Confessions of an ESL Literacy Tutor’s Daughter

September 12, 2011

I am the daughter of a Canadian father and an immigrant mother, both of whom had a grade ten education. They divorced when I was five years old. My Welsh mother was seven months pregnant with their fourth child, when my father left the family home. My older siblings, who were in their teens, also left home. My mother knew she would be a single parent and with no family in Canada, no education and no job, my mother made a tough decision in order to get her life back on track. She decided to give up her fourth child for adoption at birth. Following his birth, she had to go to work. Like many immigrants who come to a new country, she leveraged the skills that she had in order to get her first job in Canada. She worked as a cleaner and a housekeeper.

With a desire to be a role model for me, the one child she had left in her care, she began taking part-time upgrading classes and, a few years later, she earned her General Equivalency Diploma (GED), which gave her the equivalent of a high-school education.

Despite her achievement, we lived under the poverty line. Proud and determined, once she had her GED in hand, she went from cleaning houses to working in a library, checking out books for patrons. This was a turning point in our lives because it was the first full-time position with a pension and medical that she had ever held. It also meant that I spent my summer vacations in the library because we didn’t have enough money to pay a baby sitter. I loved to read, so it worked out well on all fronts. I knew that my mother quietly prayed the authorities would not find out that the only supervision her little girl had during work hours were her co-workers in the children’s section of the library.

Once she had secured this permanent job, she started looking for a way to give back, to help other immigrants integrate and succeed in Canadian culture. She turned a somewhat perplexing passion and penchant for English grammar into an asset by becoming an English as a Second Language (ESL) literacy tutor.

She worked one-to-one with adult learners. In those days, one did not meet learners in a public place or an agency. Learning happened at the kitchen table, over a cup of tea. Lessons were intertwined with personal stories and punctuated with laughter… and sometimes tears. These informal learning sessions were the medium through which language and culture were acquired and shared.

Over the years, people from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Taiwan occupied a chair in the kitchen classroom. Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving dinners almost always included a guest from a faraway land, who knew little about Canadian holidays. We shared as much food and friendship as we did anything else. Truth be told, we learned as much from the learners as they every did from us.

When I hear literacy leaders today talking to prospective tutors and volunteers, I hear them talk about the difference they can make in the lives of the learners. I fully agree that this is true. There’s a secondary impact of the literacy volunteer’s role that I have never seen discussed though… The positive influence they have on their own children, as they become role models and advocates for literacy.

The experiences of having ESL literacy learners in our home, tutored by my Mum, became woven into the tapestry of my childhood. The experiences nestled themselves into my heart, ultimately influencing my own career choices. I inherited my mother’s slightly perturbing passion for grammar and a wonder for words. I learned  a deep appreciation of other cultures and developed my own sense of wonder about the world around me. As a result of these collective experiences, I became the first person in my immediate family to finish high school. Going on to earn higher degrees was something that no one had even dared to dream about before that.

ESL, literacy, multiculturalism and second languages infused ten years of my childhood because my mother took on the volunteer job of helping immigrants who struggled even more than she had. I have no doubt that these experiences have shaped my career, my values and my own contributions to the field.

Thanks, Mum, for the inspiration.

Happy birthday to you.

In memory of Becky Eaton


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

You thought Canada was a literate country? Think again

May 26, 2011

In 2003, the International Adult Literacy Skills Survey (IALLS) tested more than 23,000 Canadians in four areas:

  • prose literacy
  • document literacy
  • numeracy
  • problem-solving

Proficiency was rated on the basis of levels one to five, that is, lowest to highest. Level 3 corresponds roughly to high school completion.

In case you’re wondering what this test was all about anyway… IALLS is the Canadian component of the “Adult Literacy and Life Skills” study, which was a joint project of the Government of Canada, the US National Center for Education Statistics and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The larger study was an international undertaking, involving thousands of people from numerous countries. In the literacy world, it’s a big deal. The results are a big deal for all of us Canadians. We have more work to do to raise the bar for all Canadians.

Literacy isn’t a black and white issue. It’s not a matter of “You can read” or “You can’t read”. There’s a continuum. Skills can be built at any time over the life span. They can also decline if we don’t use them.

Sad blonde girl with bookThere is an idea out there at literacy is “an immigrant problem.” Well, folks, it’s a myth. While it’s true that about 60% of new immigrants to Canada scored below Level 3 on the IALSS test, there are tens of thousands of people born right here in Canada who lack sufficient literacy skills.

One shocking result of the test?

2% of Canadian born university-educated individuals scored at the lowest level of prose literacy.

We have to ask ourselves: How are we allowing these people to slip through the cracks, grade after grade and year after year? How is it that someone born in Canada can graduate with an undergraduate degree when they score at the lowest level possible on an international literacy test? Although those results are troubling, some might argue that those people are the exception, that they are the outliers on the bell curve of test results.

Before you write off the stats as being an exception, think about this result:

About 37% of the total Canadian-born population scored below Level 3 in prose literacy.

In other words, about 9 million Canadian-born adult citizens lack sufficient literacy skills to function in the workplace.

Let’s put that into perspective for a minute.

9 Million people…

That’s the entire population of Nova Scotia. Multiplied by 9.

The number of people killed during the Russian Revolution over half a decade from 1917-1922.

The number of people in the UK who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.

The number of people who follow Justin Bieber on Twitter.

Just under the total number of people in the entire world who suffer from hunger.

However you look at it, 9 million is a lot of people.

What can we do, Canada, to raise the bar for literacy?


Related posts

Canada’s 9 Literacy and Essential Skills

Literacy and Essential Skills (video)

“The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read”


Share this post: You thought Canada was a literate country? Think again

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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