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Innovative Financial Literacy Programming Helps Newcomers

  • Innovative Financial Literacy Programming Helps Newcomers

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 fifth article in the series highlights innovative financial literacy programming at the CEIIA.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

I enter an English language learning classroom at Bow Valley College that has been rearranged to look like a classic science fair. The energy and excitement is palpable. Groups of three or four learners are gathered around half a dozen tables. On each table is a tri-fold display, and I catch glimpses of some of the headings: Banking, Saving and Investment, Entrepreneurship, Shopping Wisely. In the classroom across the hall, clusters of two and three learners are gathered around laptop computers participating in PowerPoint presentations on topics related to money and finances. As I walk from table to table, listening to the different presentations, I learn about debt, savings, starting a new business, bank accounts, automated banking machines, budgeting, and the least expensive grocery store (as identified by Bow Valley College ESL learners).

It’s the third annual Financial Literacy Fair hosted by ESL learners in the Bridge and the Youth in Transition (LINC) programs. Both programs serve young adult immigrant learners ages 18 to 24. The students have worked for weeks to prepare for this day.

Research shows that for newcomers, financial literacy is an essential skill for creating a successful life in Canadian society. Research also indicates that financial literacy may be a challenge for many newcomers along with the other settlement concerns they face.

What do we mean by financial literacy?

“Financial literacy means having the skills and knowledge to use money wisely. Being financially literate means having the knowledge to make prudent financial decisions, now and for the future” (Bow Valley College 2010b, 1).

Studies have shown that “upon arrival, and during the first year of settlement, the probability of entering poverty is high among newcomer populations (34% – 46%) and this tendency seems to be increasing. Statistics show that approximately 65% of immigrants experience bouts of low income within the first 10 years in Canada” (Picot, Hou, and Coulombe 2007, cited in SEDI 2008, 3).

While low income is not always connected to low financial literacy, newcomers without access to financial literacy supports are “at greater risk of slipping into further poverty” (SEDI 2008, 3).

Despite the government’s renewed focus on increasing financial literacy for all Canadians, newcomers continue to face unique challenges that require not only innovative and responsive programming, but policy changes within government and financial institutions.

The Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox: An innovative response to increasing financial literacy among newcomers

This brings us full circle to the Financial Literacy Fair at Bow Valley College. Ruby Hamm and Heidi Beyer are part of the faculty in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA). They work with young adult ESL learners helping them to develop their reading, speaking, listening, communication skills, and essential skills – including numeracy. Their programs include a focus on the development of financial literacy skills. The Financial Literacy Fair showcases learners’ understanding and comprehension of financial literacy concepts taught throughout the trimester. I spoke with Ruby and Heidi to learn more about this important topic.

Ruby began our conversation by explaining that “in the Youth in Transition program, the end of trimester project this past spring was to host a financial literacy fair for the rest of the young adult immigrant population at the College.”

For instructors and learners alike, the annual Financial Literacy Fair is a highlight of the school year. The financial literacy learning doesn’t stop there. Heidi and Ruby are also co-collaborators and developers of the Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox, a compilation of innovative resources that practitioners can use to teach financial literacy.

Funded by the Alberta Government, the Toolbox was developed to meet the needs of ESL literacy learners. Specifically, the resource is intended “to support learners with interrupted formal education (LIFE) who are at risk of not completing high school education and transitioning into post-secondary studies or career programs” (Bow Valley College 2010a, 1).

Creating the Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox

Heidi described the project this way: “Before we started creating the resource, we did a landscape analysis. We realized that not many of the tools we could find were for ESL literacy learners. None of the tools would have worked without being adapted in some way for the classroom so I think that was very much kind of a driving force behind this project. At the end of this project, the Toolbox reflects the collective knowledge of ESL literacy practitioners at Bow Valley College, and provides other practitioners across the country with peer-reviewed lesson plans developed for various literacy levels.”

Ruby shared how they started out in the process to develop the Toolbox. “We got together in early 2009 and started talking about what is it that learners need in order to be successful financially, in order to be able to deal with money in a way that’s really going to move them forward. And we didn’t just talk about it ourselves, we were able to talk with several focus groups. We brought in ESL literacy instructors that taught from beginner to more advanced levels, and asked them, ‘What is it that your learners really need?’ … And we were able to take that information and then decide, okay this is the direction that we need to go with our Toolbox.”

Our challenge was how do we build a Toolbox that enables a non-math teacher to introduce a numerical concept? 

Heidi added, “Not all numeracy gaps can be addressed in classrooms that focus on language development. However, there are some core skills and knowledge that you need to know about money and how to navigate financial systems here in Canada. Fundamentally, we’re ESL literacy practitioners – we’re not math instructors. So our challenge was how do we build a Toolbox that enables a non-math teacher to introduce a numerical concept? We wanted to use what we know is best practice for this audience [practitioners].”

Heidi and Ruby worked together with instructors and learners in the CEIIA to identify gaps in numeracy skills and to develop financial knowledge relevant to the Canadian context. They were grateful that as practising instructors, they could try the new resources out in the classroom and use feedback from the learners to inform the shape and design of the Toolbox.

Ruby highlighted a strength of the Toolbox. “One of the things we did was look at the Alberta curriculum to see what numeracy skills could be taught in the context of financial literacy. Literacy learners don’t necessarily understand numeracy. They may not have a math background so financial literacy concepts may be used to teach the math. For example, decimals can be better understood in the context of money. That way the teaching enhances the understanding of money and of decimals. We worked to ensure that there were connections. In the Toolbox, the financial literacy outcomes and the numeracy outcomes are both present and connected.”

As well as learning a new language and navigating educational pathways, our learners are keen to learn how to make money work for themselves, their families and learn how to make wise financial decisions today and in the future. (Bow Valley College 2010a, 1)

Financial Literacy Success Stories

The Toolbox has been highly successful in helping learners understand the meaning of money and move forward financially. Heidi and Ruby shared some success stories.

Ruby recalled, “We were working with a calculator online and I showed a student how to use it. He was a smoker and he started figuring out how much his cigarettes cost and he started plugging in the numbers. He said, ‘Ohhhh, if I quit smoking I could have a car.’ I said, ‘That’s right.’ You know, it’s as simple as that. You need to use your money differently.”

Heidi gave other examples. “The class was learning about budgeting skills. We had built our vocabulary about incoming and outgoing funds and we actually connected it to using Microsoft Excel. And I had one learner who just, wide-eyed, kind of shot up out of her seat and said, ‘I don’t make that much money.’ They had been collecting their receipts in an envelope. And she literally was plugging them into this spread sheet, and she had no idea. That was the first time she made that connection that she was spending more than she actually made. Another learner who worked in a restaurant was walking past her manager’s office, and her manager was struggling with how to make a pie chart in Microsoft Excel. She said, ‘Oh I think I can help you with that,’ and she went in and did it. She stopped working in the restaurant and was promoted to working in the office. Another higher level learner went into the bank with her parents and helped them get a mortgage because she knew where to get her information, she knew the questions to ask, and she understood how the interest would be calculated.”

The Toolbox has been well received locally, provincially, and nationally. To encourage use, the resources are easily accessible on the Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox website, which is part of the ESL Literacy Network, and can be downloaded and adapted to suit diverse learner needs.

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


Bow Valley College. 2010a. “Background.” Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox. Calgary: Bow Valley College, ESL Literacy Network.

Bow Valley College. 2010b.. “What is financial literacy?” Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox. Calgary: Bow Valley College, ESL Literacy Network.

Social and Enterprise Development Innovations (SEDI). 2008. Financial Literacy: Resources for Newcomers to Canada. Toronto: SEDI.


Joline Magwood

I loved the success stories! It was so inspiring to read about how learners applied these tools to improve their lives.