Academic journal article TESL Canada Journal

Immigrant Students Navigating Canadian Schools: A Longitudinal View

Academic journal article TESL Canada Journal

Immigrant Students Navigating Canadian Schools: A Longitudinal View

Article excerpt

Many immigrant students have difficulty in school (Gunderson, 2007). Various studies reveal lower achievement and higher dropout rates for immigrant students (Roessingh, 2004; Toohey & Derwing, 2008). Results from cross-sectional studies suggest that immigrant students often struggle in schools where the language of instruction differs from the language spoken at home. The following longitudinal studies use data available from the Vancouver School District and the British Columbia Ministry of Education to track the educational history of 1,307 students who entered Canada as primary-level students in the early 1990s until their graduation from secondary school in 2009-2010.


By 2031, one in four Canadians will have been born in another country (Statistics Canada, 2010): a trend associated with increased ethnic and cultural diversity in schools (Goldenberg, 2006). To earn a "Dogwood" (i.e., officially recognized) diploma in BC, students must write provincial exams for grade 10 language arts, science, and math. In addition, they must write grade 11 exams for social studies (or BC First Nations studies 12) and grade 12 language arts exams. These BC provincial exams are high-stakes tests. Provincial exam results for the years 2009-2010 are shown in Table 1 (data retrieved from

It is clear that ESL students are in academic jeopardy. Menken (2008) argues that disastrous consequences result from including them in high-stakes standardized tests. She concludes that the linguistic complexity of standardized tests and the lack of sufficient accommodations generally explain why English-language-learners are unable to perform as well as native-speakers. In her view, standardized tests fail as valid measures of ELL student performance. However, they are a reality in the lives of ESL students, and they clearly indicate that in the English-speaking environments of schools, ESL students are at risk of failure. These results are broad, however. They do not differentiate between students who are relatively new immigrants and those who have been in the system for most of their lives, that is, those who are part of Generation 1.5. Gunderson (2007) found that late-arriving immigrant students had lower academic achievement and exited from secondary-level academic courses at about a 60% rate, although there were significant ethnolinguistic differences when data were disaggregated, showing, for example, that refugees were more at risk than other groups. The purpose of the studies that follow was to observe the long-term success of Generation 1.5.

Theoretical Model

Cummins (1979, 1984) and Cummins and Swain (1986) proposed a "Common Underlying Proficiency" (CUP) model based on the notion that "literacy-related aspects of a bilingual's proficiency in L1 and L2 are seen as common or interdependent across languages" (p. 82). Literacy experience in either language promotes the underlying interdependent proficiency base. This view suggests that "common cross-lingual proficiencies underlie the different surface manifestations of each language" (p. 82).

There is evidence to support CUP (Baker & de Kanter, 1981; Cummins, 1983a, 1983b). Cummins (1979, 1980, 1981a, 1981b) proposed that there were two kinds of language proficiencies to be learned: "basic interpersonal communicative skill" (BICS), the language of ordinary conversation, or "the manifestation of language proficiency in everyday communicative contexts" (Cummins, 1984, p. 137) and "cognitive academic language proficiency" (CALP), the language of instruction and academic texts, which is known as academic language proficiency.

Becoming a student in a new country requires socialization into the teaching, learning, and student cultures. A second-language-learner must learn features of these cultures if he or she is to become communicatively and academically competent. …

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