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ESL Literacy Learners Engaging with their Communities

  • ESL Literacy Learners Engaging with their Communities

Stories from the Field Volume 3 is a new series of stories from the Adult Literacy Research Institute that explores innovations in ESL literacy programming that have been spearheaded by the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College. In the next six months Sandi Loschnig, the project’s researcher and writer, will be writing about her discussions with ESL literacy practitioners working in this field: their successes and challenges, best practices and approaches, innovations, and professional development needs.

The second article in the series features the Bridge Leadership Program at Bow Valley College. Here is an excerpt from the article: 

The ESL literacy programming at Bow Valley College aims to provide learners with interrupted formal education (LIFE) with both the literacy and the life skills they need to be successful in their lives within a variety of contexts: home, further education, employment and the community at large.

One innovative program in particular is focused on developing these important ‘soft skills’ – helping ESL literacy learners build their self-confidence and increase their engagement with their community. The Bridge Leadership Program is targeted at youth between 18 and 25 years of age. The learners work on building their skills in areas such as checking in and checking out, active listening, managing anxiety and nervousness, giving and receiving feedback, clarifying information and messages, initiating social contact and conversation, and refusing requests (Westwood and Pearson 2005, 3).

I spoke to Kelty Christensen, Learner Engagement Officer at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement at Bow Valley College, to learn more.

She explained how the program evolved. “Prior to coming into the position there was a Leadership program in existence whereby students would engage in different school and class activities to enhance leadership skills. I realized that there was a definite desire for students to be involved and to learn more practical hands-on skills that would support them not only in their schooling but within their community and work life. The leadership program grew out of that need. The Bridge Leadership program has evolved over time. The intent is to increase learners’ communication skills and their levels of self-confidence in public speaking, and by building these skills have more success within their school setting, their life and their community. I found that they had the most success and the most impact when those skills could be applied to real life situations. As I worked with this group of immigrant youth, I realized that they were intimidated by their lack of English, and yet still really wanted to get involved in their communities. They didn’t know how to get started, and they didn’t know how to gain skills to promote their success. There are many barriers that prevent learners from doing that, prevent them from understanding how to get involved, and how to learn those skills. They wanted to engage in leadership activities and improve their communication skills, which is why they gravitated towards this leadership program. It runs each semester for approximately 12 weeks. The program varies each semester and allows different learners from the Bridge program to have the opportunity to become involved.”

The demand for the leadership program has steadily increased as the numbers of learners in the Bridge Program has increased. Currently, 24 learners enter the program each trimester. Participants meet once a week to go over different topics and learn interpersonal and communication skills using a sociocultural competency training model.

Community Engagement

The course culminates in a community engagement piece that varies each semester. Kelty explained: “During the course, we focus on presentation skills, communication skills, confidence building, and intercultural competency. These are the kinds of skills that the learners can use in multiple facets of their lives. At the end of the 12-week period they participate in a community engagement opportunity – engaging not only within our College community, but within the greater Calgary community. The program helps the learners gain self-confidence so that they can turn around and access community volunteering opportunities on their own. They reflect on their experience and how it has changed them, and how they can take the skills they’ve learned forward.”

Learners choose organizations based on their passion and interest. One past community engagement project  included working with Operation Christmas Child[1]; the learners volunteered in the warehouse, filling and checking the shoeboxes before shipment. In another project, the learners organized and participated in a learner-led orientation for all of the English Language Learning students when they moved from the classrooms at Rocky Mountain Plaza to the newly expanded Bow Valley College. Working in groups of three, the leadership program participants provided tours of the North and South campuses for over 600 students to orient them to their new location.

Over the past six years, leadership program participants have worked with the Mustard Seed, the Calgary Drop-In Centre, the Calgary Food Bank, the Calgary Children’s Festival, Brown Bagging for Children and the Royal Bank Pennies for Water campaign. “Often, after learners leave the program, they get involved in volunteering in other capacities, either through Propellus[2] or other volunteer organizations,” Kelty added.

Learner Success

Kelty shared a success story from the leadership program. “I had one learner who had a very strong stutter. It was so strong that his ability to articulate himself was a word by word effort. He did not let this stand in his way. He pushed himself to take on challenging speaking roles and constantly put himself outside of his comfort zone. The class was very supportive of him and gave great feedback. I think that the leadership program gave him the tools to help him in increasing his self-confidence, and he began to understand that something that might prevent people from taking on new challenges was not going to hold him back. He was very involved and inspired other learners within the program to take on roles, which was very impressive and spoke to his natural leadership. He has moved into High School upgrading, but he remains connected to College community through the Intercultural Centre’s ICan Volunteer Program. His ability to navigate the challenge of moving from the Bridge program level of leadership to the College-wide level of leadership and engagement tells me that we’re doing something right.”

To read the entire article, visit the Adult Literacy Research Institute.


Westwood, Diane, and Hilary Pearson. 2005. “Grace Under Fire” Sociocultural Competencies: Key Communication Skills for Career and Employment Success. Instructor Manual and Student Manual. Vancouver: Vancouver Community College.

[1] Operation Christmas Child is a program of Samaritan’s Purse®. Volunteers fill shoeboxes with hygiene items, school supplies and toys. The shoeboxes are then shipped around the world to children in need.

[2] Propellus is a non-profit organization that helps strengthen other community organizations through networking, collaboration, mentorship and shared experience. They also help connect volunteers to organizations.