For newcomers with low English proficiency, learning the language is extremely important for ensuring successful settlement in Canada and for securing good long-term employment.

English language assessment

Soon after arrival in English-speaking Canada, the English proficiency of each adult refugee newcomer is normally assessed, in accordance with Canadian Language Benchmarks. For those classified as being at lower Benchmark levels, free English instruction in an ESL or LINC program is then organized.

Once enrolled in formal English instruction, it will usually be up to the newcomer’s teacher to determine whether he or she has advanced to the next CLB level. Keep in mind that a newcomer may advance more quickly in certain abilities compared to others, in terms of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

English vs. work in the first year in Canada

Rates of advancement

A general rule of thumb is expressed by some that for every three months of full-time instruction, a newcomer should be able to advance by one CLB level. Theoretically, someone arriving in Canada with no English, could reach the level, CLB 4, after a year or so of instruction. However, the actual rate of progress will depend upon many factors, including the age, health, motivation, self-confidence and education level of the newcomer, as well as the number of missed classes and the amount of practice and homework accomplished outside of the classroom. Progress may also come in fits and starts, with breakthroughs along the way, rather than as steady progression.

Better opportunities with higher CLB levels

At the levels of CLB 3 or less, a newcomer is not likely to obtain more than a survival job. As English proficiency improves, a newcomer will become eligible for many more training programs and transitional work opportunities. At CLB 7 and higher, many excellent job opportunities are likely to be available. Use the filter options in the Programs & Events section on this website, to see what is available at, or below, each CLB level.

The desire to drop English instruction

Many newcomers may feel a strong desire to begin working immediately after arrival, instead of studying English. This may be due to financial concerns, both present and future. Knowing that there is a plan to help them find employment when their sponsorship financial support ends may be helpful in alleviating some of those concerns.

For some newcomers, the combination of feeling dependent on government and sponsors and having a lot of “free time”, when not in school, can lead to reduced feelings of self-worth and contribute to depression and anxiety.

The desire to work instead of learning English may also be related to dissatisfaction or difficulty with ESL/LINC classes. Some newcomers are not literate in their mother tongue and this can make English classes even more challenging and potentially frustrating. Sometimes, there is a push by an instructor or organization to move a newcomer to a more advanced level of instruction before the newcomer is ready, to meet organizational objectives. Classes may also be overcrowded, resulting in insufficient individual teacher attention.

Measuring progress in video recordings

We recommend that, on a monthly basis, beginning shortly after arrival, those assisting newcomers record one or two minute videos of each adult in the family who is planning to eventually look for work. The videos could record the newcomer answering the same or similar questions each time, including about any particular types of work they are considering. The purpose of these recordings is to be able to demonstrate to the newcomers their progress being made in learning English and the value of their formal instruction.

Discussing doubts about the value of continued formal instruction

When a newcomer expresses doubts about the continued value of attending formal English language course or preference to begin working, the following responses might be considered:

  • Reinforcement that progress is still being made, even if doubted.
  • Highlighting the uniqueness of the opportunity to pursue and afford formal study, while financial assistance is being provided by sponsors.
  • Explaining the training and work opportunities that open up at higher CLB levels.
  • Suggesting part-time paid or volunteer workto not only help with financial concerns, but also provide an opportunity for them to improve English skills outside of the classroom. Such work can also provide a boost to the individual’s feelings of self-esteem and overall morale.

Practicing English with newcomers at home

Wherever possible, those supporting newcomers should encourage them to continue taking English classes, on at least a part-time basis, while they continue to have financial support from the government or their sponsor group (or both.) In addition to moral support, in-person English practice sessions and homework help can also be extremely beneficial to help the newcomer get the most out of his or her English classes. Once a newcomer identifies a particular sector in which he or she wishes to seek work, help with sector-specific English vocabulary would almost certainly be very beneficial. See, for example our post on landscaping vocabulary:  Specialized English Work Vocabulary – Landscaping.

Opportunities to improve English on the job

In defining “success,” as part of an employment strategy for a newcomer, an important factor to consider is the opportunity to improve English proficiency on the job. Some work opportunities might offer higher pay, but with limited interaction during work hours with English-speaking employees, customers, and suppliers. On the other hand, some employment services have been able to organize on-site, English instruction with employers who have hired a large number of newcomers.