervous and stressed. It did take away the time to practise English.”

Yuliya Desyatova, a University of Toronto doctoral student, focuses her research on PBLA in adult language training in Canada. She says learners, often self-conscious and afraid to fail, could benefit more from engaging in activities than being assessed.

“They need the opportunity to interact in the language in a social environment. Many of my students are isolated at home. They don’t have interaction (in English) beyond classroom hours. They have so much responsibility,” said Desyatova, herself a LINC instructor since 2006.

“When this opportunity to interact with classmates and teachers is replaced by you filling out paper after paper after paper in the hope to pass, the interaction is pushed aside.”

While the assessment is supposed to offer a “better and reliable measurement” to gauge a learner’s progress, Desyatova says it’s still an inconsistent instrument because each teacher applies the standards differently, with some more heavy-handed than others — an issue the immigration department’s review recognized.

“A simple solution is to remove the mandatory nature of PBLA and let teachers decide how much and how frequently tests need to be done,” she said. “We don’t need to test our students 32 times to see this student is not learning anything more from my class and needs to move to the next.”

Settlement Assistance and Family Support Services, an immigrant agency in Toronto, provides adult language training to some 400 newcomers a year at three locations from literacy to level 7.

Its executive director Sudip Minhas said PBLA allows students to be the centre of the learning and give them ownership of the process, though she admits that the concept of evaluation scares people.

“The intent of PBLA is to take that anxiety out of testing. If I’m given the ownership of my own learning, the assessment is not about pointing out whether I fail or pass, but rather if this route didn’t help (my learning), can I take a different route?” said Minhas.

“But for all our instructors as well as administrators, we have not been able to translate that into practice because we’ve been conditioned by years of certain structured exams and of assessing people by failing or passing them.”

Although PBLA has been implemented for some years now, she says it takes time for instructors and learners to recondition their thinking about the assessment and apply it correctly.

The big setback was that the teachers were not given enough training and support at the onset, she’s glad to see the immigration department’s review recognizes that instructors can “benefit from many supports” and recommends more adaptable PBLA materials, limiting the amount of unpaid work and extra training.

Source: It’s a system meant to help newcomers to Canada learn English. But critics say it prioritizes testing — at students’ expense

IRCC Evaluation of Language Training Services

Of interest, particularly the differences between settlement service language training clients and non-clients, the greater effectiveness of employment-focussed language training and the overall impact of the socio-demographic profile of clients and non-clients:

This report presents the findings of the evaluation of Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada’s (IRCC) Language Training Services. The evaluation was conducted to provide an in- depth assessment of this major program and considered issues of program effectiveness, covering the period from 2015 to 2018.

The Evaluation of the Settlement Program (2018) highlighted the need to further assess the different success factors and approaches to language learning. While language training is helping newcomers improve their language ability, progression was shown to vary by skill (i.e., reading, writing, listening and speaking), as well as client characteristics, which pointed to the need for a greater understanding of progression across skills. As such, the evaluation recommended an in- depth examination and thorough analysis to provide fulsome outcomes results and specific recommendations for improvements to the Department with the aim of improving language training effectiveness.

The language learning services have been evaluated, focusing on two key areas. The main focus was to better understand language skills improvement – what works for whom and under what conditions, with a view to determining the specific characteristics that influence language skills improvement. The secondary area of focus was to examine whether the language learning framework is adapted to address newcomers’ needs.

Summary of conclusions and recommendations

Based on the evidence analyzed, it was found that language learning services are designed to be flexible and effective in meeting the diverse needs of newcomers and to support their progression. The findings also show that language progression for newcomers is mostly positive, but there are differences between clients and non-clients with respect to likelihood of progression. While clients were seen to progress at the same pace as non-clients when assessed in the short term, using an objective measure, clients appeared to progress more than their non- client counterparts when assessed on a longer timeframe using a subjective measure. It was also found that some components of language training are associated with a greater likelihood of newcomers improving their language skills, such as full-time language training and multi-level classes, while others lowered chances of progression, such as continuous intake classes.

Furthermore, when assessing other settlement outcomes, the evidence indicated that:

  •   clients of general formal language training use official languages less frequently than non- clients, while formal language training focused on employment were using it significantly more than non-clients.
  •   clients of formal language training, and clients who took both formal and informal language training, are more likely to report an increase in the frequency of use of official languages.Although not a direct objective of language training, employability remains a primary concern for clients. The evaluation carefully analyzed this theme and assessed the impact of language training on various labour market outcomes. Clients of general language training used English or French at work less frequently and were less comfortable using official languages than non-clients, however taking language training focused on employment contributed to making these gaps smaller. Also, clients often had poorer labour market outcomes than non-clients on the short to medium term. The analysis showed that a large part of the difference in employment outcomes between clients and non-clients could be attributed to socio-demographic profiles of individuals (e.g., education, age, gender, year of admission). This suggests that taking language training is not necessarily a cause of poorer labour market outcomes, but rather that clients and non-clients may have different characteristics that explain their outcomes on the labour market. Furthermore, the evaluation found that employment outcomes of clients do not vary greatly based on how language training is delivered, language training focused on employment generally had a positive impact on employment outcomes, and taking language training during core hours was associated with less favourable results.

While the client progression and their labour market outcomes show mixed results, it should be noted that language learning services correspond to the diversity in clients’ need and IRCC- funded language learning services are designed in a manner to be conducive to language improvement for newcomers.

In response to the findings from the evaluation, this report has grouped the recommendations into two main themes. First, the evaluation proposes three recommendations around the topic of outcomes measurement. Second, the evaluation recommends improvements to the program to foster success. To this end, the evaluation proposes seven additional recommendations to further support clients, instructors and program stakeholders.

Source: https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/ircc/documents/pdf/english/corporate/reports-statistics/evaluations/E4-2018_LanguageTrain_Eng.pdf

Struggling language schools launch bid to bring 40,000 foreign students to Canada for fall semester

Bad idea. Economic interest of one sector, not without criticism over the quality of language training, versus the health risk to Canadian residents given that some source countries such as Brazil continue to mismanage COVID-19 with dramatic increases in infection rates:

Facing financial ruin due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s language schools have proposed an ambitious plan to bring 40,000 foreign students to Canada over the next few months to learn English and French.

The Study Safe Corridor initiative, which is awaiting approval from the federal government, would see Air Canada provide charter flights to bring COVID-screened students from countries such as Turkey, Japan, South Korea and Brazil.

A number of Canadian hotels have agreed to offer “full-service quarantine packages” for the students during their 14-day isolation period. A health insurance partner is involved in the plan as well.

The language students — who range in age from teenagers to people in their 30s and 40s — would be required to sign contracts to guarantee compliance with health regulations, which include financial penalties if rules are broken.

“We needed to come up with something that would be a game changer,” said Gonzalo Peralta, executive director of Languages Canada, which represents 200 schools across the country.

“We believe that if sports teams are allowed to function in this way, then international education should be allowed as well.”

The federal government gave the National Hockey League permission to resume its season and hold the Stanley Cup playoffs in Canada, allowing players from 18 teams from the U.S. to enter the country. The teams have agreed to follow strict safety protocols while playing in Toronto and Edmonton.

Economy would benefit, group says

Languages Canada and its members have asked the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship for the same consideration.

“We’re not looking at professional players being paid millions; we’re looking at people who are building their lives and looking toward the future,” Peralta said. “We know that borders cannot simply reopen; that’s unthinkable at this time. But we do know that life needs to continue.”

His organization says the Study Safe Corridor would inject $533 million of export revenue into the Canadian economy by March 2021, benefiting not only the schools, but also the airline and hotel sectors, homestay programs, and the tourism and hospitality industry. As well, 9,000 education jobs are at stake.A Languages Canada member survey showed that as many as 75 per cent of schools will be out of business by the end of the year if they’re not allowed to reopen. Some have already closed permanently.

Initiative raises health concerns

Emrah Oyman, executive director of operations at Toronto’s Mentora Language Academy, said online classes aren’t a suitable replacement.

“The big selling feature is the cultural component,” he said. “If you take away the face to face, you may as well just go on to YouTube.”

Oyman and his colleagues are confident that the safety measures of the Study Safe Corridor will minimize health risks. “This plan is bulletproof,” he said. “It’s very robust.”

But some are concerned about the health risks of bringing so many foreign nationals to Canada.

Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious and tropical disease specialist who teaches at the University of Toronto and works part-time at a COVID-19 assessment centre, said she is opposed to the initiative.”The virus is surging around the world,” she said. “People are dying of this. A lot of people have sacrificed a lot to keep us safe. Why would we take the risk of people coming from all around the world into Canada?”

Part of Banerji’s work during the pandemic has been to speak with people who have tested negative for the virus but are still exhibiting symptoms.

She said she’s not reassured that students would be tested before being allowed to fly. “We have a high degree of false negatives,” she said.

In her view, language studies are not essential during a global pandemic. “These students have the rest of their lives to learn a language. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

As for the fate of the schools? “Now is not the time to do this,” Banerji said. “Maybe they can reopen next year.”

Students are keen to come

Pedro Hammer of Brazil said he is eager to return to Canada to continue his English-language classes and believes the Study Safe Corridor is a good approach.

“Especially in Brazil, we are dealing with a pretty hard situation in regard to the coronavirus, and I think the safety measures are a must,” he said via a WhatsApp call from his hometown in the southern city of Curitiba.

The 18-year-old was a student at Mentora Language Academy until February, when his visa expired. Then the coronavirus hit, and he’s been unable to renew it to return.

He said it’s his “dream” to get back to Canada.

“At the moment I arrived in Toronto, I knew it was the place for me,” Hammer said. “I fell in love with the city. It was a life-changing experience.”

Hammer is taking a business management course in Brazil but said his dream is to eventually emigrate. “My main goal is to go to Canada, to Toronto, to grow a family there and maybe grow a business as well.”

Many students are keen to resume studies, said Mentora’s Oyman.”Our day-to-day operations are heavily related to education agents when it comes to new students, and they’re all across the world,” he said.

“They’re giving us market intelligence; they’re telling us the students’ concerns. And they are absolutely receptive to the idea of the Study Safe Corridor.”

Gonzalo Peralta of Languages Canada said many foreign students opt to stay in Canada and pursue higher education. It’s another economic benefit of language schools, he said, but added that there’s more than money at stake.

“It’s also about promoting our identity to the world and our Canadian values. It’s very, very important in that regard.”

Peralta said his organization hopes to receive the go-ahead from the government soon.

“Now is the biggest time for enrolment, over the summertime. And then in September, those are the two big intakes. We have missed the summer. So this is basically the equivalent of Christmas to the retail business.”

The Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, as well as the office of Minister Marco Mendicino, did not respond to emails sent by CBC News asking for comment.

Source: Struggling language schools launch bid to bring 40,000 foreign students to Canada for fall semester

Quebec: Les cours de français boudés par les immigrants

Not a good development but the article offers few reasons to explain the drop from 60 to 40 percent of those taking language training. I have not seen any articles or studies on comparative take-up rates in English Canada (readers please correct or advise):

Environ 60 % des immigrants adultes qui ne connaissent pas le français en arrivant au Québec refusent de suivre les cours de français qui leur sont offerts gratuitement par l’État, une proportion en nette progression ces dernières années.

Selon le rapport annuel de gestion 2014-2015 du ministère de l’Immigration, de la Diversité et de l’Inclusion (MIDI), des 13 455 immigrants reçus qui déclaraient ne pas connaître le français en 2012, seulement 3689 s’étaient inscrits à un cours de français dans les deux ans qui ont suivi, soit un pourcentage de 27,4 %. Mais comme les cours offerts par le MIDI ne représentent que les deux tiers des cours de français offerts aux nouveaux arrivants, a-t-on précisé au ministère — l’autre tiers est le fait du ministère du Travail, de l’Emploi et de la Solidarité sociale (MTESS) —, il s’agit d’un peu plus de 40 % des immigrants anglophones ou allophones qui jugent bon d’apprendre formellement le français dans les deux ans qui suivent leur arrivée.

Or en 2008, la proportion était inversée : 60 % des nouveaux arrivants ne connaissant pas le français assistaient aux cours offerts par l’État, évaluait-on au ministère. On s’inquiétait toutefois du fait que 40 % d’entre eux choisissaient de bouder les cours.

Délais et budgets en baisse

On montrait du doigt les longs délais que les immigrants devaient subir avant de pouvoir participer à un cours de français. Ces délais n’ont plus cours aujourd’hui. « En matière de francisation, le Ministère répond à la demande et les budgets sont ajustés en conséquence », a soutenu dans un courriel la porte-parole du MIDI, Karine Baribeau.

Et les budgets sont revus à la baisse : réduction de 1,45 million en 2012-2013, de 809 000 $ en 2013-2014 et de 3,4 millions en 2014-2015, pour un total de 5,7 millions, soit près de 10 % du budget consacré à la francisation des immigrants par le MIDI. Selon la porte-parole, la diminution de l’an dernier est due à une baisse de fréquentation des cours à temps complet alors que le nombre d’immigrants qui suivent des cours à temps partiel s’est maintenu. Près de 10 800 immigrants se sont inscrits au cours à temps complet, soit 15 % de moins qu’il y a deux ans, contre 15 350 à des cours à temps partiel et 3000 à des cours en ligne, pour un total d’un peu plus de 29 000 étudiants de tous les niveaux de connaissance du français.

Source: Les cours de français boudés par les immigrants | Le Devoir

Don Cayo: Canada needs to teach immigrants better language skills

Not too surprising, and the call for better language training makes sense. Not an issue for second generation immigrants given Canadian schooling (but who also have persistent income and unemployment gaps:

It turns out that a significant factor is not only whether an immigrant’s mother tongue is English or French, but if not, then how closely related it is to one or the other of Canada’s official languages. For example, immigrants who grow up with a Nordic language, which shares two of four linguistic roots with English, are likely to earn six per cent less than native-born Canadians, whereas the gap widens to 33 per cent for those who speak a dialect of Chinese, which has no common roots with English or French.

…But two other researchers, Ana Ferrer of University of Waterloo and Alicia Adsera of Princeton, take this a step further, looking at the link between immigrants’ economic success and what they call linguistic proximity — the degree of similarity between an immigrant’s mother tongue and one or both of Canada’s official languages.

They found that not only do immigrants from countries with languages closely related to English or French get better jobs when they come to Canada — specifically, jobs requiring social and analytical skills rather than just brawn — the difference in earning potential is magnified when the level of education is higher. In other words, a labourer will make a little less than Canadian-born co-worker, but a specialist or professional will make a lot less.

Don Cayo: Canada needs to teach immigrants better language skills.