Working together on a laptop

Learning English as a second language: A how-to guide on ESL programs

By Michelle Boon

Posted on January 13, 2021
Working together on a laptop
As a newcomer to Canada, you are eligible for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. There are many ESL programs available for adults and children. These courses are government-funded and available for free. Learning English through these programs will help you connect with new people, navigate everyday life, and communicate in the workplace.

This article will show you how to access ESL programs and walk you through the different kinds of ESL programs available.

To be eligible for ESL programs, you must be one of the following:

  • A Canadian citizen or a permanent resident
  • A refugee
  • A participant in the Ontario Immigrant Nominee program
  • A participant in the Live-in Caregiver Program

Where to begin:

An online language test

Take an online test to determine your English language skill level. This is an unofficial test with unofficial results. It will help you decide if you need ESL training and will also give you an idea of the types of questions that you can expect to see in a formal language assessment.

Newcomer services

Accessing ESL programs can be overwhelming. Settlement advisors at your local newcomer service centre will assist you through the process. Newcomer services will help you book a language assessment appointment and register for ESL classes. You can also use these services to look for jobs, find a place to live, enrol your children for school, and learn about other community services. The Government of Canada provides a list of free newcomer services available at various locations. You can find a centre near you by entering your location and selecting the types of services that you are looking for.

Language assessment

Before you start your ESL classes, you must complete a language assessment. Language assessments are free to take, and you cannot pass or fail them. The test determines your English skills and helps decide what level of ESL training is best for you.

To get started:

  1. Find a language assessment near you. The Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks website is a great place to find a language assessment centre near you.
  2. Book an appointment online or over the phone.
  3. Bring identification such as a passport or driver’s licence. The identification you need to bring will be different depending on your immigration status.
    • If you are a Canadian citizen, you may be asked to provide:
      • A Canadian passport
      • A certificate of citizenship
    • If you are a permanent resident, you can provide the following:
      • A record of landing
      • A confirmation of permanent residence
      • A permanent residence card
    • As a Convention Refugee or Protected Person, the following documents are acceptable:
      • A letter of Notice of Decision from the Refugee Board of Canada confirming that you are considered a Convention Refugee
      • A letter issued by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada indicating that your application for protection has been allowed
      • A document confirming your protected persons status
      • A permit to come into or remain in Canada
    • If you recently applied for Permanent Residence, you can provide the following documents:
      • A letter stating that you have been approved in principle and have met the permanent residence eligibility requirements
      • A work or study permit stating that you have received initial approval for your Application for Permanent Residence
    • As a refugee claimant, you can provide:
      • A refugee protection claimant document
    • If you have applied for the Live-In Caregiver program, the following document would be acceptable:
      • A live-in caregiver work permit

What you need to know about the assessment:

  • The test will take up to three hours.
  • You will be tested on reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
  • You will be able to ask the language assessor questions if you are unsure of anything.
  • You will receive your results as soon as you finish the assessment.
  • Some language assessments are currently online due to COVID-19.

What you need to know about your results:

  • You will receive a rating based on the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB)
    • The Canadian Language Benchmarks describe the English language skills of adult immigrants.
    • All government-funded ESL programs use the Canadian Language Benchmarks. This allows for consistency across different classes, programs, and institutions. If you have to switch ESL programs, you should have no trouble adjusting, as the curriculum is relatively similar.
    • Official language tests, such as the Canadian Language Proficiency English Program (CELPIP) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) are also based on CLB. Learning English based on CLB standards will better prepare you for these tests.
  • You will receive a separate rating for the listening, reading, writing, and speaking components.
  • Once you receive your CLB rating, some language assessment centres will refer you to an ESL program.

Types of ESL programs

After you have completed your language assessment, you can find the right ESL program for you. There are many different kinds of ESL programs. They are made for all skill levels and individual goals.

ESL programs are available through many organizations, including:

  • Community information centres
  • Community organizations
  • School boards
  • Public libraries
  • Universities and colleges

Services Near Me is a helpful tool to find ESL programs. You can also use this search engine to find language assessments centres in your area.

This list of free, government-funded programs will help you find the type of ESL classes that are best for you.

English as a Second Language (ESL) for adults

General ESL courses are available to adult permanent residents and refugees. The purpose of ESL is to give adult newcomers essential language training to thrive in Canada. This is a great option for people who want to improve their communication skills for daily life. ESL is also a good way to develop language skills necessary for finding a job, pursuing education, and taking an official language test. ESL programs are extremely flexible. You can enrol in courses throughout the year, and classes are available during the day, evening, weekdays, and weekends. General ESL programs can help you reach personal goals. Take as many or as few classes as you need.
Class meeting

Here are some examples of what you will learn as an ESL student, according to CLB standards:

  • At CLB 1, you learn basic language skills for everyday life, including:
    • How to fill out paperwork
    • How to speak to people in banks, schools, or stores
    • How to read labels, numbers, and signs
  • When you reach CLB 12, you will learn:
    • How to lead meetings
    • How to give complex instructions
    • How to follow a meeting in the workplace
    • How to understand complex media, like government announcements on the news
    • How to write a procedural manual or promotional material
    • How to edit minutes from a meeting

If you are interested in a general ESL program, mention this at your language assessment, or contact your local newcomer service centre for a referral.

Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC)

LINC is a type of ESL program designed specifically for newcomers. This program is very similar to the general ESL program. Both of them offer basic language training for adult permanent residents and refugees. LINC programs are another option to develop essential language skills for finding a job, pursuing education, and preparing for official language tests. Most LINC programs offer classes throughout the year, and courses are available during the day, evening, weekdays, and weekends. Additionally, free childminding services for small children are available at most LINC locations. Because LINC is designed specifically for newcomers to Canada, the classes might cover more lessons on settlement than the general ESL program.

Through this program, you will find out about helpful topics such as:

  • Housing
  • Banking
  • Local services in your area
  • How to get a job

If you are interested in LINC, ask about it at your language assessment centre, or contact your local newcomer service centre for a referral.

ESL and English Literacy Development (ELD) for students:

Newcomer children can access English language support services through their school. To determine the type of language support service your child needs, they need to complete an assessment arranged by the school board. Similar to the language assessment for adults, children are also tested on their speaking, listening, writing, and reading skills in English. Additionally, they are also tested on their mathematics skills.

There are two main types of English language support services available for elementary and high school students: ESL and ELD.

ESL is available to elementary and high school students in kindergarten to grade 12. This program offers language instruction and support during the school day. This program is for children who have developed an age-appropriate level of literacy skills in their native language.

ELD helps students who have had limited opportunity to develop literacy and language skills in their native language. This program is available for students in grades 3 to 12. Through this program, students develop literacy skills while also learning English.

ESL and ELD programs offer support in the following ways:

  • Separate classes with other newcomer students specifically designed for English language development
  • One-on-one language support from a tutor
  • Core courses such as math, science, history, and geography taught by a qualified ESL teacher
  • Support from a classroom teacher or ESL teacher for students integrating into regular classes

Additionally, ESL and ELD students are eligible for modifications and accommodations. If the student has trouble completing tasks due to language difficulties, their teacher can modify task expectations or provide additional resources. Accommodations will vary depending on the student and situation. Types of accommodation include:

  • Adjusting expectations for an assignment
  • Providing more time to complete a test
  • Using extensive visual cues during lessons

Note that high school level ESL and ELD courses count towards the student’s high school diploma.

Ask about ESL and ELD when you enrol your children in school.

Enhanced Language Training (ELT):

ELT provides language training for tradespeople with an advanced level of English skills. Most ELT programs require a CLB level of 6 to 10. Like the general ESL program, you will develop essential language skills, but you will also develop professional language skills. If you have professional qualifications from your home country, ELT will help you strengthen your language skills to engage in networking and mentorship opportunities once you start working.

The ESL program offered by the Toronto District School Board for adult newcomers is a great example of what an ELT program looks like:

  • It offers language training for the following jobs:
    • Accounting
    • Administration
    • Customer service
    • Engineering
    • Financial services
    • Health and wellness
    • Information technology
    • Sales and marketing
  • It is a 14-week full-time program consisting of eight weeks in class (currently conducted online due to COVID-19) and six weeks in a work placement.
  • They also provide 12 weeks of job support, where a mentor will help you search for jobs and prepare you for job interviews.
  • The program requires you to have:
    • A CLB 6 or higher
    • A resumé
    • A language assessment

Occupation Specific Language Training (OSLT):

OSLT is another option for newcomers with professional qualifications from their home country. Similar to ELT, you will learn how to communicate in the workplace and receive instruction on how to search for jobs and succeed in job interviews. Most OSLT programs require a CLB level of 5 to 8. The biggest difference between ELT and OSLT is that OSLT programs are only available through Ontario colleges.

OSLT offers language training in the following sectors:

  • Sales and marketing
  • Project management
  • Health care
  • Technology

Through this program, you will learn:

  • How to communicate through email
  • How to communicate over the phone
  • How to interview for jobs
  • How to network and make connections
  • All about the Canadian workplace culture

If you are interested in an OSLT program, contact one of the following colleges:

  • Centennial College (Toronto)
  • Collège Boréal (Toronto)
  • George Brown College (Toronto)
  • Humber College (Toronto)
  • Seneca College (Toronto)
  • Algonquin College (Ottawa)
  • La Cité Collégiale (Ottawa)
  • Conestoga College (Ottawa)
  • Fanshawe College (Guelph)
  • Georgian College (Barrie)
  • Mohawk College (Hamilton)
  • Niagara College (Niagara)

Specialized classes:

As you advance your English skills and achieve higher CLB levels, you can take special courses to reach personal goals. These courses allow you to practise English that you’ve learned in other ESL courses while learning a specific skill, such as typing or academic writing. Unlike ELT and OSLT, for most specialized classes, you do not need previous professional training. In fact, specialized courses are an excellent opportunity to gain skills for the workplace.

For example, the Toronto District School Board offers specialized courses in the following subjects:

  • Academic Writing (CLB Levels 7 to 9)
  • Business Writing (CLB Levels 6 to 8)
  • Keyboarding and Computers (CLB Levels 4 to 8)
  • Conversation and Pronunciation
  • Medical Terminology

If any of these are of interest, ask your local organization about the options they offer.

Conversation groups:

As you learn English, conversation groups are a great resource to practise speaking and listening outside of class. Here are some ways to find conversation groups for adult ESL learners.
Walking together outside


Meetup is a website that you can use to look for in-person and online events and gatherings. This is a useful search tool to find conversation events to practise English. Fill in your location and type in “ESL” or “practise English” in the search bar to locate an event near you. Due to COVID-19, most conversation events are currently held online. These events are often free and a great opportunity to demonstrate your English skills in a relaxed setting. There’s usually no formal agenda or curriculum; it’s just a casual conversation amongst English speakers and other ESL learners.

Check your local library

Many local libraries host free conversation groups as well. They are currently running conversation events online. Accessing conversation groups at your local library is an excellent way to meet other newcomers in your community. Like gatherings listed on Meetup, conversation circles at your local library are relaxed and informal. They offer another opportunity to practise and gain confidence while speaking.

Contact your local library to find out if they have any upcoming ESL conversation events.

Learning English can be difficult, but with the right resources, everyone can succeed.

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