During the long wait for a refugee to come to Canada, one of the best ways to spend the time is through regular online chats. These provide the sponsored person with an opportunity to practise English, and gain knowledge on topics relevant to life in Canada.

These online sessions can also be a huge morale booster to people who are barred from formal education – and who see their connection to their sponsors, and to Canadians in general, as a lifeline. They are also quite satisfying for the teacher too!

The platform

If your learner has the wifi and technology to support it, try a live video chat.

A video call (on WhatsApp, Zoom, GoogleMeet, Teams, Facebook messenger) is best, both because it allows you to see each other - better for building a connection and reading facial expressions and body language. These video platforms also allow you to read texts or watch videos together.

Figuring out which platform works best for both of you may be an early topic of conversation.

The timing

Try to talk once a week, for about an hour. You may start with shorter conversations, and take them longer as you develop a rapport.

Have a set time so you and your student can make it part of your regular schedule. And this establishes trust between the two of you, which is an important part of the learning process: to build a trusting relationship.

On that note, if you’re not committed to hosting these classes over time, or if you don’t have a replacement lined up if you do get busy, it might not be a good idea to start them at all. Most refugees have faced enough disappointments in their lives already.

The topics

To encourage people to practise their English, it’s a good idea to find topics they actually want to talk about! You will learn more about your student’s interests as you get to know each other.

In the meantime, here are some random suggestions:

  • Tourist attractions in the Canadian city where the refugee will settle

  • Sports or parts of the body (especially if your ‘learner’ is a fitness buff)

  • Jobs in construction or another field of interest

  • Items on a restaurant menu (since food is a fairly universal passion)

With the menu, your student could read through the dishes on order and stop when there’s one they don’t understand.


Speaking of taking the lead from your student when it comes to choosing a topic, be careful about bringing up subjects that might cause discomfort. In other words, be sensitive to trauma.

Suicides, earthquakes, COVID, the killing of people back home: these are all things these guys are going through. Should you talk about them in your English classes? Probably not.

Even asking about their lives can be tricky terrain. They might not want to discuss loved ones they have lost, or the terrible events that drove them from their homeland. If your student brings them up, continue the conversation with care: “Would you be comfortable talking more about this?”

Read our post on trauma and healing.

YouTube as a tool

Leading up to the class, send a video. Anything visual can spark a conversation and provide a helpful training tool. For example, videos on science, cooking or Toronto, something that is easy to understand and of interest.

Typically this is a short video (3-5 minutes) from YouTube. And suggest your students turn on YouTube’s closed captioning, which makes it easier for them to understand the voiceover - and encourages reading.

The format

Planning the conversation does not have to be a cumbersome process. Rather than lesson plans, it’s good to follow a general format that will come naturally after the first class or two. Here’s a suggested one:

When the class begins, start with an update of your week. And ask your student to do the same.

Next up: the video. “Did you have a chance to watch the video?” Then use the 3 Rs.

  • Retell - tell me about the video, what you saw

  • Relate - remind you of anything

  • Reflect - how did you feel about it

And then, chat away! Leave room for questions and sidebar conversations (more on those below).

Bonus tip from Heather Finley: “The sponsor/English speaker should speak a little more slowly and enunciate more carefully than they usually do. This is so that the learner can follow the conversation better, but also to help compensate for any technology hiccups.”

Helpful resources

The discussion triggered by the video can last a full hour. But if you’re looking for more to talk about, there’s an excellent website called 5 Minute English that can guide the next portion of your chat. Some of the better sections to consider using:

  • Listen

  • Slang and Idiom

  • The Q&A page

To make sure you’re looking at the same thing, take a screen grab or share your screen. Read the vocabulary first, then have your learner do the same. Same with the dialogue: each of you takes on one of the speaker’s roles. Then when you are done, change the roles.

If you want to talk about numbers, Base 10 worksheets are a good place to start.

And for useful vocabulary, have a look at the guide on the right: 504 absolutely essential English words.

504 Absolutely Essential Words.pdf

Sidebar conversations

Note that the conversation might take a detour, based on what your learner asks about along the way. This is good! Sidebar conversation are often where the learning really begins, so don’t feel you need to stick with your lesson plan, even an informal one.

Keep an ear out for places where these sidebar conversations might occur, and go for them!