Last Updated: June 9, 2017

Syrian refugees in the GTA – English language proficiency and education

Language proficiency assessment

One of the major organizations in Toronto providing Syrian refugees with English language proficiency assessment is the YMCA Language Assessment and Referral Service (YMCA-GTA.)  (The Centre for Education & Training also provides such assessment for parts of the GTA outside the City of Toronto.) These assessments are used in the placement of the newcomers in government-funded language instruction and training programs.

 

The English language proficiency assessment is based upon the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB) standard. The CLB standard is “a descriptive scale of language ability in English as a Second Language (ESL) written as 12 benchmarks or reference points along a continuum from basic to advanced. The CLB standard reflects the progression of the knowledge and skills that underlie basic, intermediate and advanced ability among adult ESL learners.”

 

English language proficiency of Syrian refugees in Toronto

The YMCA-GTA has released an analysis of 2,109 Syrian refugees, whose English it assessed and who arrived in Toronto between November, 2015 and November, 2016. This report, Syrian Refugees: Understanding the Depth of Highly Skilled Talent, was done in conjunction with Magnet (a collaborative hub of post-secondary, government and other institutions, based at Ryerson University.) Almost all (98%) of those included in the analysis were between the ages of 18 and 65. This report describes the English speaking and listening skills (not the reading and writing skills) of the Syrian refugees whom it assessed after arrival, as follows:

 

Level of English speaking and listening skills on or soon after arrival, of Syrian refugees arrived by Nov, 2016 in Toronto and assessed by YMCA-GTA Privately-sponsored (PSR) Government-assisted (GAR) All Syrian refugees assessed
No English skills (CLB 0) 11% 43% 24%
Basic English skills (CLB 1 to 4) 58% 54% 55%
Intermediate to advanced English skills (CLB 5 to 12), with only 5% being at the upper end of intermediate, or being advanced 31% 3% 21%
Total 100% 100% 100%

 

The YMCA-GTA/Magnet report suggests that Syrian refugees, while they continue to study English in ESL/LINC classes, progress, on average, by one CLB benchmark every three months, or four benchmark levels per year. Based upon this assumption, the report projects that by March, 2017, of the 2,109 refugees who arrived by November, 2016 and whom the YMCA-GTA assessed:

 

Putting it another way, YMCA-GTA has suggested that by March, 2017, 77% of the 2,109 adult Syrian refugees who arrived in the GTA by November, 2016 (privately-sponsored and government-assisted combined) should have acquired at least intermediate English speaking and listening skills (CLB 5).

 

The YMCA-GTA assumes that the ability to perform basic tasks required at most jobs, requires somewhere between CLB 4 and CLB 6 English proficiency; and that many high-skilled jobs generally require only CLB 7.

 

Based upon our own observations and anecdotal evidence, we believe that the YMCA-GTA may be overly optimistic in its projections of English proficiency among the recent cohort of Syrian refugees who had arrived by November, 2016. We would welcome any study that could confirm these projections. It would also be interesting to see an analysis of the impact on the rate of progress, once someone has transitioned from ESL/LINC classes to employment.

 

Levels of education

The YMCA-GTA/Magnet analysis also reported the following levels of education among the 2,109 Syrian refugees, whose English it had assessed and who had arrived in Toronto between November, 2015 and November, 2016:

 

Level of education of Syrian refugees arrived by Nov, 2016 in Toronto and assessed by YMCA-GTA Privately-sponsored (PSR) Government-assisted (GAR) All Syrian refugees assessed
None 1% 5% 2%
Elementary 19% 55% 31%
Secondary 34% 26% 31%
Post-secondary 46% 14% 35%
Total 100% 100% 100%

 

While 35% of all of the Syrian refugees had post-secondary education, 54% of the PSRs and 86% of the GARs did not. Only 17% had an undergraduate degree or higher. Others with post-secondary education had some college or university or a certificate, apprenticeship, or diploma.