September 8 is International Literacy Day!

Today we celebrate UNESCO International Literacy Day (ILD) with our latest Stories From the Field article ‘ESL Literacy Learners Engaging with their Communities’.

This new series of articles is a collaboration between the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning (CEFL) and the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA).

UNESCO has been at the forefront of global literacy efforts since its foundation in 1946.

The UNESCO declaration states:

Literacy is a human right and the basis for lifelong learning. It empowers individuals, families and communities and improves their quality of life. Because of its “multiplier effect”, literacy helps eradicate poverty, reduce child mortality, curb population growth, achieve gender equality and ensure sustainable development, peace and democracy.

In today’s rapidly-changing, knowledge based societies where social and political participation takes place both physically and virtually, acquisition of basic literacy skills and the advancement and application of such skills throughout life is crucial.

UNESCO’s policy today is to support the promotion of literacy and literate environments as an integral part of lifelong learning and to keep literacy high on national and international agenda. Through its worldwide literacy programmes, advocacy work and knowledge base, the Organisation works with countries and partners to realize the vision of a literate world for all. 

UNESCO’s overall approach to literacy for all encompasses the following: building strong foundations through early childhood care and education; providing quality basic education for all children; scaling-up literacy programmes for youth and adults who lack basic literacy skills; and developing literate environments. (

Stories from the Field 

ESL Literacy Learners Engaging with their Communities 

Celebrating International Literacy Day, Sept. 8, 2015


Since 1966, UNESCO has celebrated International Literacy Day to remind the international community that “literacy is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning. It is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives. For individuals, families, and societies alike, it is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s heath, one’s income, and one’s relationship to the world” (UNESCO 2015a).

This year’s theme is Literacy and Sustainable Societies. “Literacy is a key driver for sustainable development. Literacy skills are the prerequisite for the learning of a broader set of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values, required for creating sustainable societies”(UNESCO 2015b).

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.

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.

2015Jul9-1Kelty 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.”

A final word

Literacy-level learners “may be beginning learners but they are not beginning thinkers” (Brod 1999, 5). They are thoughtful about their connections to the world, and, like all of us, want to make a valuable contribution to their communities. Innovative courses like the Bridge Leadership program, using techniques such as cultural mapping and experiential learning, help learners improve their communication skills, which results in an increase in self-confidence and self-advocacy skills. Importantly, these newly learned attitudes, skills, and values are transferrable into other settings: family, further education, work and the larger community, and contribute to the creation of a sustainable society.

Leadership was very interesting to me. I learned from leadership. I didn’t have any confidence to stand in front of an audience. But when I was in leadership…first time [I spoke] I was feeling very kind of scared. Second time I was kind of a little bit scared. Third time I was feeling I can talk, doesn’t matter how many people are there…. After leadership, I was feeling that I can ask anything I want, and volunteering, oh my goodness, it was very, very good for me. (personal interview with Venantie Nyibabashumba, a learner in the Leadership program)


Brod, Shirley. 1999. What Non-Readers or Beginning Readers Need to Know: Performance-Based ESL Adult Literacy. Denver: Spring Institute for International Studies.

UNESCO. 2015a. “Literacy.” Retrieved from

UNESCO. 2015b. “Literacy and Sustainable Societies.” Retrieved from UNESCO website

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.

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