By Alexis Le Franc, Muteeb Hamdan, Corinne Leukes, Nesma Sami and Robyn Stewart

21 March 2019 - 09:42

Post-it notes and pens piled up ready for use in a classroom
'Filling out an online application or working with aid agencies can be confusing in any language.' Photo ©

Rudy and Peter Skitterians used under licence and adapted from the original.

How does teaching English to refugees differ from teaching other groups of learners, and how might you change your approach in the classroom? Five experienced teachers share their advice.

Robyn Stewart, teacher on the EU-funded Language and Academic Skills and E-learning Resources (LASER) programme in Jordan

I wish I’d known the importance of routine. If you're a learner for whom everything has recently changed, coming to English class and knowing what to expect each time can provide stability. 

I learned to prioritise learner-created and relationship-building activities, because my learners wanted a sense of community. Giving the class autonomy over their learning material, where to sit and who to work with were important in building trust. In time, learners began taking chances with their language. 

I will never forget the classroom contract  – a signed agreement that sets out expectations of learners, the teacher and what will happen in the classroom – created by my first class. The contract read like a legal document. Every learner in the room was involved in some aspect of its creation. The first point, ‘respect’, and the last point, ‘everyone has their own aim but together we can achieve them’, set the tone for the whole course.

Corinne Leukes, teacher on the LASER programme in Jordan

Creating a positive, safe learning environment is very important. 

Once refugee learners feel safe in the classroom, they may want to talk or write about their experiences. These personal stories need a response before they need correction, and acknowledgement before judgement.

Anecdote and story circles, diaries and posters are some activities that helped my learners express their ideas. 

Laughter really is the best medicine. It lowers stress, creates a positive atmosphere and creates connections between people. 

Some people haven’t been in a classroom for a long time. If that is the case, they will need a variety of activities to build their concentration skills, and to gain more language and skills practice. 

Some people have learning needs that relate to their circumstances as refugees or migrants. Filling out an online application or working with aid agencies can be confusing in any language.

Muteeb Hamdan, Teacher of English at Azraq camp, Jordan, with Corinne Leukes

Before teaching refugees, I wish I had heard learners' individual stories. This is not only to gain learners’ trust but also to avoid embarrassing, hurtful and unnecessary questions, especially when planning self-introduction activities. 

One day, I asked my learners to introduce themselves and then to talk about their families. During the first lesson I asked a teenage learner to introduce himself. During the conversation, I asked about his father’s job. He appeared upset by the question. After a moment of silence, he told me that several of his close relatives, including his father, had been killed. 

Give learners room to tell their stories in their own way. Rather than asking specific questions about family members, ask open questions like:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What do you want us to know about you?

Another way to do self-introductions sensitively is to suggest that learners ask questions of the teacher, who answers them in writing or by speaking. Learners can then write their answers to the same questions. 

Nesma Sami, teacher on the HOPES (Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians) project at Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt, with Corinne Leukes

Remember that refugees come from a variety of backgrounds, hold many points of view, and are as varied as learners in any other class. They are ordinary people who are starting a new life in a new community. 

The word 'refugee' can be isolating, and can bring back intrusive memories. Some teachers also use clichéd phrases like 'this is your second home', in an attempt to build a supportive classroom community. This does not work, in my experience. 

It's important for learners to increase their world knowledge, as many would like to travel. Introduce controversial topics slowly, after the learners have built some trust with you and with each other. 

Alexis Le Franc, teacher on the LASER programme in Jordan

I started teaching young Syrians in Jordan in January 2017, and worked with diverse groups of learners. Wealthy or poor, rural or urban, graduates or not, many have fled their country in a rush. While some went through war, others may have had a different experience. 

Learning a global language can also be a process of discovering opportunities. I have found it useful, as a teacher, to bear this in mind.

Join our free online course, Refugees and Migrants in Education, for people who teach and support young people affected by violence, conflict or displacement 

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