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English and literacy teaching and learning strategies for newly arrived humanitarian refugee students from Sudan, By Dawn Muir
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The purpose of this study was to explore the most appropriate English and literacy teaching and learning strategies for newly arrived non-English speaking background (NESB) humanitarian refugee students from Sudan who are illiterate in their first language and who as a consequence have experienced learning exclusively through the use of aural and oral means.
The research methodology used to gain an understanding of these questions was based on the hermeneutic-interpretive (qualitative) approach. This researcher used open-ended questionnaires for tutors and students from three educational institutions to explore and document teaching and learning strategies best suited to the target group. The research was also contextualised in terms of the specific areas of the students' cultural, historic, linguistic, educational and political background. The results of the collected data focus on recommendations for structuring effective learning strategies for aural/oral learners.
The focus of this research was to explore the most appropriate teaching and learning ESL/Literacy strategies for newly arrived Sudanese humanitarian refugee students who are illiterate in their first language. It was envisaged that by comparing the experiences of other educational institutions, the relevant data would be helpful in assisting tutors to effectively cater for the specific needs of the target group (and similar groups) thereby helping students to overcome their basic learning obstacles expeditiously. Accordingly, students would most likely find it easier to develop skills to proceed along the pathway of further learning and consequently better access to work opportunities and integration within the community as a whole. This project was based on the assumption that traditional methods of tuition and the dependence on print-based material used in ESL/literacy classes are unsuitable for aiding effective learning of the target group (Sangster, 2001).
CCAE in Coffs Harbour has 15 Sudanese students ranging from teenagers over the age of sixteen to middle aged adults, all of whom attend literacy classes 3 times a week. Various tutors (including this researcher) are assigned specific days to teach students. Teenagers also attend the local public Orara High School for a part of each week. At Orara High, support teachers for learning difficulties assist students in an English language learning program. Further afield in Melbourne, the Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning (SAIL) organisation runs a program, which offers tutoring to approximately 170 members of the Sudanese community. SAIL is a volunteer run, non-profit, secular organisation and has a staff of 130 people including 100 tutors.
All students included in the research have a limited knowledge of English, no first language literacy skills, a passive or no knowledge of the Roman alphabet, and difficulty with letter formation. Many of the students have not had opportunities to develop traditional learning skills due to years spent in refugee camps, trying to survive in desperate conditions. Furthermore, their cultural and educational backgrounds are vastly different from mainstream Australia consequently the traditional methods of tuition do not appear to be suitable for their learning styles.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of the characteristics, experiences, and the situation, in which the target group find themselves, the researcher used internet searches to locate general information on humanitarian refugees in Australia, as well as information about the situation in Sudan. Additionally, information regarding statistics on literacy difficulties amongst NESB migrants and refugees, as well as general approaches for teaching ESL students, and specific approaches for teaching special needs ESL students, illiterate in L1, were sourced from internet searches and Southern Cross University library catalogue searches. This information was helpful in discerning the implications for teachers in adapting classroom practices when dealing with illiterate L1 students.
A general background to Australia's refugees
Since 1945, 5.5 million settlers from 160 different countries have established new lives in Australia (York, 1995 cited in Allender, 1998). Over half a million of these settlers include refugees, early arrivals of which came principally from Europe (Refugee Council of Australia, 2001). However, since the 1970s, humanitarian entrants have come from all over the world including countries in the Horn of Africa - Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea (Sangster, 1996).
The Refugee Council of Australia (2001) asserts that the difference between migrants and refugees is that 'migrants make a conscious choice to come to Australia. They are able to read about the country and learn about it from friends and families. They have time to study the language and explore employment opportunities before they make a final decision about whether to come'. Conversely, 'refugees rarely have the chance to make plans for their departure: to pack their belongings, to say farewell to their friends and families ... Some refugees have to flee with no notice, taking with them only the clothes on their backs' (The Refugee Council of Australia, 2001).
Refugees usually spend many months, sometimes years, and even generations, in refugee camps. The quality of camps and the freedoms and liberties afforded by the host countries vary greatly throughout the world. The SAIL organisation (2003) reports that the refugee camps in Africa in which the Sudanese have sought shelter are in various countries, including Kenya, Egypt, the Congo and Ethiopia. Many of these camps are overcrowded with constant food and water shortages. As a result people suffer from malnourishment and related diseases. In addition to these unpleasant living conditions, SAIL (2003) describes the camps as being 'notoriously violent with unrest and tension between the refugees, who are all living in close proximity in trying circumstances'. Furthermore, the camps are 'subject to attacks from armies, rebel forces and roving bands of armed bandits, who loot them for food, vehicles and relief supplies, destroy buildings, kill people and subject women and children to sexual assault'. Men and boys are often forcibly recruited into guerrilla armies (Sail, 2003).
Many refugees who arrive in Australia from these camps have very little understanding of the country and the nature of society here. Furthermore, once in Australia they may suffer much personal anguish about loved ones that were left behind. It is therefore extremely important that all involved in the tutoring of refugees are aware of, or are reminded of these factors as students' needs and characteristics can often be assumed to be the same as those of migrant students.
The cultural, historic, linguistic, educational and political background of the target group
(Refer Appendix C for a detailed demography and history of Sudan)
Republic of the Sudan
Khartoum, with a population of 7 million
33 million with more than 500 ethnic groups
Sudan lies in the north-eastern part of Africa..
25% traditional African
Official language is Arabic. English is widely spoken and understood. Many other African languages are also spoken.
Women - 34.6% and Male 57.7%
4 million, mostly southerners
490,000 - mostly southerners
Brief historic background
Salopek (2003) describes Sudan as 'a nation divided - Arab north, African south and contested middle'. Sudan became independent from both Egypt and the UK in 1956 after a rule of approximately 59 years. Since then Sudan has been plagued by civil war between the north and the south as a result of tensions about religion, ethnicity and natural resources. This is the longest uninterrupted civil war on earth at present. By the late 1960s, the war had resulted in the deaths of more than 500 000 people. Several thousands more hid in the forest or escaped to refugee camps in neighbouring countries. By 1969, rebel forces in the south developed contracts with foreign countries such as Israel to obtain weapons and supplies while the Soviet Union supplied the government. In addition to the war between north and south, Sudan has also suffered from brutal inter-tribal warfare between the two largest southern tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, which has destroyed any sense of unity or safety for the southern Sudanese. To date, the army and militia are fighting an alliance of southerners, Arab northerners who oppose the ruling elite, and non-Arab northerners seeking self-determination. In January 1991 the legal system was altered to include an English common law and an Islamic Law base. Since this time the government has been democratically elected in between three successive coups. A multi-party system was reintroduced in 1999 but the violence and oppression have continued (Excerpts from SAIL, 2003).
The Sudan Born Community within Australia today
(Refer Appendix D for a detailed statistics on Sudan born Australians)
The latest Census in 1996 recorded 2,407 Sudan-born persons in Australia, an increase of 97 per cent from the 1991 Census. The 1996 distribution figures showed New South Wales had the largest number with (1,663) followed by Victoria (354), Western Australia (149) and Queensland (130). Since 1996, the number of Sudanese settlers in Victoria has increased to 1079. The rapid growth of the community is also being felt in other centres in Australia causing the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to classify the Sudanese community as one of Australia's communities that is 'new and emerging' (SAIL, 2003)
The Australian language and literacy policy
The Australian Language and literacy policy of 1991 has situated language education within the core of labour market strategy and the National Training Reform Agenda (NTRA) (Allender, no date). Under the NTRA, government and industry have initiated a program of reforms that ensure the relevance of vocational education and training to the needs of industry and it is under this policy that the provision of English language teaching for new settlers is governed (Allender, no date).
The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMIA) provides funding for 510 hours of ESL tuition for newly arrived adult migrants with English language proficiency below functional level, as assessed against the Australian Second Language Proficiency Rating (ASLPR) scale. Courses are organised through the Adult Migrant Education Services (AMES) using facilitators such as Adult Community Education (ACE) and Tertiary and Further Education colleges (TAFE). Students are required to register with the program within 3 months of arrival, start their tuition within 1 year and complete within 3 years. AMES utilises the nationally accredited competency-based curriculum framework, covering the first 3 levels of the Certificates in Spoken and Written English (CSWE) (NSW AMES 1995). However, current immigration policy distinguishes the Refugee and Humanitarian Program from the rest of the Migration Program. The policy provides for flexible time considerations within which refugees can use up their entitlement of 510 hours of free tuition, in recognition of the special psychological and other barriers they might face during their initial year of settlement. Allender (1998) reports that refugees are given 'greater flexibility in attendance to allow them to withdraw when they feel the need for a break without losing their entitlement'. On top of the entitlement to 510 tuition hours, refugees can now receive 100 additional tuition hours. This extension is provided in recognition of the special needs of the increasing numbers of survivors of torture and trauma and refugees with little or no formal schooling (Allender, 1998). Thereafter, students may be eligible for other courses funded by other departments, for example the Department of Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA).
Statistics on literacy difficulties amongst NESB migrants and refugees
The first National Survey of Adult Literacy in English (Wickert, 1989) found that inadequate literacy ability is a widespread problem for both non English speaking background (NESB) and English speaking background (ESB) adults in Australia. Subsequently, the 1987 National Policy on Languages and the 1991 Australian Language and Literacy Policy were developed to provide a framework for adult literacy programs (ACAL, No date).
However, a study commissioned by government in 1995 to report on the adequacy of adult English language and literacy provision showed that clients with special needs were unlikely to achieve the target exit level of proficiency (NCELTR, 1996). Program outcomes, (cited in Allender, 1998), and reported by a 1994 AMEP review indicated the following: 78% of clients achieved exit level requirements and 37% exited at the optimum Level 3, of the Certificate in Spoken and Written English (CSWE). However, only 8% of clients with limited formal education or a low level of literacy in their first language attained the target Level 3. Forty-three percent did not even meet the exit level requirements at the lower CSWE 1 and 2 (Allender, 1998).
Furthermore, in 1997 an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey (ABS 1997) revealed that almost half the adult population can be expected to have difficulty with information processing demands of everyday life. In addition, it was reported that people who are currently unemployed have much greater difficulty than those who are in the workforce, and that literacy difficulties appear to increase with age (except for the 15 - 19 year old age group), particularly for non-English speaking migrants.
General approaches for teaching ESL students
Students in ESL classes represent a widely diverse spectrum of learners in terms of culture, education experiences, age, learning styles and English language proficiency levels. Brown (1999) reports that changes in the immigration and education policy has meant that in many instances students are no longer grouped according to ability levels and goals alone. Instead, learning takes place in inclusive classroom settings, where social, cultural and learning barriers are broken down or minimised. Teachers endeavour to deliver suitable challenges to cater for individual learning needs and diverseness.
Cunningham-Florez (2001) use Knowles's (1973 cited in Cunningham-Florez, 2001) principles of andragogy when describing the characteristics of adult learners in that they are self directed, questioning, require learning to have immediacy of applicability and have reservoirs of life experiences to help them with learning. However, Cunningham-Florez draws attention to the fact that non-native English learners often come from an education background where the teacher is regarded as an 'unquestioned expert'. Therefore, teachers need to explain to students 'why they are learning what they are learning in a new way' (p. 1).
Since the 1980's changes have occurred in the way ESL teachers approach adult ESL literacy, in that initial basic alphabet and phonic training has been overtaken by the use of 'real life use' of literature as a starting point for reading (Wrigley and Guth, 1992). Furthermore, there has been a shift towards developing a critical literacy awareness (power, politics, gender and social concerns) in order to make meaning of texts instead of simply decoding texts. Additionally, Wrigley and Guth (1992, p. 2) state that there has been a shift to active learning where students use life experiences and personal perspectives to actively engage in learning. Another aspect of these changes is the development of an awareness of adults' metacognitive skills as a means of encouraging students to reflect on the ways that they use language (The ability to think about how they think).
Given the above, cognisance needs to be taken of the fact that these strategies may not be appropriate initially for the target group as their experiences may be very dissimilar to other ESL students when it comes to 'real life use' of literature. In addition, because they lack L1 literacy skills, students do need to be taught alphabet shapes, phonic sounds, and numeracy figures and words as a basis for further learning.
Specific approaches for teaching special needs ESL students, illiterate in L1
A substantial number of the target group in this project are survivors of torture and other forms of traumatic experience. Allender (1998) reports that the long-term effects of these experiences have a major impact on the learning of English. Factors relating to trauma experience include psychological symptoms such as memory impairment, short attention span, and severe anxiety as well as constant feeling of being unwell. A difficult settlement period due to financial problems, unemployment and children's difficulty with adjusting to schooling adds to these problems. Allender (1998) argues that small classes of around 10 students in a quiet and pleasant environment, close to learners and their community are beneficial to special needs students especially if classes integrate settlement, parenting and health information with language and literacy skills. Other considerations include taking account of specific characteristics and needs with regard to age, illiteracy in L1, minimal schooling and trauma. Elderly refugees need to be in the right physical and learning environment to compensate for physiological and socio-cultural variables such as perceptual acuity, psychomotor co-ordination, and language-memory that are likely to affect their performance and progress (Er, 1986; Green & Piperis 1987 cited in Allender, 1998). Illiterate L1 students require learning sequences which begin with concrete experience and slowly build up to more complex and abstract concepts with continual recycling of language and literacy skills (Allender, 1998). Ramm (1994 cited in Allender, 1998) recommends using real objects to set an immediate and meaningful context, gradually replacing them with photos or realistic pictures. Furthermore, teachers need to work with specialised agencies like the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, to learn how to provide supportive learning conditions for their students. Allender (1998) asserts that teachers need to be trained to recognise distress symptoms and to be able to access professional assistance where needed. Additionally, they need to be aware of the suitability of topics, resources and activities for use with these students. Finally, Allender (1998) states that teachers should have appropriate classroom strategies in place to deal with aggression, distress and inattention.
A research by Nichols and Sangster (1996) on literacy difficulties experienced by female students from Ethiopia and Eritrea, recommended several points when planning classes for special needs students as follows: 1.) Many students need pre-literacy skills such as pencil holding, shape and letter recognition and left to right script orientation; 2.) It is beneficial to have an interpreter to initially explain certain basic concepts about classroom orientation; 3.) It is very unsettling if students are changed from one class to another in the initial stages. Therefore, correct placement into initial classes is very important; 4.) Students need constant teacher guidance and intensive individual or small group coaching to allow them to optimise learning. Subsequent research by Sangster (2001) on recently arrived humanitarian refugees from the 'Horn of Africa' (Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan) found that students were very individual in terms of their life experiences and exposure to different forms of education. The research argued that stated nationality 'did not represent an understanding of shared cultural backgrounds' and teachers needed to be aware of students' individual backgrounds (Sangster, 2001, p. 1). Furthermore, many students became confused during learning due to mismatched learning patterns between how they had been previously taught and teaching strategies in their present environment and as a result struggled to develop literacy skills. Some recommendations from this research included 1.) Establishing daily routines; 2.) Making more use of the whiteboard and less use of worksheets; 3.) A more teacher-centred approach initially; 4.) Not assuming shared classroom expectations.
A qualitative interpretive approach utilising open-ended questionnaires (Appendix A and B) was used to explore and document teaching and learning strategies best suited to the target group. The decision to use a qualitative approach was deemed appropriate because it was concerned with 'interpretation, meaning and illumination' of the subject (Usher et. al., 1997). Bagnall (1999) argues that this approach tends to be 'richly interpretive' of the diversity of the context. It was therefore pertinent to the topic, as all respondents had different experiences and opinions. Two sets of questionnaires were designed - one for teachers and one for students. The teacher questionnaires were self-administered while the student questionnaires were completed through face-to-face interviews between the researcher or tutors, and students. The research was supplemented with data on the specific areas of the students' cultural, historic, linguistic, educational and political background using internet searches.
· The researcher made telephone contact with the administrators of SAIL, CCAE, and Orara High School, to explain the research proposal and ask for assistance in data collection.
· A letter of introduction from the researcher and a written brief was posted or emailed to administrators giving relevant contact details, explaining the purpose of the project and appropriate ethical considerations.
· Two sets of questionnaires were designed using a qualitative interpretive approach with open-ended questions (Appendix A and B). A teacher questionnaire focused on teachers' knowledge of students' backgrounds; students' learning characteristics; teaching styles; successful and unsuccessful teaching activities and approaches. A student questionnaire focussed on students' educational backgrounds; attitude to classes; preferred learning activities and approaches; recommendations to tutors for helping new students.
· Questionnaires were trialed by the researcher on 1 tutor and 1 student from CCAE. Any ambiguous or unclear questions were modified for the main research project. The trialed data was not used in the final report.
· Once institutions gave their approval and finalised the selection of participants (tutors and students), appointment times were made for meeting the tutors to discuss the project and to arrange interview times with students in Coffs Harbour. Arrangements with SAIL administrators in Melbourne were conducted via email. Subsequently, paper copies of questionnaires and consent forms, and an audio-tape were posted to SAIL together with a pre-paid self-addressed return envelope.
· The number of tutors who participated in the research included 3 tutors from CCAE, 5 tutors from SAIL and 2 tutors from Orara High School.
· The number of Sudanese students who participated in the research included 2 adult students from CCAE and 4 teenage students from Orara High School.
· Participants were informed both verbally and in writing that they had the right to not participate or to withdraw from the research without prejudice. Confidentiality of participants was guaranteed both verbally and in writing and no names appeared on the questionnaires. A consent-to-involvement form was signed by all participants.
· The questionnaires were returned to the researcher either by pre-paid post, return email or personal collection.
· Collected data was collocated by the researcher under question headings. The data was then read a number of times in order to analyse content and ideas, which were then coded into categories using axial coding and finally selective coding techniques influenced by Strauss and Corbin (1998). Inferences were then drawn from the analysed data. A report on the findings was prepared, and copies were made available to administrators of the institutions involved in the project.
Findings from Student Questionnaires
Students' educational backgrounds
· Two adult students who had been in Australia for approximately 8 months were selected to participate in the study because they were able to reflect on their learning experience and progress since their arrival in the country. In Sudan, these students had received approximately 10 years of education in Arabic and had a little to no knowledge of English and the Roman alphabet. English when it was taught involved a 45-minute session once a week.
· Of the four teenage students who participated, two had been in Australia for approximately 8 months and the other two had been here for 3 months. In Sudan, one student had attended formal schooling for a year, one student had 6 years of schooling and the other two students had received 2 and 3 years of schooling. None of the teenagers had previously been taught English and only one had a slight knowledge of the Roman alphabet.
· Adult students noted that learning in Sudan was based on mainly written work.
· Teenage students noted that the teachers in Sudan were very strict and punishment was fairly severe.
Attitude to classes and preferred learning activities
· All the students interviewed said that they had understood very little about their first English classes in Australia.
· All students listed initial difficulties as listening, speaking, reading and finding their way around.
· Adult students listed initial easy tasks as writing whereas teenagers listed learning greetings. Teenagers also found that it was easy to learn numbers and sounds using computer aided programs.
· With teaching styles, adult students showed a preference for teacher directed delivery. They preferred listening to the teacher rather than to work in groups. Home tutoring was seen to be very beneficial. Adult dislikes included matching pictures to words and listening to other students read. However, they felt that it was important to learn everything no matter what the delivery strategy entailed.
· The teenagers generally enjoyed their lessons especially when teachers used humour. They did not mind group work although tended to talk in L1. All enjoyed computer work and copying from the board as well as using work sheets and reading simple stories from 'Fitzroy Readers'.
· All students wanted to improve reading and writing. They also stressed being able to speak clearly and fluently with correct pronunciation.
Students' recommendations to tutors for helping new students
· Adult students suggested lots of initial teacher instruction and minimal student input. They also suggested that teachers talk slowly, use lots of pictures and teach the alphabet and phonic sounds (important to show picture and sound 'a-apple'). They felt that basic greeting and the ability to fill in forms was an important initial skill to be learned.
· Teenagers suggested that teachers read to students and listen to students read. Modelling of sentences and correct pronunciation were also seen to be important.
Findings from Tutor Questionnaires
Knowledge of students' backgrounds and literacy abilities
· The number of students in the target group with whom tutors worked varied from one-on-one to groups of three and classes of five or ten depending on the institution. The skills level of their students ranged from ASPLR Listening 0; Speaking 0; Reading 0 and Writing 0 to Listening 1; Speaking 1; Reading 0+ and Writing 0+. Some classes included one or two students of other nationalities.
· Two tutors had a sound theoretical knowledge of their students' background as a result of an ongoing period of time spent in assisting the community. One tutor was a Sudanese and had first hand experience of the situation and experiences of students. Other tutors had a limited knowledge, which they had gained either by internet searches, reading, students' personal stories or watching a video on Sudan.
Students' learning characteristics
· Tutors felt that the students' educational background and attitude to learning was not dissimilar to students from a non Roman alphabet background. However, it was noted that the target group all displayed a very positive attitude to learning, but that many appeared to be traumatised and affected by ill health.
· Initial literacy problems were not dissimilar to other non-literate students in that they needed training in holding a pencil and posture with writing. Students initially had trouble with page/letter/picture orientation as they were unable to discern when these were up-side-down. Students with an Arabic background used right to left when opening books. It was also noted that there was difficulty in recognising sound/word and picture and writing. Students had difficulty with understanding spaces between words and tended to copy text as one long word. Some tutors found difficulty with giving instructions as well as achieving accurate initial assessment of students skills.
· Other factors that impacted on students learning included experiencing their first winter in Australia hence colds and flu (especially in women and children). Relationship tensions, settlement problems and adjusting to the culture also played a role. Because the community is so new, within the first year there are a lot of house moves. They firstly move into a settlement house and then move into government housing or temporary accommodation, and finally move into more permanent accommodation in a relatively short space of time. Consequently, students are only able to relax once they feel settled, and English, which had been secondary, now becomes the focus. Tutors noted that special care needed to be taken with high school students to assist them in getting around the school, understanding role classes, timetables and which buses to catch. Tutors reported that high school students can feel very lonely and isolated because of the language barrier and generally tended to keep to themselves.
· Learning styles amongst different age groups included students who had experienced some formal education and expected to be taught in a certain way. Those who had no formal education did not really know what to expect. Physiological factors such as age-related eyesight, memory and hearing problems meant that tutors needed to be aware of background noise and resultant mispronunciation as well as student seating and distance from the board. Tutors felt that younger students were generally more active learners – more willing to participate and have a go. Older students tended to be more cautious/passive. However, because most students had been starved of education their commitment to learning was high.
Successful Teaching styles and strategies
· Initial strategies to address literacy problems included ongoing guided letter formation and writing practise; copying daily from the board - sentences, dates, numbers; lots of patient repetition of the same material in different forms. Assessments of skills (particularly for tutors with one-on-one students) included a lot of trialing of materials and strategies with students.
· Strategies to overcome age related differences in learning styles included allowing students to work ahead if they were coping well, concentrating on listening and pronunciation and daily repetition and routine. Tutors awareness of student seating and the physical aspects of the learning environment. Allowing students with a better understanding of written language to translate and help others to grasp the concept.
· Daily reinforcement of simple things such as day, date (extended and abbreviated for understanding). Writing a daily sentence or paragraph on the board, which related to students' experiences and guiding them through the reading of it, pointing out capitals, spaces, full stops, left to right and pauses. Big books were also good for guided reading.
· Caring about students' accents. Students appreciated tutors directing them so as to prevent the establishment of bad habits.
Unsuccessful Teaching styles and strategies
· Strategies that did not work included too much teacher talk, not sticking to a routine and introducing too many new things too quickly. It was noted that students need fairly long periods of exposure to familiar material and context.
· Group activities did not work very well as personality combinations sometimes caused friction and students generally expected to be taught by the tutor.
· Too much reliance on print based material and cloze exercises.
· Activities that go on for more than 45 minutes were not beneficial for students.
***complete version avaiable online soon or by request to the editors***