Teaching Canadian history for English language learners

Historica Canada is the largest independent charitable organization in Canada dedicated to promoting history, citizenship and identity. We examine the Canadian experience, past and present. We are dedicated to helping educators, by providing free, bilingual educational resources that are pedagogically relevant and curriculum based.

Historica Canada’s education resources are inspired by the historical thinking concepts developed by Peter Seixas and the Historical Thinking Project. These concepts aim to improve critical thinking in history education. The six concepts include Historical Significance, Primary Source Evidence, Taking Historical Perspectives, Change and Continuity, and Cause and Consequence.

Educational Resources: Methodology and Accessibility

All Historica Canada educational resources are available through a free and searchable Education Portal. Not only a resource bank of more than 300 learning tools, the Portal also invites teachers and educators to submit and share their own lesson plans and create collections of their favourite resources to revisit from year to year.

Historica Canada’s education resources are created through a collaborative consultation process involving teachers, academic experts, community stakeholders, and editorial and design teams. By consulting with multiple experts in history and education, these resources aim to represent diverse perspectives and speak to a variety of learning levels.

Modification activities for English language learners are integrated into Historica Canada education resources. A consultation process was conducted to determine whether educators preferred separate ELL learning tools, or integrated activities for the whole class that address multiple learning levels. This consultation revealed that the majority of teachers preferred a resource with integrated modifications. With this integrated approach, second language learner modifications are dispersed throughout the Historica Canada Education Guides. These activities focus on a variety of skills, but many emphasize storytelling, perspective taking, and vocabulary acquisition.

History as Storytelling: Understanding Diverse Perspectives

Many students still think of history as memorizing a series of facts and dates, but it is far more than that. It is a discipline that has storytelling at its heart. History is a narrative that tells the story of our country, our communities and the people who live in them. It is an evolving interpretation of people, events and ideas from the past.

Perspective-taking is an integral part of examining the historical narrative. By using historical context and evidence, students are able to make inferences about the beliefs and actions of people in the past. Perspective-taking encourages students to use context and evidence to try to understand the beliefs and actions of a person from the near or distant past. Exploring historical events and ideas from another person’s perspective promotes empathy and understanding. These interpersonal skills are not only important in the study of history but also to interactions in our every day lives.

Understanding diverse perspectives promotes equity and inclusion. As the Ontario Ministry of Education outlined in its 2009 Guidelines for Policy Development and Implementation:

Schools are expected to give students and staff authentic and relevant opportunities to learn about diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives. Lessons, projects, and related resources should allow students to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2009, p.24)

Thinking critically about history is one way in which to achieve this aim. This article explores strategies, activities and learning opportunities for English language learners to become active storytellers in the narrative of Canadian history.

Ideas for Engaging English Language Learners

Learning about Canadian History through Heritage Minutes

The Heritage Minutes are a collection of 86 iconic Canadian stories, told through film, in one minute or less. First released in 1991, the Minutes were re-launched in 2012 and are available in both official languages online or on DVD.

One of the most recent Heritage Minutes examines the tragic death of Chanie Wenjack in 1966 after he fled the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Ontario. Chanie Wenjack’s death sparked the first investigation into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools.

The Residential Schools in Canada Education Guide was designed to complement this Heritage Minute, and includes activities to analyze and explore Chanie’s story further. When watching the Heritage Minute as a class, turn on closed captioning to improve accessibility for English language learners.1 The modifications to explore the Chanie Wenjack Heritage Minute further include vocabulary-building, writing and perspective-taking.

Pitching a Heritage Minute

After viewing other Heritage Minutes, students may want to develop their own 60-second story about Canadian history. One of our newest resources, the Women’s Suffrage in Canada Education Guide, asks students to pitch their own Heritage Minute. A modification to this activity prompts English language learners to draw a visual storyboard, or create one using online software, as a variation on presenting a written summary. Second language learners could also work in pairs to create a point-form overview of their pitch idea. This activity encourages creative storytelling, using art or writing. In the classroom, this exercise could be adapted for any subject in Canadian history.

Exploring Primary Sources: Historic Photographs

Using primary sources as evidence in the study of history is a key concept in historical thinking. The examination of photographs and images is an accessible way that English language learners can engage with primary sources. Exploring a primary source by describing the visual details, including words and symbols, is one of the first steps in the analysis of historical evidence. The Women’s Suffrage in Canada Education Guide includes a modification activity that asks students to write a list of adjectives to describe the photo with question prompts. Working with primary sources, like photographs, encourages critical thinking, an important skill for all learners to develop.

The Think Like a Historian series, our newest educational program, includes a series of videos and classroom worksheets to guide students through primary source analysis. The series examines photographs, newspapers, and soldiers` letters from the Battle of Vimy Ridge. To make this series more accessible for your ELL class, turn on closed captioning for the videos and use the `Modification` activities in the classroom worksheets. Watch the free, bilingual videos and download the worksheets.

Visual Storytelling: Designing a Museum Exhibit

Museums and exhibits bring visual and written storytelling together to present an experiential and interactive perspective on the past. Designing a museum exhibit is another interpretation of history; it creates a visual narrative with the intention of communicating a message. Developing a visual exhibit invites students to become storytellers of history. The Residential Schools Education Guide encourages visual storytelling and primary source engagement by asking students to create their own museum exhibit. ELL students can focus on telling their exhibit story through images and artifacts found in the education guide and online.

Reading Comprehension: The Canadian Encyclopedia

Educational resources on The Canadian Encyclopedia can be used to complement these activities. The Encyclopedia includes more than 19,000 bilingual articles. Each article is written by an academic expert, after which it is professionally copy-edited and fact-checked for accuracy. It is therefore a reliable online resource for research and learning about Canadian history.

The Encyclopedia entries are generally written at a Grade 10 level, and therefore may not be easily accessible for all ELL students. However, there are supplementary learning tools that can support students in navigating more challenging reading levels. The 5Ws Reading Chart for secondary sources can help ELL students unpack articles from The Canadian Encyclopedia by working through the who, what, when, where, and why of the article contents, which is an opportunity to improve reading comprehension. It may be beneficial for students to work in pairs while completing this chart, and to compare their findings with other students.

Taking the Citizenship Challenge

The Citizenship Challenge asks students to test their knowledge of Canada by studying for and writing a mock citizenship exam in French or English. The quiz asks Canadians to answer the same types of questions newcomers must answer when becoming citizens. To help prepare for the Challenge classes can work through learning tools and worksheets that explore themes surrounding citizenship, history and civics based on the official Discover Canada study guides created by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Specialized learning tools have been created for ELL exploring these themes. Register your class online to take the Challenge or print hardcopies off of our website.

Exploring Diverse Histories

Listening to Storytellers: Passages Canada

Passages Canada is one of Historica Canada’s core programs and offers a speakers bureau and an online story archive. Passages speakers are dedicated to sharing the stories that make up Canada’s cultural mosaic. Engaging speakers visit classrooms and communities to share personal stories of immigrating to Canada and adapting to a new way of life, or their perspectives on Canada as a multicultural nation.

Having a speaker visit your classroom is a good community building experience for a diverse class, and promotes perspective-taking. A learning tool specifically designed for ESL and LINC students includes activities for before, during and after a speaker visit. This includes listening comprehension, vocabulary identification, and speaking exercises. If you are unable to invite a speaker into your classroom, there are video stories available online and through a free DVD.

A free DVD with 23 speaker interviews is another way to engage students in thinking about their personal experiences. A transcript, for students to read along while watching, accompanies each video. It is important for students to see themselves and their experience reflected more broadly in classroom, and this is one way in which to achieve this aim.

The interactive Passages Story Archive includes over 200 profiles complete with recorded testimonials, photographs, and an interactive map. These profiles explore themes of citizenship, immigration, human rights, and refugee experiences. Newcomers to Canada can use the interactive map to find stories from speakers who are from their country of origin.

English language learner students can become part of the conversation, by becoming a Passages speaker themselves or submitting their stories to the Story Archive. Please contact Passages Canada for more information.

ELL Students as Storytellers

These educational resources are designed to encourage students to think critically about history, and also to empower them to become storytellers of their own history.

Historica Canada is the country’s largest organization dedicated to enhancing awareness of Canadian history and citizenship.. You can get more information at



Ontario Ministry of Education. (2009). Equity and Inclusive Education in Ontario Schools. Guidelines for Policy Development and Implementation. Retrieved from

Teaching, Uncategorised
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Contact Spring 2017

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