Working With Refugee ELLs: Moving Beyond the Challenges

The authors explore ways teachers and school administrators can draw on the prior experiences and diverse language and literacy practices of refugee ELLs to develop culturally and linguistically responsive curriculums that support language learning
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  Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at Kappa Delta Pi Record ISSN: 0022-8958 (Print) 2163-1611 (Online) Journal homepage: Working With Refugee ELLs: Moving Beyond theChallenges  Jackie Ridley, Somin Kim & Esther Yoon To cite this article:  Jackie Ridley, Somin Kim & Esther Yoon (2019) Working With Refugee ELLs:Moving Beyond the Challenges, Kappa Delta Pi Record, 55:4, 164-168 To link to this article: Published online: 15 Oct 2019.Submit your article to this journal View related articles View Crossmark data  164 KAPPA DELTA PI RECORD • OCT–DEC 2019 A Abstract The authors explore ways teachers and school administrators can draw on the prior experiences and diverse language and literacy practices of refugee ELLs to develop culturally and linguistically responsive curriculums that support language learning and overall school success of these students. Key words:    ESL education, refugee ELLs WORKING WITH REFUGEE ELLS:  MOVING BEYOND THE CHALLENGES by Jackie Ridley, Somin Kim, and Esther Yoon Kappa Delta Pi Record, 55: 164–168, 2019Copyright © Kappa Delta PiISSN: 0022-8958 print/2163-1611 onlineDOI: 10.1080/00228958.2019.1659062 s recent research has well documented, the linguistic and cultural diversity of U.S. schools is rapidly changing: A growing number of students in K–12 classrooms speak multiple languages beyond English, and refugees make up more and more of this growing population (Camarota, Griffith, & Zeigler, 2017; McBrien, Dooley, & Birman, 2017). The United Nations High Commissioner  for Refugees (UNHCR, 2018) estimated more than 287,000 refugees from 65 countries have been resettled in the United States since the 1950s, and there is more than double that num-ber of applications for asylum still waiting to be processed. In the year 2017 alone, 53,691 people were admitted as refugees to the United States, 43% of whom were children ages 0–17 (Mossaad, 2019). With approximately 350 refugee resettle-ment agencies spread across the United States, throughout almost every state, refugees are a continually increasing presence in classrooms and communities (Roxas, 2011).This influx of refugees from countries and cultures around the world presents both oppor-tunities and challenges to U.S. schools. Current education policies and instructional practices  for English language learners (ELLs) have been designed to apply generally to all school-age ELLs regardless of their cultural and linguistic back-grounds or current circumstances (Mendenhall, Bartlett, & Ghaffar-Kucher, 2017). Refugees are included in this generic category of ELLs, and current educational policies do not require states to keep data distinguishing refugees from other subgroups of learners. Little is known in schools and in academia about the literacy development of refugee students—leaving teachers and re-searchers alike in the dark (Dwyer & McCloskey, 2013; Stewart, 2015).Efforts by scholarly and professional organi-zations are beginning to address this knowledge and practice gap. For example, the international association TESOL has a Refugee Concerns Inter-est Section that aims to address the specific lan-guage and cultural needs of refugees and provide a forum for teachers who work with this popula-tion. However, this effort is just the beginning. We hope this article contributes to the growing body of research-based knowledge about school-age refugee ELLs by presenting major findings from recent empirical work on the academic experi-ences and language practices of these students. To this end, we provide pedagogical suggestions  for teachers and school administrators on how to draw on the unique and diverse experiences of refugee ELLs as powerful learning resources for improving their school experiences. Who Are Refugee ELLs? Per the 1951 Geneva Convention, a refugee is someone who, due toa well-founded fear of being persecuted  for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing  KAPPA DELTA PI RECORD •  OCT–DEC 2019   165 to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2017) While school-age refugees share many charac-teristics with other subgroups of ELLs in the United States, research has begun to identify some of the unique experiences of refugee students that may impact their English language learning and overall academic achievement, including and especially the impact of interrupted formal schooling. Refugees with interrupted formal school experiences are less likely than their ELL classmates to be literate in their home language, let alone English (Singh, Sylvia, & Ridzi, 2015). Interrupted formal schooling can also cause refugee students, upon resettlement, to struggle with the rules, routines, and expectations of a new educational system (Mendenhall et al., 2017). Furthermore, the process of migration from home country to country of asylum to country of resettlement is often a source of trauma, stress, anxiety, and uncertainty for young refugees (Sar-roub, Pernicek, & Sweeney, 2007). These traumatic experiences can manifest themselves in the class-room and exacerbate refugee ELLs’ challenges to language learning and to general school success. What Do Refugees Bring to the Classroom? Refugees indeed face major struggles in their pur-suit of education and English language learning. However, teachers and administrators should un-derstand not only the challenges these students  face, but also the unique strengths and assets they bring to the classroom. Refugees possess a range of linguistic and cultural repertoires that are cur-rently underrepresented and often undervalued in the typical U.S. classroom. Rather than view-ing refugee ELLs through a deficit perspective, we as teachers and researchers can focus on the competencies of this group of students and how these students draw on funds of knowledge in the classroom to make meaningful language and learning connections (Stewart, 2015).  WWW.KDP.ORG  Jackie Ridley ,   Somin Kim,  and Esther Yoon are doctoral students in Foreign, Second and Multilingual Language Education at The Ohio State University. The authors share a background in teaching ESL in K–16 contexts and a research interest in refugee ELLs. Email:;; Recent research has begun to explore the positive ways refugee students draw on their previous education experiences and their unique linguistic and cultural backgrounds as they de-velop English and how teachers can use these resources students bring to class. For example, a growing number of studies have demonstrated the ways refugee ELLs’ first language and literacy practices can productively mediate their English language learning. In the classroom, refugee ELLs use their home language as well as English to negotiate new content learning and complete writing and reading assignments (Smyth, 2006).  At home, refugee parents draw on their first language literacy skills to explain English picture books to their children, thus promoting and sup-porting their children’s emerging literacy while still developing English themselves (Singh et al., 2015). Home languages can thus be powerful resources for refugee ELLs to draw upon as they learn English and subject-specific content.Prior school experiences have also been  found to impact refugees’ English language learning and literacy practices. Text memoriza-tion and oral recitation seem to be two practices commonly used by refugee ELLs that reflect their prior school and language learning experiences, both in their home countries and in refugee camps (Quadros & Sarroub, 2016; Singh et al., 2015). Teachers can draw on refugee ELLs’ oral storytelling background as a resource when teaching narrative writing: When they are en-couraged to use their oral storytelling practices to complete in-school English writing assign-ments, refugee students not only display growth in their English language skills, but also in their confidence in themselves as authors and writers (Nykiel-Herbert, 2010).Far from being a hindrance, the previous learning experiences of refugee ELLs can posi-tively mediate their English language and content learning. However, there are cultural factors that can complicate their experiences in U.S. class-rooms. For example, as a result of their cultural upbringing, refugee ELLs from certain backgrounds  166 KAPPA DELTA PI RECORD • OCT–DEC 2019 Refugee ELLs may be hesitant to ask for help or to answer questions in class (Walker-Dalhouse & Dalhouse, 2009). When we as teachers do not take the time to learn about the educational backgrounds of our refugee students, it can be easy to view their classroom engagement and participation styles through a negative lens. When we understand that these differences may reflect cultural differences rather than defiance or apathy, we are more likely to create opportunities for learning for these students that better reflect their preferred modes of engagement and strengths as learners.The funds of knowledge of refugee ELLs are also likely to be very different from our own as their teach-ers. Too often, because of these differences, when refugee students make connections and interpreta-tions of academic texts based on their previous experi-ences and cultural backgrounds, they are overlooked or disregarded in the mainstream classroom (Croce, 2014). One way to combat this problem is to allow refugee ELLs to share their experiences and expertise in a way that is valued and respected (Stewart, 2015). Teachers can encourage refugee students to engage their funds of knowledge by designing projects and lessons that acknowledge and incorporate the diversity of their experiences, knowledge, and backgrounds, thus enabling them to think critically and to participate more meaningfully in the classroom. Making Connections Because refugee ELLs often display learning difficulties in the English-medium classroom, it is easy for teachers to assume they are engaged in limited out-of-school literacy practices. However, even though refugee ELLs often struggle in school, these students participate in rich and diverse language and literacy practices beyond the classroom walls. When teachers know and understand the out-of-school literacy practices of refugee ELLs, they can then draw upon these skills and preferences in the classroom, thus enhancing their students’ school experiences and promoting language and content learning. Viewing language as an important resource for personal and academic gain, refugee ELLs are en-gaged in multilingual practices outside and inside the classroom. For example, recent research reports some groups of resettled refugee ELLs in the United States are not only learning English, but also additional languages (such as Spanish) because of their perceived social and cultural benefit (Bal & Arzubiaga, 2014; Roy, 2015). This predisposition toward multilingual practices is also reflected in students’ writing practices. When provided with encouragement from teachers, refugee students can produce multilingual texts, often showing evidence of three or more languages (Kelly, 2012; Roy, 2015). Teachers can capitalize on these multilingual practices by designing lessons and learning activities that en-courage students to use their full linguistic repertoires.Refugee ELLs also engage in multimodal practices outside of school, especially with regard to TV viewing habits. Within refugee homes, TV is often used as a resource for English language and literacy develop-ment. Educational TV programs have been found to help younger children develop English print literacy and spelling patterns (Perry & Moses, 2011; Singh et al., 2015), while watching American TV shows and movies can help older refugees learn new vocabulary words (Sarroub et al., 2007). TV viewership also can provide motivation and topics for young refugee ELLs as they choose texts to read out-of-school (Perry, 2009) and may even encourage children to choose TV-adapted texts that would normally be considered above their current reading level (Perry & Moses, 2011). These  findings challenge the traditionally held view that TV has minimal (if not adverse) educational benefits for children. Teachers can foster connections between home and school by creating lessons and assignments that allow students to draw on their TV viewing prac-tices and preferences in the classroom. Another rich, out-of-school practice among refu-gee families and communities is an understanding of literacy as a shared, communal practice. Rather than a personal practice or individual accomplishment, literacy skills and learning gained by individuals are taught and redistributed among the greater community so every-one may benefit (Quadros & Sarroub, 2016). Within this shared notion of literacy, the flow of expertise is bidirectional between parents and children, depending on who has the desired knowledge or skills. In some  KAPPA DELTA PI RECORD •  OCT–DEC 2019   167  WWW.KDP.ORG instances, parents help children by modeling new English literacy practices learned in an adult reading class (Singh et al., 2015), while in other circumstances, children are positioned as experts and teachers as they broker important English texts for their parents at home (Perry, 2014). A communal understanding of literacy is also evident in refugee ELLs’ school-based literacy practices. Community and family members may play a part in helping school-age refugees complete homework as-signments out-of-school (Quadros & Sarroub, 2016).  While in school, refugee students may choose to work collaboratively on assignments and learning activities (Dwyer & McCloskey, 2013). For refugee ELLs, copying or completing a classmate’s work could be evidence of a high value placed on school success rather than laziness or negligence for school rules (Nykiel-Herbert, 2010). Because these practices are often overlooked or even penalized in the classroom, understanding refu-gee ELLs’ communal view of literacy can help teachers to adopt a favorable view of these collaborative efforts. Teachers can incorporate this literacy practice in the classroom by designing group projects that provide opportunities for individual as well as collaborative contributions. Teachers can clearly communicate classroom standards for academic integrity while still providing a supportive and flexible learning environ-ment atmosphere where refugee ELLs’ predisposition  for communal literacy is valued. Building Supportive Networks  When teachers draw on the resources of refugee ELLs as outlined in the pedagogical suggestions described here, we make great strides toward promoting their English language and literacy learning. However, if we truly desire to see refugee ELLs succeed in school, a network of supportive relationships connecting key personnel from multiple domains of these students’ lives is crucial. Next, we identify five key relationships involving different people who are invested in the academic achievement of these learners. Peer-to-peer.  Peer relationships among refugee ELLs with similar linguistic and cultural backgrounds can promote academic content and English language learning. Shared languages and cultures can allow students to more easily negotiate meaning of new learning and share content and skill knowledge neces-sary for in-school assignments (Smyth, 2006; Nykiel-Herbert, 2010). When teachers encourage, rather than separate, students who speak the same language, they promote student learning as well as show respect and value for students’ full linguistic repertoires. Teacher-to-student.  Refugee ELLs often report a greater sense of belonging in school when they feel they’ve developed genuine relationships with their teachers (Oikonomidoy, 2010). Teachers can build relationships with their refugee students by showing genuine interest in students’ lives, past and pres-ent, and by creating classrooms that celebrate their strengths rather than focus on their perceived lan-guage and content deficits (Amthor & Roxas, 2016). Teacher-to-teacher. The responsibility for educating refugee ELLs should be shared among general education teachers and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers alike. Team teaching among content teachers and ESL or literacy specialists can promote English language learning in and through academic content, which in turn helps refugee ELLs simultaneously build grade-level content knowledge and language skills (Mendenhall et al., 2017). Col-laborative, professional relationships among teachers with various content and practice expertise are thus central to promoting school success for these students. Teacher-to-parents.  While the parents of refu-gee ELLs are often heavily invested in their children’s academic achievement, they are also often unfamiliar with the type of parent–teacher relationships that are expected and valued in U.S. schools (Walker-Dalhouse & Dalhouse, 2009). To encourage refugee parents’ engagement in their child’s schooling, teachers should initiate and cultivate trusting relationships with parents based on mutual respect and partnership. When they  feel honored and valued by their child’s teachers, refu-gee parents—like all parents—have the potential to be teachers’ greatest allies in promoting student learning. Teacher-to-administrator.  Teachers’ best efforts to support refugee ELLs can be strengthened or undermined by the support (or lack thereof)
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