Working with refugee-background learners

I recently wrote about a project (Critical Skills for Life and Work) we did at the University of Graz, which aimed to help people with a refugee or migrant background with their professional integration. One of the things I did, as part of my involvement in the project, was to familiarise myself with existing literature on the education of such people. It was at that time that I came across an edited collection by Shawna Shapiro, Raichle Farrelly and Mary Jane Curry, entitled Educating Refugee-background Students (2018, Multilingual Matters), which is a real gold-mine of information for anyone interested in the topic.

At the time, it seemed like a useful idea to summarise the chapters that were most relevant to the project, and make these summaries available to the rest of the team. However, after I posted about the CSLW project, I realised that there is more interest in the topic than I was aware of, and these notes may be useful to others as well. And this is what has prompted me to write this selective summary of the contributions that make up the book. But before sharing the notes, I want to make a couple of very brief comments:

About the selection of content

I must stress is that the selection of chapters that are presented in this post, and the content from each chapter that is showcased, are both very subjectively chosen. They reflect the needs and priorities of the CSLW project, and any omissions should not be interpreted as a judgment on the quality of contributions. I hope that these notes are useful for quick reference, but for anyone with more than a passing interest in the topic, I very strongly recommend reading the book itself.

Why ‘refugee-background learners’?

As the editors point out, the term ‘refugee-background learners’ is preferable to ‘refugee learners’ because it better reflects the fact that they have resettled in their new contexts and are no longer transient, plus the term does not invoke helplessness and victimisation.

“We therefore employ the label ‘refugee-background’ to allude to these experiences, while simultaneously highlighting that being a former ‘refugee’ is not the only aspect of identity that matters to students – or to us as researchers” (p. 3)


Alia and Basma* (right), both aged 12, tackle a maths question at a temporary school in northern Lebanon

Recently resettled refugee students learning English in US high schools: The impact of students’ educational backgrounds (Christopher T. Browder)

The chapter begins with a useful survey of terms and constructs that have been used in scholarship about refugee-background learners. These include: students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE); truncated formal education (Gahungu et al. 2011); limited formal schooling (Walsh 1999).

The study aims to answer the two following research questions:

  1. To what extent does limited or interrupted formal education affect the rate of English learning for EL students with refugee backgrounds?
  2. What independent variables are most useful for understanding the challenges that SLIFE have with learning English in formal educational settings?

This was investigated using school records and a questionnaire-based survey with 146 US High School students (of whom 35 Chin refugees from Myanmar [Burma] were studies in additional depth). The following five variables were measured, and then analysed using t-tests and bivariate regression analysis:

  1. IND: L1 literacy (self-reports)
  2. IND: English proficiency on arrival (placement test)
  3. IND: Interrupted schooling
  4. IND: Missing years of schooling
  5. DEP: English gains

Of the findings, the ones that appear to have the capacity to inform work in other contexts include the following:

  • There was a statistically significant but weak relationship between interrupted schooling and gains in the dominant language of the community (English).
  • No statistically significant relationship was found between missing years of schooling and English gains (possibly due to small sample size)
  • No statistically significant relationship was found between English proficiency on arrival and English gains (possibly due to small sample size)
  • A statistically significant but weak relationship was found between self-reports of L1 literacy and English gains.

Browder, C. T. (2018). Recently resettled refugee students learning English in US high schools: The impact of students‘ educational backgrounds. In Shapiro, S., Farrelly, R. and Curry, M. J. (eds.), Educating refugee-background students: Critical issues and dynamic contexts (pp. 17-32). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.


‘History should come first’: Perspectives of Somali-born, refugee-background male youth on writing in and out of school (Bryan Ripley Crandall)

This is a small-scale qualitative study (four cases) that used an activity theory perspective to examine the perspectives of refugee-background learners on writing. It has the potential to inform the design of writing courses / writing components in integrated skills courses. The main insights from it are that educators need to: (a) provide authentic writing experiences; (b) establish legitimate audiences; (c) attend to multiple writing processes; (d) recognise the learners’ memberships in communities; (e) respect the learners’ personal histories.

Crandall, B. R. (2018). ‘History should come first’: Perspectives of Somali-born, refugee-background male youth on writing in and out of school. In Shapiro, S., Farrelly, R. and Curry, M. J. (eds.), Educating refugee-background students: Critical issues and dynamic contexts (pp. 33-48). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.


Refugee children from Syria at a clinic in Ramtha, northern Jordan

The role of EFL in educating refugees in Norway (Anne Dahl, Anna Krulatz & Eivind Nessa Torgersen)

What is especially valuable about this study is that it highlights unseen discrepancies between the refugees’ priorities and the way these are perceived by their teachers. With regard to syllabus design, this: (a) underscores a need for grounding any intervention on a comprehensive needs analysis; (b) suggests a need for sensitising educators to the learners’ perspectives.

This study looked into the following questions:

  1. What are the main institutional learning goals for adult refugee-background students in Norway?
  2. To what extent to these goals overlap with those that the students set for themselves?
  3. What is the perceived importance of developing Norwegian and English proficiency by adult refugee-background students in Norway?

Data generation took place in two rural communities. It involved semi-structured interviews with seven teachers and two administrators and a qualitative survey with 40 refugee-background students. Inductive thematic analysis was used to code the data.

The main findings were that:

  • Refugees in this context have limited choices regarding possible educational and occupational pathways. Distance learning widens their range of options.
  • It is commonly assumed that the vocational training for refugee-background students should focus on locally available jobs. [AK: This raises the question: Why should we assume that refugees will no longer be mobile after initial resettlement? Could it be the case that we should foster ‘language FOR mobility’ skills?]
  • Literacy levels among learners were varied, but education is uniformly perceived as important. [AK: This suggests a need for differentiated instruction]
  • Teachers and learners attached high importance to attaining proficiency in the community language. With regard to English, teachers did not consider that it should be a high priority, but learners appeared to view it as a much more important goal.

Dahl, A., Krulatz, A., & Torgersen, E. N. (2018). The role of English as a Foreign Language in educating refugees in Norway. In Shapiro, S., Farrelly, R. and Curry, M. J. (eds.), Educating refugee-background students: Critical issues and dynamic contexts (pp. 107-126). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.


Educating refugees through ‘citizenship classes and tests’: Integration by coercion or autonomous agency? (Amadu Khan)

This chapter explores political implications of integration in a more direct way than other contributions, and focusses specifically on how immigrants respond to and contest citizenship education. This was investigated using qualitative interviews with 23 immigrants, which were analysed thematically.

The main benefits perceived regarding citizenship classes included: (a) higher employability prospects associated with English language proficiency, and (b) learning about fundamental rights. On the other hand, participants pointed out that: (c) there was a substantial financial cost involved in participating in tests, and (d) mandatory tests enforced conformity expectations and detracted from their sense of agency. Finally, (e) voluntary activity, often in the participants’ co-ethnic networks, reinforced/restored their sense of agency.

There are multiple limitations to the study, not least its the low number of participants, and the context-specificity of the findings. However, some insights that are likely to be generalisable and directly relevant to CSLW and similar projects are that: (a) citizenship classes alone may be insufficient in promoting social and cultural integration; (b) written tests may not be reliable measures of integration (suggesting the need for more sophisticated definitions); and (c) any intervention must make use of the pre-existing linguistic, cultural and social capital of immigrants.

Khan, A. (2018). Educating refugees through ‘citizenship classes and tests’: integration by coercion or autonomous agency? In Shapiro, S., Farrelly, R. and Curry, M. J. (eds.), Educating refugee-background students: Critical issues and dynamic contexts (pp. 144-158). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.


Muhanad and Ahmad, refugees from Syria in school in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley

Swedish teachers’ understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder among adult refugee-background learners (Eva Holmkvist, Kirk P. H. Sullivan, & Asbjørg Westum)

This study used a focus group research design to investigate the perceptions of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among teachers who worked with migrants. PTSD was defined as experiencing, witnessing or confronting events involving death, injury or threat to physical integrity, and reacting with intense fear, helplessness or horror (p. 179). Specifically, the authors examined the following questions:

  1. What do teachers of Swedish as a second language for adult refugee-background students know about PTSD?
  2. How do these teachers believe PTSD affects these students learning of Swedish?
  3. How do these teaches adapt their teaching for students they perceive as suffering from PTSD?

It was found that teachers in the context were unprepared to deal with PTSD. They had very limited understanding of what the disorder involved and how it intersects with other psychopathological issues. There was some awareness of the adverse effects of PTSD on learning, which mostly involved recognition of emotional issues which affected learning (e.g., anger, dissatisfaction, sadness, emotional distancing, and fear). Any pedagogical responses to PTSD were limited to principles of good classroom management, such as providing safety and structure, coping with attentional issues associated with PTSD (e.g., through repetition & recycling) and avoiding of topics that were expected to trigger unpleasant memories. [AK: The topic of avoiding sensitive issues also came up in our own interviews with teachers during the CSLW project. Participating teachers told us that they had been instructed to avoid topics like family or birthplace, but what they found was that many learners were actually keen to talk about such topics. The teachers also suggested that sensitive negotiation might be a more productive way than blanket banning of topics.]

Holmkvist, E., Sullivan, K. P. H. & Westum, A. (2018). Swedish teachers’ understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder among adult refugee-background learners. In Shapiro, S., Farrelly, R. and Curry, M. J. (eds.), Educating refugee-background students: Critical issues and dynamic contexts (pp. 177-190). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.


Narratives of trauma and self-healing processes in a literacy program for adolescent refugee newcomers (M. Kristiina Montero)

This is a highly insightful study with high potential to inform the design of educational programmes for refugees (especially newcomers) whose trauma is still unresolved. The central idea is that the narration of trauma stories (‘testimonial narratives’ [Beverly, 2008]) in a supportive (but non-therapeutic) setting such as a classroom may have a healing effect. This is reflected in the research question:

What role do trauma stories that are voluntarily told in the non-therapeutic context of the classroom have in supporting refugee newcomers’ mental health and wellbeing?

To answer the question, five government-assisted refugees from Burma shared their life-narratives with their researchers. This was done with appropriate scaffolding from the researchers, using interviews and language experience approach methods. Methodologically, the study fused narrative inquiry, instrumental case study and action research designs.

The main insights were that:

  • Schooling experiences provide participants with meaning. From this it follows that schooling is important to self-healing;
  • Altruistic behaviour can lead to development of sense of power/control. This seems to happen because it allows participants to rebuild supportive relationships that compensate for their social support system that was disrupted by migration;
  • There is evidence in the narratives that invoking metaphysical beliefs appears to facilitate the self-healing process.

“It is imperative that educators do not go ‘fishing’ for trauma stories and that they understand the boundaries and limits of their professional practice” (pp. 101-102)

Montero, M. K. (2018). Narratives of trauma and self-healing processes in a literacy program for adolescent refugee newcomers. In Shapiro, S., Farrelly, R. and Curry, M. J. (eds.), Educating refugee-background students: Critical issues and dynamic contexts (pp. 92-106). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.


Featured photo: Own. All other photos: UK Department for International Development | CC-BY

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