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Newcomer literacy program celebrates the end of its 15th season

25 families completed the Parents as Literacy Supporters in Immigrant Communities (IPALS) for Mandarin speakers in 2023

At 12:30pm on Monday, Dec. 18, educators and program facilitators were just about done arranging tables, chairs and course materials in a room at Maywood Community School where they were about to welcome 25 parents with their small children. At 12:45, the event started with the usual debriefing about the previous session, followed by the day’s learning activities and later a party with pizza and snacks to celebrate the successful completion of the Parents as Literacy Supporters in Immigrant Communities (IPALS) program for 2023. 

Organized in partnership with Decoda Literacy Solutions, the philosophy behind the IPALS program is to teach small children between the ages of three and five essential literacy skills through play. Central to the program is the importance of the child’s family as the foundation of all learning. 

“It really does honour the family as the first and most powerful influence on the child’s learning, development, health and wellbeing. So, it recognizes the family as that first teacher,” said Sheri Brattston, Burnaby School District principal for community education and child care. Brattston told the Beacon that families seldom see themselves as central to their children’s education. IPALS aims to empower them to know how they can support their children’s learning and development. 

Children playing with play dough during the IPALS session on Dec. 18. Photo: Lubna El Elaimy

The activities took place in two spaces. The first room was where the parents and children attended the debriefing session with the educators, and it was designed for adults with adult-sized chairs and tables. The second space was filled with children’s activities, and small tables with various educational toys and items arrayed throughout. One table had play dough; another had a container filled with beans of multiple colours, while a third had a toy train on tracks. Participants and their children started trickling in a few minutes before the session started.

Each session begins with the adults engaging in intentional, thoughtful learning about a topic with an early childhood educator. The second part of the session is when the parents and educators join the children. 

“They really get to engage in hands-on meaningful materials that support the child’s learning. In family literacy programs, they really try to ensure that the materials that are used can be things that could be household objects or found around the home because we really want to replicate the learning from the family literacy environment back into the home,” Brattston said.  

The third part of the session is the debrief. Parents discuss the session with the early childhood educator or facilitator and ask themselves questions about what they noticed about their children when they were engaged in the play-based activities, how they can support this learning at home, and how to replicate it at home in their home language. 

“The most important piece is honouring the learning that the family has and the learning in the home language,” Brattston added.  

Materials for each session include everyday, accessible items, such as household objects. The program emphasizes that the course materials should not represent a barrier for families to continue the activities at home. 

Peiling Chan, one of the parents, joined the program with her four-year-old daughter Cathleen in October 2023. Chan said she learned a lot about repurposing household items creatively and using them to recreate educational activities at home. For example, the educators once taught the parents how to make play dough at home using simple ingredients.

“Flour, water, and cream of tartar powder, mix together and ta-da, play dough,” Chan said. The materials are safer since they are made with natural, food-grade ingredients and are far more affordable than buying play dough from a toy store. 

Chan, who moved to Burnaby from Taiwan in 2021 with her husband and daughter, said the program was an eye-opening experience for her. 

“I remember the last session was about math, and I remember the teacher said that an easy way to introduce your kids to math is when you’re folding the clothes, you just sort them. It’s a kind of math. I thought, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ We have three people in our family, so now every time I’m folding the clothes, I bring her together with me and show her ‘this is Daddy’s, this is Mommy’s, this is yours.’” 

Peiling and Cathleen Chan playing a counting game using beans during the final IPALS session on Dec. 18. Photo: Dana Bales, Burnaby School District

In contrast, when Chan went to school as a child, she learned math and writing through consistent practice, repetition, and memorization rather than through enjoyable activities that develop the same skills while being engaging for the children. 

“I think for me, since the background is very different, I think it’s very important for me to learn more about the culture and the curriculum they have here. In the end my daughter will grow up and become a teenager. If I know more about what she’s absorbing, it will help me to understand her, because I believe in the future it will be really different. Her culture is different from mine. Trying to know them and understand what they’re going through when they’re kids is very important,” Chan said. 

During the session, Chan’s daughter Cathleen sat at one of the shorter tables close by with two other children. They were playing a math game under the supervision of an early childhood educator that involved sorting beans of different colours and sizes into piles. 

As a culturally responsive bilingual literacy program, IPALS provides fun, engaging, play-based learning activities for the children and their families free of charge. While the program is helping many newcomer families, it is only offered for speakers of three languages. 

Initially, it was offered in Mandarin only, but recently, the school district received funding to add Farsi and Tigrinya. The new Farsi and Tigrinya programs are available through the MOSAIC Family Centre. Some of the challenges to expanding the program to other languages include a shortage of early childhood educators and limited funds. According to Brattston, Decoda Literacy Solutions provides the funding for the program.

This piece was made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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