Parents as Literacy Supporters in Immigrant Communities (IPALS)

  • Date published:
    21 May 2021

Picture 1. IPALS programme photo of parents participating in hands-on, playful literacy activities with their children.

Programme Key Information

Programme Title Parents as Literacy Supporters in Immigrant Communities (IPALS)
Implementing Organization Decoda Literacy Solutions
Language of Instruction Official language (English) and participants’ mother tongue, including Cantonese, Mandarin, Arabic, Punjabi, Farsi, Somali, Karen, Vietnamese, Korean and Spanish. Plans to make the programme available in more languages in the future.
Programme Partners Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), 11 School Districts and local community organisations.
Funding The programme is funded by the public and private sector. Public funding comes from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; private sector funding comes from Royal Canada Bank (RBC), Victoria Foundation, Bosa Family Foundation and Click Foundation, as well as from local school districts and community organisations who make in-kind contributions. Various fundraising activities also raise funds to support the IPALS programme.
Annual Programme Costs CAD $350,000
Annual Cost per Learner CAD $250
Date of Inception October 2010

Country Context and Background

Canada has developed a plan to welcome immigrants in order to address its decreasing birth rate and declining population (Government of Canada 2019). In 2019, immigration was responsible for 80% of population growth (Mendicino 2020). Immigration is valued in Canada for its contribution to the economic and social spheres, such as meeting the needs of the labour market and fostering multiculturalism and civic engagement.

Each year Canada receives new permanent residency applications in three categories: economic migrants, family migrants (from reunification programmes), and protected migrants, also referred to as Refugees, Humanitarian & Compassionate (H&C) migrants. In 2015, 2016 and 2017, the government accepted 271,833, 296,379 and 286,479 new permanent resident applications respectively in these three groups. The protected class includes those who left their country for fear of persecution, for example due to armed conflict such as in the Middle East and Syria (Government of Canada 2019).

The Government of Canada (2017) reported that in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), both recent and established immigrants scored around 20 points, significantly below native Canadians. Perkins (2010, cited in Anderson, Friedrich, & Kim 2011) found a low level of involvement in school-related activities among immigrant parents in the Vietnamese community. Aware of the important role parents play in supporting their children’s literacy development, family literacy programmes therefore began targeting immigrant communities (Anderson et al. 2011).

Implementing organisation

Decoda Literacy Solutions is the only province-wide literacy organisation in British Columbia (BC). Governed by a five-person Board of Directors who represent the education, non-profit and business sectors, their mission is to increase the literacy and learning skills of children and families, youth, adults and seniors, in order to improve their quality of life at home, at work and in the community. Decoda provides resources, training and funds to support community-based literacy programmes and learning initiatives in over 400 communities across BC.

The organisation was formed by bringing together two literacy organisations: Literacy BC and the literacy department of 2010 Legacies Now. For 20 years, Literacy BC offered training, tools and support to those who work in adult literacy. In partnership with the federal and provincial governments, it raised awareness, developed policy, promoted innovation in practice, built an extensive library, and supported adult learners. The literacy department of 2010 Legacies Now collaborated for 10 years with the Province of British Columbia to support literacy development in more than 400 communities and neighbourhoods across BC. Decoda continues the work of both organisations.

Decoda Literacy has also implemented several programmes with a national outreach. Strengthening Rural Canada was a Pan-Canadian initiative to support rural communities across Canada, finding the solutions they need by utilizing their assets and capitalizing on local opportunities. Additionally, Decoda is currently working with groups across Canada on the Displaced Worker project, providing Literacy and Essential Skill support and training for displaced workers to fill knowledge gaps and improve their employability.

Decoda publishes The West Coast Reader, a newspaper for English language learners which provides informal language support and access to information on Canadian culture and current events. Over 17,000 papers are distributed monthly, mainly in BC but also in other Canadian provinces. Decoda is launching a new website with an online version of the newspaper to expand its national outreach.

Programme Overview

Parents as Literacy Supporters in Immigrant Communities (IPALS) is a culturally-responsive family literacy programme. Newcomer immigrant and refugee parents with young children, who commonly attend IPALS, tend to be isolated, with limited English language skills and little exposure to Canadian culture. Based on facilitators’ field notes and group discussions, it is apparent that they often have limited schooling in their home countries. These factors make it difficult for them to access education and employment. Few of these families teach their children to read before they start school, as they believe that learning begins only upon school entry.

In the IPALS programme, participants discuss issues of significance in their lives, create a social network, and prepare for the Canadian school system. A play-based curriculum, cultural responsiveness, and multiple language delivery are unique features of the IPALS programme. Tools and techniques are embedded in the sessions to address the mental health concerns of families and young children who may have experienced trauma.

The programme takes account of the communities’ learning needs in order to facilitate their social inclusion. It provides an opportunity for immigrant and refugee parents to improve their language and literacy skills and to support their young children with early literacy activities, helping them build resilience and integrate into Canadian society. The IPALS programme is designed to be adaptable to the cultural group taking part. For instance, in the study with Vietnamese families, the programme was modified to meet the community’s specific learning needs in two ways: first by adding English as a second language, and second, by including sessions on digital skills (Perkins 2010, cited in Anderson, Friedrich, & Kim 2011). Decoda has also worked with other cultures such as Somali families who come from Kenyan refugee camps.


The IPALS programme has the following aims:

  • To develop children’s foundational early literacy knowledge and prepare them for school entry.
  • To enhance parents’ literacy skills.
  • To work with immigrant and refugee families to improve their self-esteem, develop their resilience, identify cultural references, and learn more about the Canadian society of which they are now a part.
  • To increase parents’ understanding of the Canadian education system, school participation norms, and how to practice age-appropriate ways of learning in the early years.
  • To increase teachers’ and facilitators’ understanding of how to work with immigrant and refugee children and families.

Target population

The IPALS programme is aimed at newcomer immigrant and refugee families. The families have to belong to the category of immigrant and refugee families to enrol in the programme. It targets adults and families with pre-school-aged children, especially those from linguistic, cultural and ethnic minority groups.

Picture 2. Parents and children have fun with a parachute, learning through teamwork and cooperation.

Programme implementation

The programme is currently running in 21 locations in British Columbia: two sites in Abbotsford, two in Burnaby, one in Langley, one in North Vancouver, six in Surrey, one in Richmond, three in Vancouver, two in West Vancouver, one in Kelowna, one in Nanaimo, and one in New Westminster. Further plans include implementing the IPALS programme in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The IPALS programme offers sessions on early reading, writing and math, as well as technology, physical education and storytelling. All of the sessions are organised in a participatory way. During the classes, learners practise English in a welcoming, informal setting. Relevant references are made to local community agencies and programmes, particularly schools, to help parents explore educational and social services in their new communities. Facilitators consult with families to identify the most convenient time to schedule the programme, and to determine how many sessions are needed and how best to respond to the group’s linguistic and cultural diversity. They also consciously create opportunities for reciprocal learning, building on the families’ strengths and cultural backgrounds.

On average, participants spend 24-30 hours of direct contact time with IPALS facilitators over about ten to twelve sessions. Each session lasts about 1.5 to 3.5 hours, depending on the participants’ situation and literacy level. Some families come from diverse life situations and may need more assistance in reading, writing and understanding the concept of play-based learning. Nevertheless, facilitators with experience in addressing trauma are well placed to support these vulnerable newcomer refugees. Their training and experience allow them to meet the needs of a multi-level group by using different activities and adapting according to participants’ levels and backgrounds.

Some sites completed the programme in two months while others took up to five months. Parents and their children extended the learning to the home environment, spending more time together after each session with learning activities that they designed with the support of facilitators during the programme (For a description of the resources for these activities, see the “Programme content and teaching materials” section).

Depending on the availability and size of the facility, between 12 and 25 families could be grouped together. Each group included pre-school children and their parents or caregivers, one IPALS Facilitator, and one IPALS Multicultural Worker who usually spoke and understood the participants’ language and culture. Additionally, an Early Childhood Educator took care of children’s activities during separate sessions for adults and children and helped manage the joint sessions with adults and children together.

A vital principle of the IPALS programme is that staff should be able to “read” the situation and context of participating families and communities so as to adjust the programme to meet their learning needs. The strength of the IPALS programme is that it assumes a strong theoretical and pragmatic stance while respecting and responding to local contexts.


Funding comes from both the public and private sectors. The organisation receives funds from Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), and the Victoria Foundation, Click Foundation and Bosa Family Foundation. In addition, many other programme partners, including local school districts and community organisations, make cash and in-kind contributions.

Decoda also conducts fundraising activities to support the programme. The organisation has a multi-channel approach to fundraising that includes e-appeals, monthly giving, direct mail, social media and grant writing. Decoda holds two annual fundraising and awareness campaigns: the Family Literacy Week in January and the Literacy Month in September.

Teaching and Learning: Approaches and Methodologies

Picture 3. Children sort objects into different groups. Parents and children learn best when they learn together.

The IPALS programme employs a culturally responsive and a collaborative method of instruction, and a learner-centred participatory approach based on Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory. The teaching-learning process is based on discussions and demonstrations, followed by a debrief, and question and answer sessions. Each session includes adults-only time, time for adults and children to work together, an adult debriefing time and a take-home material component. Facilitators use audio-visual aids for videos, storytelling, community awareness activities and other strategies during the sessions.

Cultural responsiveness implies fostering parents’ learning by acknowledging the support they have already provided in their children’s learning. In other words, cultural responsiveness means affirming the value of families’ literacy experiences and helping them develop and use other strategies that are meaningful and have value in the contexts of their daily lives (Auerbach, 1989). In doing so, facilitators implement the culturally responsive approach by considering and tailoring the programme to the specific community’s learning needs. Volunteers from the same cultural and linguistic communities reach out to target families by playing the role of ‘cultural brokers’. They also assist the programme staff in learning the cultural nuances, practices and preferences of their community, which results in identifying required adjustments such as translations and appropriate materials, and instilling a sense of trust within families and communities.

IPALS’ play-based philosophy represents a significant paradigm shift for some cultures. Most newcomer immigrant families come from countries where ‘play’ is not recognised as a learning method. Examples include talking to children about everyday situations such as time, routines/plans for the day or playing with recycled items (e.g. buttons, bottle lids, cereal boxes and newspapers). Other options include listening to children’s stories, reading picture books together, talking about signs (shapes, colours, letters, meaning), encouraging play that enhances fine motor skills (playdough, pipe cleaners, drawing scissors, Wikki sticks), and providing the opportunity to draw and write.

The IPALS programme uses both formal and informal approaches to teaching. Among other theoretical perspectives, the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky 1978) is applied as one of the crucial elements in family literacy when parents encourage their children by communicating a task verbally (Anderson et al. 2011). For example, by sharing a wordless picture book with their children, the parent models storytelling by ‘reading’ the pictures and invites their child to co-construct a story. This concept also applies to interactions between facilitators and parents, when facilitators provide parents with tools and strategies by modelling activities.

Socio-cultural theory: A learning and developmental approach that recognises these processes as not just individual-based, but as anchored in social and cultural interactions and contexts (Mercer and Howe 2012).

Zone of Proximal Development: A concept first developed by Leo Vygotsky and elaborated by other researchers. It is defined as the difference between what the learner can do on their own and what they can do with the guidance and support of a more knowledgeable other (Vygotsky 1978).

In addition to the ZPD concept, IPALS also bases its instructional approach on the ecological understanding of human development (Bronfenbrenner 1979). This theory understands learning as a result of the interaction of different systems. Accordingly, IPALS parents, teachers and children learn from each other in respectful and supportive ways in an inter-subjective space. Facilitators gain cultural understanding and adapt their environment to the cultural needs of the families who attend, fostering awareness of cultural diversity and building positive long-term relationships between families and schools.

Picture 4. Ecological model of family literacy learning (compiled by author based on information from Decoda Literacy Solutions).

Sessions start by establishing connections among the families through simple activities. The session then breaks into small groups in which parents and extended family members discuss a literacy topic with the facilitators. During this time, the children work alongside an early childhood educator on language and literacy-rich activities appropriate to their levels. The separate sessions are then followed by a joint session in which the parents and their children participate together in hands-on, play-based literacy activities. At the end of the session, parents reflect on what they learned about the topic and have an opportunity to ask questions. Parents are also given extension activities which they can take home and use to support their own and their children’s language and literacy learning.

Programme content (curriculum) and teaching material

Picture 5. A facilitator talks about environmental print before the group goes on a print walk in the community (Video of this “Print Walk” here: https://youtu.be/uQBnvf1PDDI)

The curriculum content is based on research as well as on the experiences of the pilot project. The first principle of the IPALS programme is to build upon the knowledge that young children have already acquired in their homes and communities before being exposed to any formal instruction (Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines 1988; Teale and Sulzby 1986; Taylor 1983). The second principle is that learning has both a social and an individual component, and that teaching differs across social groups (Rogoff 2003; Vygotsky 1978; Wertsch 1998). The third is that family literacy programmes should respect families’ cultural and social contexts (Auerbach 1989; Barton, Hamilton and Ivanic 2000). The fourth is that there are sound cultural, educational, linguistic, psychological and social benefits to maintaining children’s and families’ first or home language as they learn new and additional language(s) (Bialystok 2001; Cummins 2001; Fillmore 1991; Snow, Burns and Griffin 1998). The final principle is that children learn effectively and meaningfully through play (Bissex 1980; Roskos, Christie, Widman and Holding 2010).

The results of the pilot phase of the programme showed that, contrary to facilitators’ initial assumptions, not all the communities were interested in all the programme’s themes, such as in the IT literacy sessions (Anderson, Smythe & Shapiro 2005, cited in Anderson et al. 2011). The results of the pilot study provided the basis for developing the PALS Family Literacy Resource (Anderson and Morrison 2010) and Facilitators Guidebook (2010 Legacies Now), based on the needs of participating families and the experiences of facilitators working with them.

Picture 6. Resources for facilitators.

The research team worked extensively with families and hosted focus group sessions with parents, IPALS facilitators, early childhood educators and administrators. Based on these discussions, the team drafted modules that reflected the themes families identified as being vital to learning. In designing each session, the team also drew on their previous experience working with families and on relevant literature on family literacy programmes. They adjusted content as the pilot programme expanded beyond the communities for which it was first developed.

To expand the exposure and better address the needs of participating immigrant families, specialists from various sectors are invited to talk about health and wellness, dental hygiene, financial literacy, socio-emotional issues, school readiness and other settlement issues. Learners also participate in on-site visits to the local library and parks

There is an “Open Session” which provides more flexibility to communities to allow them to develop sessions addressing locally relevant issues. There is also one topic on ICT, “Tiny Techies”, based on the idea that technology is a useful tool to support literacy learning. This session also equips parents with strategies to monitor young children’s screen time, one of the emerging concerns of contemporary parenthood.The main topics covered are summarised in the table below:

Literacy Numeracy ICT Open Session
  • ABCs and Learning
  • Print in our Community
  • Storybook Reading
  • Linking Literacy and Play
  • Learning to Read
  • Early Writing
  • Physical Literacy/education
  • Riddles, Raps & Rhymes
Early Math Tiny Techies (Technology) Session topic decided by IPALS community

The following excerpts give some examples of sessions on early math (Anderson and Morrison 2010, p. 154) in which the classroom is divided into different “centres”. Decoda Solutions plans to revise some of the activities to make them more age-appropriate and culturally sensitive. Facilitators are informed about the importance of culturally sensitive and responsive teaching during their training.

BEGINNING: a session with adults only (30 minutes)

Ask parents in small groups to list how they have used mathematics in their daily lives within the past 24 hours. Discuss. Make clear links to how mathematics is relevant in our daily lives.

Invite parents to explore three different centres prior to going into the centres.

Patterning: pattern blocks, unfix cubes Sorting: sorting boxes, buttons, coloured macaroni.

Graphing: adult focus - concrete graph (e.g. How many keys on your key ring?)

  • Talk about developing positive attitudes toward mathematics.
  • Talk about the importance of concrete materials or resources to teach early math concepts, e.g. sorting, patterning and counting

MIDDLE: a session with parents and children together (45 minutes)

Parents interact with their child at the following centres:

  • Count a handful of items
  • Sort by shape
  • Estimate the number of golf balls
  • Make patterns
  • Sort buttons
  • Make a graph
  • Play a dice toss game
  • Play a bowl game
  • Make a cereal pattern necklace
  • Find patterns in everyday life
  • Play cards/games
  • Play ‘Toothpick tango’
  • Play ‘Measure me’
  • Play ‘Number bingo’
  • Play matching card games
END: Debriefing session with adults (30 minutes).

  • What did you notice about your child's learning?
  • Gather up the make-and-take materials.

IPALS sessions use bilingual and culturally-appropriate materials. Facilitators use the IPALS Family Literacy Resource as a guide and have access to other family literacy resources. They also support parents in identifying locally available resources and making their own learning materials, laying the foundation for activities parents can do at home with their children. These materials include storybooks, pictures, songs, appropriate ‘make and take’ materials, chart papers and videos.

Decoda offers online family literacy learning activities that can be found on their website, in the resources section, as shown in Figure 7 and Figure 8. They were designed for children of different age groups, and feature tips for parents and a brief description of each activity’s learning goals.

Picture 7. An example of an early learning activity sheet for pre-schoolers (Decoda Literacy Solutions 2019a).

Picture 8. An example of tips and learning goals for parents of pre-schoolers (Decoda Literacy Solutions 2019a).

The IPALS programme uses simple and easily accessible teaching materials to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas. For example, visual aids give an understanding of how to manage the mathematical demands of various situations, whilst online materials for learning activities such as the one shown in Figure 9 help learners embed literacy in daily routines.

Picture 9. An example of a numeracy learning activity (Decoda Literacy Solutions 2012).

Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

The requirements to become an IPALS facilitator include a bachelor’s degree in education or a related field or Diploma in Early Childhood Education, plus at least three years of working experience in primary education, early childhood education and family literacy, as well as experience of working with persons from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. Additionally, volunteer facilitators are recruited who speak multiple languages according to the language backgrounds of the participating families. Since these multicultural facilitators’ role is to act as a bridge between the families and the IPALS facilitators, they need to provide evidence of at least one year of working with persons from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds.

Early childhood educators also join the teaching team to address specific issues faced by young learners. These educators are required to have a Diploma in Early Childhood Education and at least one year of working in early childhood education and/or family literacy with learners from diverse backgrounds. 8:1 is the ratio of learners–staff members. At times, children from middle schools also volunteer to mentor younger children and help facilitators in different activities. Once the programme is decided and the language groups are formed, the community partner organisation recruits facilitators based on Decoda Solution’s job description document.

Once the teaching team has been assembled, a full-day training session is organised for all programme facilitators, multicultural facilitators, childcare providers and school district/community organisation administrators before IPALS sessions begin. The training includes a philosophical overview of the programme, a review of the themes for each session, a discussion on appropriate resources, and a review of newcomer children’s requirements in care. IPALS training, along with the training manual, ensures that the programme’s implementation and delivery are in line with the expected outcomes and measures. The training responds to individual facilitators’ needs and may include play-based learning activities, strategies to work with adult participants, and philosophies of child development and cultural sensitivity.

A second day-long training session takes place at the end of the implementation year. Facilitators discuss what they have learned throughout the year and help each other to implement ideas and problem-solving activities. This debriefing training session brings all facilitators together, strengthening their relationships and fostering team learning and reflective practice. They talk about what did and did not go well and brainstorm possible solutions to challenges. They dig into why things happened the way they did and explore the implications for future practice.

Throughout the programme facilitators have access to an online IPALS resource platform featuring weekly newsletters and webinars on relevant topics. Training and professional development opportunities bring the IPALS facilitators from all sites together and give them opportunities to connect and learn from each other’s experiences. Sharing good practices, successes and challenges allows the IPALS team to deliver the programme in a consistent yet flexible way. Since the programme is growing, in November 2019 Decoda conducted a training session for new facilitators.

For a part-time contract, an IPALS Facilitator receives CAD 2800 for each course, including training, planning, preparation, class, documentation, and follow-up time. An Early Childhood educator earns CAD 576 per course, including training, class, and follow-up time.

Enrolment of Learners

Each location where IPALS sessions take place is in constant communication with various community stakeholders, including multicultural organisations, libraries and other public institutions. These alliances allow the staff to talk about the IPALS programme and encourage referrals among agencies. Representatives from school districts and community organisations work closely with people familiar with and/or living within the immigrant and refugee communities in the neighbourhoods where programmes are implemented. Members of these communities advise about times and formats best suited to the participating groups.

Since one of the facilitators for each programme is also a member of the cultural group attending the sessions, it is easier to motive and invite people to participate. These facilitators help other programme members to learn the cultural practices and preferences of their community, create a sense of trust between families/communities and programme providers, and propose adjustments so that the programme best fits the families’ and communities' needs and cultural contexts. Facilitators also help families with the registration process. During registration all interested families have to produce their identity cards as a proof of their residence status and birth date.

Once programmes are running, participants share their experiences with other community members. Word about the programme spreads through the neighbourhood, helping to recruit more participants via a “snow-ball” technique. School-aged children are often invited to mentor on the IPALS programme. This strategy generates further interest in the programme among the target immigrant communities.

Assessment of learning outcomes by students

Assessment methods include both formative and summative strategies. Although the format is similar across all groups, there are slight changes according to each individual group’s situation and needs. At the beginning of the programme, facilitators gather information about individual learners and families. Initial assessment tools include interviews and a questionnaire entitled “Interview schedule about parents’ perceptions of literacy learning” (Anderson and Morrison 2010, p. 16).

Formative assessment takes place throughout the IPALS programme. Facilitators regularly collect artifacts, field notes and documents produced in sessions, and analyse them according to a set of questions that monitors participants’ learning progress. These items help them understand their groups’ language and literacy skill levels, needs and interests, allowing them to re-adjust the programme materials accordingly.

Formative assessments: Formative assessments are quizzes, assignments, tasks and/or tests that evaluate how someone is learning material throughout a course. Its implementation may vary, but its primary focus is to determine learners’ learning progress.

Summative assessmentS: A summative assessment may also involve diverse tasks such as a written test or presentation. It usually takes place at the end of the course, and its emphasis is on the achievement of the learning outcomes. .

Artifacts: Evidence of learning. For example, photographs and charts.

The following excerpt is an example of formative assessment for a session on “Learning to write” (Anderson and Morrison 2010, p. 45):

SESSION 6: Learning to write

Book title:

We really liked:

We did not care for:

Other comments:

Summative evaluation occurs at the end of each programme, with participants and facilitators providing advice and feedback. After the programme, changes in participants’ perceptions of learning and literacy and the difference between the pre- and post-programme test responses are analysed (Anderson and Morrison 2010, p. 16). The questionnaire is conducted in the parents’ native language. After that, facilitators conduct focus group discussions with families and “measure children’s attempts to write (…) some (…) familiar words at the beginning of the program and at the end” (Anderson and Morrison 2010, p. 14).

Children participate in both pre-and post-programme sessions of the Test of Early Reading Ability (TERA-2) and the Concepts of Print Test. Both parents and children are involved in the Letter Recognition Assessment. According to Anderson and Morrison (2010), the first test measures children’s knowledge of the alphabet and ability to associate each letter with its sound, as well as their understanding of print orientation and written resources. The second test evaluates children’s notions of books and print, while the third test assesses “children’s ability to recognise letters” (Anderson and Morrison 2010, p. 17).


There are no formal accreditation mechanisms in place. However, the training that Early childhood educators undertake when they become IPALS facilitators can be considered a form of accreditation. Facilitators use the training certificate towards their professional development hours to maintain their Early Childhood Educator’s licence. They also get digital badges, which they can refer to as achievements on their resumés (Decoda Literacy Solutions 2019b).

Monitoring and Evaluation

The IPALS programme design focuses on making an overall impact on the family. Due to the iterative nature of the programme, much of the monitoring and evaluation is ongoing. In this way, results can lead to adaptations to better meet learners´ needs and help them achieve their learning outcomes. For instance, during one of the courses, the facilitators identified from their interactions with parents that a session without visual aids was not enough for non-native English speakers. Therefore, in the following sessions, they incorporated more illustrations and visual examples.

Facilitators’ observations, field notes, group discussions and artifacts help track progress toward the programme outcomes. Field notes are useful for recording significant lessons during the programme and for reflecting on the sessions. The following excerpt illustrates this:

November 29, 1997

One concern I have is whether we are doing enough to support language development (in the PRINTS programme). This is especially so in light of Snow’s work that suggests that facility with language at school entry is a better predictor of later reading achievement than are various print measures (Anderson and Morrison 2010, p. 15).

Group discussions to address particular issues with parents usually occur in the middle and at the end of the programme. Facilitators identified some of the most useful guiding questions for these sessions as follows: “1. What have you found most helpful about PALS? (…) 2. What part(s) of PALS did not work for you? (…) 3. What have you and your children learned (…)? 4. What do we need to change (…)?” (Anderson and Morrison 2010, p. 16).

These assessment tools also provide insight into the facilitators’ skill repertoire and knowledge of best practice in working with immigrant and refugee families. Facilitators document quarterly evidence observed in each session against a set of questions that monitor early literacy progress. This feeds into ongoing discussions about how to optimise programme delivery.

Picture 10. New readers in the IPALS programme enjoy the rhythm and rhyme of language in books.

The evaluation process is informed by qualitative data from field notes, along with information gathered at twice-yearly meetings and site visits. Data is analysed and results compiled and presented in the form of an annual report. This report also includes information about the numbers of participants, their countries of origin, language groups and progress, including a service quality plan and service concerns.

Impact and Achievements

The programme has reached at least 750 participants annually over the last five years. This number shows a significant increase from 150 participants annually when the programme was first established. Since its inception, the programme has successfully reached 4500 participants.

According to Anderson et al. (2011), a strong early start, such as the literacy experiences provided in the IPALS programme, places a child’s learning on a faster growth trajectory, ensuring academic success in school. These authors argue that parents also benefit from an understanding of young children's early learning, the Canadian education system, and the opportunity to improve their own literacy and language skills. By participating in the Letter Recognition Test, for example, “parents understand the role of the alphabet in learning to read and write, and we also provide them with an array of activities and suggestions they can use to support their children in a contextualised and engaging manner” (Anderson and Morrison 2010, p. 17).

Furthermore, the opportunity for families to work alongside the facilitators and administrators helps foster cultural awareness and a better understanding of how to support the children of newcomer immigrant and refugee families. Opportunities for reciprocal learning which build on the families’ strengths and cultural heritage help establish welcoming communities and enhance newcomer immigrant families' sense of belonging. Strong relationships between the families attending the programme and the organisations delivering them makes the families more likely to take advantage of other services and programmes within the community, such as the library, health services, immigrant support services, transportation and childcare.

Participation in community activities and reciprocal learning help build greater awareness of ways to support children and social trust, connections, and networks with other newcomers and native-born Canadians. Moreover, inter-agency cooperation encourages shared understanding and mutual respect. These opportunities lead to more significant equity, inclusion, and access to services such as the library, health services, immigrant support services, transportation services, and childcare services.
The following testimonies illustrate how participating in the IPALS programme has facilitated families’ inclusion in Canadian society:

We came to Vancouver in recently. IPALS helped us to integrate into the society faster and learn new life here. The facilitators are very considerate to make the activities interesting. They’re very nice. I especially would like to thank our facilitator Felicia who has built a bridge between western and eastern culture. IPALS program, thank you for being part of our journey!

- Dejie Huang, Learner, West Vancouver

We greatly appreciate facilitating the IPALS programme in our community. It has been a programme that supports parents by providing time for them to engage with their children and also meet other members of their local community. It creates a safe learning environment where parents can share their struggles and successes, which help each parent feel further connected. Many come from tight-knit communities and find moving to Canada socially isolating, so IPALS offers a place to form connections. It’s also a great way to allow them to ask questions about the Canadian school system and what the cultural norms/ practices are. We encourage families to continue practising their own culture and language as it is a strength while introducing western-based pedagogies in practical ways that can be easily incorporated into their daily lives. With families who have attended IPALS for more than one year, we have seen significant changes for the families who then enter our local schools. Their children have less anxiety, and the parents are more comfortable communicating with the teachers. We have also seen an increase in parent engagement in the school community. It all begins with these early foundational literacy skills that IPALS provides in a safe learning environment.

-Joanne Neveux, District Principal ELL/SWIS/Mod., Langley School District

The most rewarding part of the programme is watching participants start to see themselves not only as their children’s caregivers, but as their first teachers. Parents emphasised that the programme helped them to realise the important role they play in their children’s literacy development through day-to-day activities like talking, listening, singing, reading, playing and drawing with their children. Parents were thankful for the opportunity to learn and share ways for low-income families to enhance their children’s literacy skills, such as those described in the “Teaching and learning: approaches and methodologies” section.

Picture 11. IPALS follows a learning-through-play approach.

IPALS brings generations of families together in a welcoming, supportive and respectful environment to promote literacy development. The programme builds on families’ strengths, fosters a sense of community and belonging, and supports positive long-term relationships between families and schools.

The programme’s benefits to participants, facilitators and the community include:

  • Children develop language and literacy abilities that help them adapt to their community and gain skills that prepare them for school.
  • Parents improve their own literacy.
  • Family members learn to support their children’s learning and literacy.
  • Families develop new relationships and increase their social capital.
  • Facilitators increase their understanding of working with immigrant and refugee children and families.

Recognition of the programme

Online articles acknowledging the work of the IPALS programme include a publication for AMSSA, an association for British Columbia, Canada that provides services for newcomers to develop culturally inclusive communities (AMSSA, n.d.), and a publication for the Times Colonist, a newspaper from Victoria, Canada. In the first article, Dhugana (2017/2018) provides a short description of the programme, its history and structure, and its benefits for parents, including testimonials about the programme’s impact on families’ everyday lives. In the second, Arrais (2019) describes Decoda Solutions, the implementing organisation, outlining its other services, vision and community partners, as well as the advantages of the programme for educators, organisations and parents.


Rehab’s story

Rehab would not talk with people. She had lost her confidence due to her low literacy and language skills and unpleasant experiences while staying in the refugee camp. After attending the IPALS programme, she learned about the importance of early learning and Canada’s education system. The culturally responsive, bilingual discussion-rich IPALS sessions helped her improve her literacy and language skills. Rehab would take an hour-long bus ride with her son to attend every IPALS session. The IPALS programme increased her self-confidence, allowing her to pursue her dream of becoming an Early Childhood Educator Assistant. She is now planning to study at Camosun College after completing the English language requirements.

Fang’s story

Fang felt frustrated most of the time due to her lack of knowledge about developmentally appropriate ways to support her two children's learning. The IPALS programme helped her enhance her literacy skills. After attending the programme, her family's life changed because she changed. Through the programme, she saw more possibilities for what ‘learning’ can mean. She came to realise that learning can take any form and happens everywhere in everyday life. She learned how to integrate learning into family life and daily activities. When mopping the floor, she has the children help with the stairs and count how many stairs they clean. When setting the table for dinner, she asks them to count how many chopsticks and bowls they need for the whole family. In their family, math is no longer just numbers done on paper. Even playing with clothes pegs and clipping washed bed linen onto the clothesline is a learning opportunity.

A mother’s experience

One mom said her son started retelling stories read at IPALS, creating characters out of pieces of felt and pretending to read. The boy noticed that the take-home book had no words. His mom asked, “How should I read?” He replied, “Look at the pictures and tell me the story”. Later, he began telling his own story with characters from his family. The mom described how the stories featured many dramatic events where stories from her son’s past bubbled up to the surface, especially after Halloween or a doctor’s visit.


The implementation of the IPALS programme threw up a number of challenges which required unconventional thinking to come up with innovative solutions.

The first challenge was the diversity of languages spoken by participants. Facilitators have to choose a language of instruction in order to meet the learners' different learning needs. It is difficult to produce learning materials in multiple languages, and the programme is dependent mostly on facilitators to translate the materials. It is not feasible to have all learning materials translated, as the facilitators are not able to translate into all the participants’ languages.

The second challenge is that some refugee families come to the programme hungry and rely heavily on the meal provided during the session. In-kind contributions from school districts, community organisations and volunteers help meet the cost of providing these meals.

A third challenge is the lack of transportation facilities. This limits the target population’s mobility, making it more difficult for them to participate in the programme

Finally, one of the IPALs centres experienced difficulties in managing additional staff and volunteers to meet the adult-child ratio.

Lessons learned

Decoda´s experience in implementing the IPALS programme has shown the advantages of including multiple languages according to the target population. This is now considered one of the best teaching practices, as it models the importance of maintaining learners’ first language while learning a second, and demonstrates respect for their heritage. Recruiting facilitators from diverse cultural backgrounds adds to the programme’s success in this regard.

Picture 12.Learning activity in Vietnamese.

All programmes have reported participation from school districts, community organisations, multicultural organisations, community members, and extended family members. Families benefit greatly from the connections made with other families during the programme. Many report that lifelong friendships have grown from these interactions. This also helps in sharing of available resources.

Books and materials developed during the sessions encourage many families to build their own little library at home. Many families lack these types of materials, and some have no books at home at all. Nevertheless, the programme would benefit from more bilingual materials. Extending the programme to families with school-aged children would also be beneficial, and has been requested by participating families.


Plans are underway to expand the IPALS programme to other provinces once the current contract negotiation process with the Canadian government is complete. Decoda plans to offer the IPALS programme first in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The start date will depend on the funds available for setting up operations in more sites.

IPALS emphasises inter-agency participation and cooperation. Hundreds of facilitators have received training, and many school districts and community organisations have acquired project management skills through various training and professional development opportunities. These trained professionals are then in a position to extend the IPALs programme to other sites.


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Margaret Sutherland

Executive Director

Decoda Literacy Solutions

980-1125 Howe Street, Vancouver, BC, V6Z 2K8


Telephone/FAX: 1 604 681 4199


Website: www.decoda.ca

For citation please use

Last update: 21 May 2021. Parents as Literacy Supporters in Immigrant Communities (IPALS). UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 24 January 2022, 11:31 CET)

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