Accelerating English language acquisition for former refugees

Issue: Volume 99, Number 2

Posted: 14 February 2020
Reference #: 1HA5S1

An accelerated English language programme for a group of driven young former refugees in Invercargill has seen them achieve well beyond expectations.

A group of former refugee students aged between 17 and 21, from Argentina and Colombia, have excelled using an accelerated English learning programme. While some were in school, others were learning English in adult English classes alongside their parents in Invercargill. The students, who are fluent in their home languages, were becoming frustrated and wanted to accelerate their English language learning.

“For this age group it was really difficult – we needed something age-appropriate,” explains Trish Boyle, an Education Adviser for the Ministry of Education.

“We had to try to think outside the square because they don’t have the luxury of time to learn English before they move into the workforce.”  

“Working with a local school and the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT), we developed a programme where students could learn English and do some training – for example, as a barista – until their English got to a level where they could move into an appropriate course,” she says.

The Ministry of Education provided funding for a one-year pilot scheme that included a specialist English tutor and began last July. Invercargill’s Aurora College enrolled the students and provided a classroom for the full immersion programme. By the end of the year, all the students had reached ESOL Level 1/Level 2 – progress that can usually take up to 18 months.

Two-pronged approach

The Accelerated Literacy programme combines two approaches. For three days a week, one ESOL teacher, Justine Haenni, focuses mainly on listening, reading and writing the programme. The programme uses role playing, music, pictures and routines, with lots of repetition to embed the learning.

On the other two days of the week, ESOL teacher Johanna Hamilton runs a student-led inquiry programme where, for example, the students might plan a shared lunch, shop for it and prepare it together. This ensures students are applying their learning in a practical context. Johanna also focuses on listening and speaking as well as reading comprehension and writing.

“These students – mainly young women – have generally been in a camp for three to four years before coming to New Zealand. Some have faced unspeakable traumas.

“They appreciate how the course is specifically tailored for their needs. They feel secure in the small group – security is very important for them. They like how each teacher has a specific focus. They like having time during the week when they can interact with students at the school. They really enjoy learning English but also problem-solving other issues that arise from living in a new and different culture,” explains Trish.

Teachers wowed by students

A review of the pilot scheme shows that all the students experienced an acceleration in their language acquisition, and all gained confidence in speaking English. So much so, in fact, that last November, they wowed a group of 55 Invercargill teachers who attended a hui held to foster understanding of the resettlement process and cultural competence for educators working with former refugees.  

“[The students] were the hosts at Hui Tautoko. They greeted people when they arrived, served them lunch, worked with people in the kitchen and then told their stories to the group. Each student then went into groups of about six teachers and answered questions. Their language was easily understood without an interpreter being required,” says Trish. 

The teachers said the Colombian food and the students themselves were highlights of the hui. “The students loved the fact that they could work in a New Zealand environment and feel confident. They were able to tell their stories and they felt heard.

“We hope that they can be role models for the other younger former refugees in the school. They will visit the students, maybe do PE with them and take part as active leaders using English,” she says.

Transition to work

Trish says that the Colombian students will return to Aurora College for 16 weeks this year. 

“We expect there to be some summer fallback, particularly as they may not have used conversational English during the holidays. We will get them back to where we want them to be and then we will work to transition them into the SIT Pathways to Success programme.

“The idea of having the students enrolled in school and using flexible funding to offer the programme has made a difference. We’re not saying this is the answer in all situations or for the majority of refugee resettlement students; however, it seems to be working for this age group, who have got limited access to people that they can mix with and limited time to get that language acquisition,” she says. 

Invercargill teachers who attended Hui Tautoko were impressed with the students’ progress.

Invercargill programme success factors

  • Age-appropriate, student-led programme.
  • Flexible, supportive school as a base.
  • Listening to the students, being flexible and actively responding to meet their needs.
  • Practice, repetition and reinforcement.
  • Clear goals and high expectations from students and teachers.
  • Small numbers of students.
  • No translation programme.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:29 am, 14 February 2020

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