Raise-A-Reader: Story time helps immigrant parents and kids learn English

September 17, 2015

By Yvonne Zacharias, Vancouver Sun |

Shortly after Amy Ou moved to Vancouver from China six years ago with her husband, she found herself struggling to find her way in a foreign culture with a young baby to care for.

Speaking no English and experiencing motherhood for the first time, she plunged into a deep depression that often left her crying.

She knew enough to reach out to find programs for herself and her children to help break the sense of isolation and to give them a solid footing

A year ago, she enrolled in a multicultural family story time held on Friday mornings for immigrant families and their children up to the age of five at Tecumseh elementary school in east Vancouver.

With her oldest child, Selina, entering enter kindergarten, she will attend the program, which receives funds from The Vancouver Sun’s Raise-a-Reader campaign, again when it starts this fall with her second child, Tracy, an 2½-year-old bundle of energy.

With Valerie Lai, one of the program’s two leaders, translating, Ou explained that she is happy when Tracy is happy, so the program is working well for the family.

Lai said the program is important for the way it uses activities like chanting rhymes, singing songs and reading stories to help children and their parents learn English and to adjust to Canadian life.

In addition to celebrating Chinese New Year, the families learn about Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day.

Librarians, dental health nurses and public health nurses all come on board to help.

As any educator knows, those early preschool years are crucial in a child’s development. It’s important that these young families get a good start in Canada.

A native of Hong Kong, Lai is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. The other leader, Arlene Ordonez, is fluent in Tagalog, the language spoken by many Filipino families in the area.

Sometimes, the families need their help with basics — like understanding government documents or knowing how to get their children ready for kindergarten and grade school.

Often in the case of mothers coming to the program, their husbands are working long hours, adding to their sense of isolation. In some cases, both parents work, so the grandparents bring the child.

“It’s really nice to get to know the families and the kids,” said Lai, explaining that about 20 families participate in the program. “They really appreciate our help.”

Because she lives in the community, she often sees the families at the mall or in restaurants, so she gets to know them outside the program as well.

“Sometimes some of these families have struggles. We know that. When I know I can really help these people, it’s really good for me.”

Ou has high hopes for both herself and her children.

She wants to learn more English so she can become more independent and start her own business.

Her family in China is in the business of manufacturing water taps. She is contemplating bringing the same business to Canada with their help, but for now she is preoccupied with her children and overcoming the language barrier.

Ou hopes her daughters will become professionals one day, perhaps in the medical field. With their knowledge of both English and Chinese languages, they will be able to help non-English-speaking families.

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