English Language Learners: Policy and School Support in Ontario, Canada


Canada, a country of just over 34 million people, opens it doors to approximately 250,000 immigrants each year. Many of these new arrivals settle, at least initially, in the central Canadian province of Ontario, the most populous of Canada's ten provinces. The majority of newcomers to Ontario arrive in Toronto and its surrounding urban and suburban areas, stretching to the east, north, and west of the City of Toronto. Toronto has been cited by the United Nations as the most culturally diverse city in the world, with people from over 175 different countries who have chosen to make it their home, and it is Canada's largest and most linguistically and culturally diverse school district.

In Canada, unlike the United States, education falls solely under the jurisdiction of each provincial government. The federal government stays out of matters of education so that each individual province entirely governs its own affairs in this area. This article will present an overview of the Ontario Ministry of Education's policy on English language learners (ELLs), with examples drawn from the Toronto District School Board.

The Context of the Education Mandate in Canada


In late 2007, the Ontario government, through its Ministry of Education, released its first mandated policy dedicated to the support of English language learners in Ontario's public schools. (All Ontario Ministry of Education documents can be accessed through the Ministry's bilingual website, and a list of Ontario's ELL documents is also available online).

Prior to 2007, the Ministry of Education had developed several curriculum documents with learning expectations for English language learners, as well as some resources to support teachers in programming for ELLs. However, in contrast to the situation of students with special education needs, there was no policy in place in Ontario which set forth parameters to ensure that all newcomer students in all school boards would receive support in learning English as an additional language. With increasing numbers of newcomer students arriving across Ontario, the provincial government was spurred to create a comprehensive policy for the funding and support of English language learners.

The creation of the policy was aided by the appearance of a number of inquiries and reports from both public and education sector advocacy groups on the widely varying levels of support for English language learners in Ontario schools. Foremost among the reports that were the impetus for the new ELL policy was the Fall 2005 Annual Report of the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario. (The Office of the Auditor General of Ontario is an agency which audits and reports to the public on the work of provincial ministries such as health, housing, and education, as well as agencies and corporations such as Driver and Vehicle Licensing Bureaus, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, and TV Ontario, the provincial public educational broadcasting authority.)

Due to the appearance of several reports in 2003 and 2004 documenting the lack of consistent support across the province for English language learners from groups such as People for Education and the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, the Office of the Auditor General acted to audit the delivery of English as a Second Language programs in various school boards across the province in 2005. The Ministry of Education responded to the Auditor General's report with the publication of the 2007 Policy on English Language learners, which aims to "result in a consistent approach to the education of English language learners across the province", and to "help all English language learners in the province by engaging them in learning that enables them to develop their talents, meet their goals, and acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to achieve personal success and to participate in and contribute to Ontario society."

Policy objectives: ELL definition

The 2007 Policy on English Language Learners sets out a clear definition of these students, which include newcomers from other countries, as well as children born in Canada and raised in families or communities where languages other than English are spoken. Examples of Canadian-born children are:

  • aboriginal students in communities where primarily aboriginal languages are spoken
  • children from French-speaking communities
  • children from Mennonite or other cultural communities where another language is spoken
  • children from immigrant homes in which languages other than English are primarily spoken.

The Toronto District School Board, out of a total population of 257,000 students, has approximately 40,000 students who fall under the Ministry's definition of an English language learner.

Policy objectives: ELL orientation and identification

The Ministry's ELL Policy mandates that all school boards will provide procedures for the reception and orientation of newcomer families, as well as provide an initial assessment of all newcomer students' English language proficiency and mathematical skills and knowledge. In the Toronto District School Board, with almost 11,000 newcomer elementary school age children entering annually, students in grades 1 — 8 receive their initial assessment from the school's ESL teacher. High school students in grades 9 — 12 visit one of four Newcomer Reception Centres located in various areas of the city where they undergo an interactive, day-long assessment of their proficiency in English and mathematics before proceeding to their local high school.

In the 2010/11 school year, 4,500 secondary school-aged students were welcomed and assessed at the four newcomer reception centres. The Newcomer Reception Centres also provide an opportunity for every newcomer family to access the services of a Settlement Worker, a multilingual community worker funded by the federal government to assist immigrant families with issues such as housing, the search for employment, and liaison with ethno-cultural social service agencies.

Policy Impact on ELL Instruction and Programming

Whether in elementary or secondary school, English language learners in Ontario can access two distinct programs according to their needs:

  • English as a Second Language (ESL) which is for students whose first language is other than English and who have had educational opportunities to develop age-appropriate first language literacy skills; or
  • English Literacy Development (ELD) which is for students whose first language is other than English and who have not had the opportunity to develop age-appropriate first language literacy skills due to limited prior schooling in their country of origin or transit.

ESL programming

In the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the majority of our students do arrive with age appropriate literacy skills in their first language, and will therefore receive ESL support through a variety of delivery models. There are onsite ESL teachers in approximately 280 of our 440 elementary schools, and sometimes as many as three or four ESL teachers, depending on the numbers of ELLs in the school.

The remainder of our elementary schools are served by a cadre of 37 "itinerant" ESL teachers, who travel between approximately 130 schools to provide ESL support in schools with small numbers of English language learners (1-10 students per school on average). The creation of this group of travelling ESL teachers was, happily, a direct result of implementing the new Ministry policy. Before the release of the policy, ELLs in these 130 schools had not received any ESL teacher support. The policy provided the rationale to convince the school board to increase the number of ESL teachers so that all students, including those in schools with very few ELLs, would have access to ESL teachers.

In Ontario high schools, credit courses are offered in both ESL and ELD. A maximum of 3 of these credits may be counted towards the 4 compulsory English credits every student needs to graduate with a high school diploma. The majority of Toronto high schools offer a comprehensive program of ESL credit courses at five levels of English proficiency, as well as various credit courses which are "sheltered" for English language learners, in subjects such as science, Canadian geography and history, civics, and business studies. Teachers of sheltered courses are skilled in making adaptations to the curriculum in order to make the subject matter comprehensible for English language learners, and to assist them in acquiring academic English appropriate to various content areas.

ELD programming

A minority of students across the province, and in the Toronto District School Board, receive ELD support. These students come from countries where they have had limited access to formal education, due to war, refugee migration, ethnic oppression, adverse economic circumstances or natural disasters. In some cases, such students may have never had the opportunity to attend school at all. Ontario ELL policy mandates that school boards will provide additional support to students who arrive with limited prior schooling.

In the TDSB, this takes the form of our LEAP (Literacy Academic Enrichment Program) classes. Some 650 students are currently enrolled in these special classes, at 36 elementary and 14 secondary schools throughout the city. LEAP is an accelerated literacy, numeracy and academic skills program for students with limited prior schooling. It aims to help such students make gains so that they can be successfully integrated into the mainstream program. The Toronto District School Board is justifiably proud of its LEAP program, which is the largest public school program in Canada focusing on the needs of students with limited prior schooling, and was well established long before the release of the ELL policy. Class size is limited to 12 students per teacher, and classes are given additional funds for literacy and numeracy resources and experiential learning for students. We have also developed a number of curriculum units written especially to address the needs of students with limited prior schooling. The Ontario Ministry of Education also has a document for educators dedicated to ELLs with limited prior schooling, the only such provincial document in Canada.

ELL assessment

Ontario administers several province-wide learning assessments to its students, but not with the frequency or consequences found in many American states. A provincially-funded but arms-length organization from the Ministry of Education called the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), is responsible for testing the literacy and numeracy skills of Ontario elementary students in Grade 3 and 6, and in Grade 9 mathematics and Grade 10 literacy skills. The only one of these assessments that is tied to the issuing of a credential is the Grade 10 literacy test, known as the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT). A passing grade on this test, administered annually to all Grade 10 students across Ontario on the same day in late March, is required in order to graduate from high school.

The Ministry of Education has been very receptive to the unique situation of English language learners with regards to the OSSLT. The ELL policy states that students should only participate in the tests "when they have acquired the level of proficiency in English required for success." This allows newcomer students to take a deferral on the test until they have improved their English proficiency. The Ministry has gone even further however, in providing an alternate opportunity for English language learners to obtain the literacy test requirement. A diploma credit course called the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course (OSSLC) is offered at all high schools. If students have been deferred twice on the test, they may take the alternate route of enrolling in the OSSLC, and if they pass the course and earn the credit, they will have met the literacy requirement for their secondary school graduation diploma. The 120-hour course covers all aspects of reading and writing in a variety of genres, and is an excellent way for English language learners to further improve their English literacy skills.

Bilingual education

In the area of bilingual education, every province in Canada offers French immersion programs to its students. French immersion was introduced in the 1970's to support Canada's official policy of English/French bilingualism, and to encourage the creation of a new generation of bilingual citizens across the country. Hundreds of thousands of Canadian children have participated in French immersion since its inception, and many have gone on to become functional bilinguals with an edge in employment opportunities in many fields. In the area of French immersion, Canada stands out as a world leader in providing opportunities for students to become proficient in both official languages of the country.

Ontario is the home province of Dr. Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto, one of the world's foremost academic authorities on the advantages of bilingual education and the maintenance of home languages. But bilingual education in languages other than French is not mandated in the province of Ontario, although such programs do exist in several other Canadian provinces, notably Alberta and British Columbia.

The population in Ontario is so linguistically diverse that it has not been economically or logistically feasible to implement bilingual education in students' home languages. However, every public school board does offer optional learning opportunities for students to learn and develop their home language through the provincially-funded International Languages Program. This program provides after-school and weekend instruction in a wide-variety of community languages in both elementary and secondary schools. Two school boards in Ontario are currently piloting small early childhood bilingual education programs in single schools: Arabic/English in Windsor, and Chinese/English in Hamilton. It is hoped that more school boards in Ontario will follow this lead in the future, in spite of the lack of a government mandate for bilingual education, because educators know that bilingual education programs benefit children and will contribute to their future academic success and positive cultural identity.


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