Opinion: Canada’s ‘Broken’ ESL/ELL Programs

By Tina Ye

Why drastic reforms on ESL/ELL programs must be made from within the Canadian public educational system to keep up with globalization demands.

A recent thread on twitter documented one student’s dissatisfaction with the Canadian educational system. With a vivid retelling of his experience passing through the public school system as an immigrant and a non-native english student, Bashir Mohamed dubbed the Canadian Educational System as “broken”, claiming it disregards the credentials of immigrants and teacher’s flippant attitude towards non-english students who face struggles in school.

The Canadian education system is indeed broken, fuelled by a reluctance to fund and unwillingness to keep up with the moving time. As the wave of globalization increases, the demand for updated educational policies is now, more than ever, much needed. Canadian public education needs to be reformed with a sweeping brushstroke of its entire structure. This includes training of teachers to accommodate for a more diverse classroom, updated course syllabus to keep up with fast-moving globalized ideals, and government intervention to support a divergent of programs such as ESL, accessibility for gender & race minorities, integration from classroom to workplace.

The story told by Bashir Mohamed sings a song familiar to many first generation immigrants. One look at your skin color, a two-minute assessment of your English-speaking level, and you are granted a seat in the poorly structured ESL/ELL programs. Many international non-English speaking students are trapped in these programs throughout their entire elementary/highschool careers regardless of how much they have improved or succeeded in their schooling. When I first immigrated to Canada, my family moved between three cities in the span of three years, which meant I was outfitted through three different ESL programs, between three different public schools, between two different provinces Ontario and British Columbia. These programs, albeit under different provincials policies (I assume), all shared alarming similarities:

1) an illusionary “leveling” structure which promised advancement and graduation from ESL programs

2) a complete lack of actual english-teaching by ESL teachers

3) the disregard for ESL student’s academic achievement as consideration for their placement in ESL, which when combined with poorly structured placement tests and the false “level” system, traps students in ESL programs for longer than necessary.

In my case, I spent nearly 6 years in ESL. I remember being pulled out of class to be stuffed in a tiny room with 20 other students just so we can sit in front of a TV and watch Magical School Bus; as if we can all magically learn English by entraining our eyes on the colorful pictures, acquiring an expertise in the language by osmosis.

All these similarities suggest one thing: public school ESL program is a farce. It is only situated there to give the illusion of helping immigrant students succeed in their schooling. In fact there are no real benefits to these programs, other than to demotivated non-English speakers about their capabilities and to brand them as “students requiring extra help”.

With the move of globalization, especially with Canada’s appeal as one of world’s top countries to live (Vancouver consistently placing top 5), a huge influx of international students have set their eyes on Canada to pursue their studies. The Canadian Dream promised stability, acceptance and growth; its economic merits supported by a vast supply of natural resources, its staunch stance on a peaceful approach to world crisis have long prevented war from breaking out, and with the current population boom, Canada welcomes the wealth that come with it. However, a knot of caution should now be in every Canadian policymaker’s throat: how to prevent a bottleneck of educational progress.

There needs to be a complete re-formation of ESL/ELL programs. The Ministry of Education must realize that with the lack of proper ESL program, immigrant students are either trickling away to pursue private help from outside agencies, funneling their money elsewhere; or forsaking their academic potential just because of a totally removable barrier due to policy inaction. Government must realize that there is merit in providing support for these students: they are the next generation who will become the backbone of the nation’s future. Cultivation of talent and potential does not only mean focus on excellency or advanced programs, but also on the foundation of a successful integration for international students into their domestic counterparts.

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