READ TO SPEAK 

ESL Community Book Club

Our recent report Breaking the Language Barrier, we identified several challenges and needs of English as Second Language curriculum for newcomers. One of main frustrations newcomers had with existing ESL programs was that the “end-points of ESL classes rarely match up with newcomer goals, and are not meaningful for real-life applications” such as buying, groceries, taking public transport even having the courage to talk to a new neighbor.

Despite these challenges, there are community groups making a difference at a grassroots level. Read to Speak is a community-based book club for English Language Learners in Toronto. Their approach and curriculum empowers newcomers to gain confidence in using their English language skills and connect with members of their community.  Anne Cairns and Anne MacGregor-O’Neill creators of the book club, sat down with us to tell us more about their curriculum, their impact and what can help empower their initiative grow.

Tell us how you got involved in ESL initiatives for newcomers?

We have both been teaching English to newcomers in various settings and programs in Toronto for over 20 years.

The books are short and the illustrations help explain the story. Although they are picture books, we select stories with adult themes that we can draw upon to elicit conversation. First we read the story together, then we review important vocabulary, work on pronunciation, assess comprehension, and finally, we encourage conversation with discussion questions that go beyond the book.


A library can be a very inspiring environment – why does it work well for ESL lessons?

The librarians at the Toronto Public Library are so welcoming and supportive, particularly Mary-Alice at Sanderson Branch where the Read to Speak Book Club meets. The library is a community hub, so not only do they provide us with a wonderful space to gather, but there are so many resources at our fingertips. As well, for some people new to Toronto, just finding their way to the library is part of the learning curve!

Read to Speak is an initiative with a book club format – how do you choose the books you study?

We choose picture books that English language learners at level CLB 3 – 5 can read and understand without too much effort. The books are short and the illustrations help explain the story.

 Although they are picture books, we select stories with adult themes that we can draw upon to elicit conversation. First we read the story together, then we review important vocabulary, work on pronunciation, assess comprehension, and finally, we encourage conversation with discussion questions that go beyond the book.

How does you ESL curriculum help newcomers in their day to day life?

So many of the students we have taught over the years, as well as our current book club members, speak their native languages at home or even at work. They socialize among people from their homeland, and may not have much opportunity to use English beyond basic exchanges while shopping or on the TTC. We hope that by attending this book club, people will get a chance to practise and improve their English, using the book as a springboard. The reading, listening and speaking skills of CLB 3 -5 level learners are still quite basic, limited to concrete, non-idiomatic language and simple grammar, so expressing themselves and being understood can still be a challenge without a patient listener giving support and constructive feedback.

Are there additional benefits to attending these initiatives?

Newcomers get out into the community and learn how to use the library. We announce the book two weeks in advance, so people need to understand the details in the email, find the book, place a hold, borrow the book and read it, all before attending the actual book club meeting. These are huge steps for some people who are new to the language and to the city.

When we learn of new projects or initiatives we pass along this information.  For example, a small community group called The Department of Imaginary Affairs invited the students to participate in a story-writing project.  This involved them writing about their journey to Canada in their own native language. These stories were then translated and published into small books in both their language and in English with some photos and illustrations.  The hope is that one day these books will become part of a newcomer library.

Our book club members enjoy each other’s company and look forward to meeting every two weeks. We welcome new members to the group and get to know each other quite well. It becomes a social event as well as an educational one. One of our members went back to her country, so we planned a good-bye party for her. We come together as strangers and leave as friends.

Has there been a moment where you’ve seen your lessons have an impact on a newcomers integration journey?

So many moments come to mind. One very recent example evolved out of our discussion of a book by Gerald McDermott called Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest. We chose this book to introduce the learners to a native story. People learned where the Pacific Northwest is and the fact that indigenous people live there.

The story talks about how the sun came to be in the sky. This lead to a conversation where one student shared how depressing it is for her during the long Canadian winters. The Toronto Public Library magazine What’s On happened to have a piece on the SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lamps that are available for use at certain branches, so we were able to show this to the group. Everyone was very interested in the lamps and a few people said they would test them out at the library before looking into buying their own lamps. So this is what we mean by a ‘springboard’. The books are tools that help the learners share on a very authentic and personal level, and in this case, get some practical advice.

What would help your initiative grow and have a bigger impact?

We have many dreams that could make this book club even more vibrant and reach a wider audience. To find a home for our lending library and someone to manage it would complement our book club meetings and offer additional support to the students. We’ve often talked about providing a “train-the-trainer” program so that this model of learning English through reading for pleasure could be enjoyed by more people, but with just two volunteers we really don’t have the resources to do that at this time. A reliable source of funding would allow us to develop and implement some of our ideas.

Initiatives like Read to Speak demonstrate the impact community programs can have on building newcomers confidence in using their English language skills. Simultaneously, this resolves a major challenge the settlement sector is facing. Across the country community groups have united to facilitate newcomer integration and inclusion.

The question now is how can we support these initiatives to grow and sustain their impact at the local level?