Learning English with HIPPY Mothers

Early Language Learning (ELL) is a newcomer innovation offered to refugee and newcomer mothers to support building their English language skills to facilitate and expedite their settlement in Canada. The program has a structured curriculum that is delivered through home visits and weekly group classes. The ELL class provides mothers with an opportunity for collective learning through practicing language skills in a comfortable group setting.

Sitting in on an ELL Class

A diverse group of women attend the weekly ELL group classes at Immigrant Services Society of BC (ISSofBC). They drop their kids next door at the child minding service the project provides. The unease of one the mothers is apparent as we hear a child crying next door; however, it subsides in no time as the child becomes occupied playing with other children and the child minders. It is heart warming to see how the women in the ELL class greet each other. Their hugs and greetings light up the room.

The class starts off with participants receiving small pieces of paper with day-to-day questions written on them. They take one piece, ask the question to the person sitting next to them, and the cycle continues. The women seem a bit uneasy at first as they start warming up to speaking in English in the class. But they quickly pick up pace and soon, speaking in English becomes easier as they relax and start interacting with one another. Even asking each other simple questions like what their favourite holiday is or where they go shopping for food seems to open up communication channels between the women and encourages them to try and communicate more in English.

Storytime: Analyzing Where is Spot?

As the ELL instructor moves on to explaining the structure of storytelling, it is interesting to observe how much the participants like the books they are reading with their children as part of the HIPPY curriculum. The participants enjoy asking each other about what happens in a simple but ever engaging HIPPY book titled Where is Spot? They talk about the dog and the places where he could be hiding, and as they do so they notice how they can use different English words with each other to communicate about the book.The ELL instructor and the HIPPY Home Visitor continuously move around and add to the participant’s vocabulary, helping them pick up and use new words and idioms. The women talk about how their children react when they read the book and how they answer the children’s questions.

Interestingly, use of other languages (the women’s mother tongues) continually decreases while communicating with one another. As the class progresses, they move their discussion to talk about another HIPPY book.

The participants are encouraged to take the lead in role-playing by speaking to the entire class to build their confidence and presentation skills.

Putting English Language Skills to the Test

The most enjoyable activity for the participants was a practical one – it was when the instructor handed out pencils and paper to participants and a mini art class was role played where the instructor told the women what to draw and the women jotted down the instructions. They were asked to draw a family of a couple with 5 children including a pregnant woman, a girl with long hair touching the ground, a girl with a bow on her head, a small child who was round and a woman with a long dress. The women loved this sketching activity and seemed to take pride in understanding simple things like knowing what a bow is and how young girls in different cultures wear bows.

A Topic All Women Had in Common: Parenting

The class moved on to talking about feelings – how women interacted with their kids and how the different ways we communicate with one another and with our kids really influenced how we feel ourselves and how we feel towards each other. The conversation moved on to how women encourage their children and said positive things to them. With mothers around the table, the conversation quickly sparked on how they engage their kids with toys, how their kids like playing with toys or dolls, and what strategies the women used to make their kids finish their food. They discussed how to make children eat healthier, how to introduce new foods to them and how to effectively transition children from breastfeeding to solid food – ALL IN ENGLISH.

As the 2-hour class ended, one cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the strength of these women who are trying their best to fit into their new lives in Canada and are united by one purpose: Giving their child the best chance they can at life.


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