Teaching Refugees: Teaching English to Low Literacy Adults

Teaching English to Low Literacy Students Learning to communicate in English has become a necessary skill in the modern world. Many adults who have not practiced English since their school days are returning to the classroom in order to advance in their careers or make the move to an English speaking country. Others, who did not receive formal English education during childhood, are making the independent step toward learning it for the first time. While learning a language can certainly be deemed more challenging as an adult, having low literacy in one’s own language undoubtedly adds to the difficulty, as is the case with many vulnerable populations who now rely on learning English to integrate into a new society.

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The Challenge

In my experience working with asylum seekers and refugees, I have come to recognize and understand these added challenges. Comparing this experience with my previous experiences teaching young children learning their third language at the age of three in Istanbul and teaching South Korean students who are accustomed to a rigorous academic structure further highlights the differing environments. In most ESL classrooms, teachers are dealing with students who are already literate in their mother tongue. They are able to read, write, and speak and are often able to use digital tools such as the computer. When I began my current task of teaching practical English to North African and Syrian asylum seekers, the responsibilities that accompanied the job became apparent very quickly. Teaching in a manner similar to the ones that I used in my other ESL teaching positions would have been a folly, and I needed to develop the skills to recognize and gauge my new students’ needs and capacities. Assuming that my adult students would be able to copy and write was not practical, and sensitivity was required in order to carefully maneuver through these lessons. Teaching how to hold a pen, how to read and write from left to right, and, most importantly, how to utilize the lesson and practice in order to retain language are just some of the basic responsibilities that teachers in this situation will have. I recall one of my most enthusiastic students, a 33-year-old male with experience in the farming industry back home in Somalia: although he had work experience, he had only received two years of education in his life, which, you can imagine, made classroom life particularly challenging (and often overwhelming) for him.

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Some Solutions

1- The needs of adults with minimal or no previous schooling experience will center primarily on literacy skills. Not being fully literate in one’s first language presents difficulties in reading for comprehension. For example, if one cannot read in his/her own language and does not understand that text has meaning, it will be invariably hard to teach this in a second language. A focus on processing skills is crucial here. Merely reading a text is not enough: follow-up comprehension questions, supplemental videos, and any other means that you can use to convey the message of the words are integral to your student’s comprehension. Reading-related skills such as data, figure, and picture interpretation and pattern recognition need to be paired with basic skills/knowledge, such as understanding that we read from left to right, top to bottom, and that texts have a beginning, middle, and end. Sounding out the words is not enough, nor is simply giving a translation. I remember that I was able to ‘read’ Korean sentences phonetically, but I could not understand the meaning, to put this into perspective.

2- Most ESL teachers are trained in teaching communication, which is the overall goal for these populations of people who are trying to assimilate into new cultures and situations. With this in mind, planning a lesson and choosing creative strategies to implement should be a bit less daunting. Take the skills that you already have and apply the appropriate modifications in order to achieve that goal. Teachers needn’t feel pressure to teach one of these students how to pass an international English exam right off the bat. Learning to communicate in the host country’s language, even if it is imperfect, is what counts- fine tuning can be considered of secondary importance, the next step after students build confidence and basic skills.

3- Achieving literacy in English is essential for integrating into the community, being able to complete basic daily living tasks, making friends, and seeking employment. Being able to read a bathroom sign or check the times on a bus schedule is far more relevant and necessary than having pristine grammar, at least at first. Utilizing task-based learning activities are effective in doing this- for example, teaching how to fill-out a job application or other type of form is more important than learning all of the different verb tenses in the immediate future. All of these elements contribute directly to the individual’s sense of social and psychological well-being and are, as such, extremely important. Refugees and asylum seekers can thus be considered a prime target group for educational intervention(s) such as these.

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