By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—For a refugee, learning the language of the host community is essential to becoming integrated and leading a full and productive life.
If the refugee is coming to the United States, and is already educated in her own tongue, she still needs to learn to speak and read English. It can be very difficult, but not impossible.
Yet some refugees arrive with only partial or no formal education. To serve the needs of these people, special approaches are needed.
“This is an area in which many teachers and community agencies do not have training,” said Lisa Hoffman, assistant professor of graduate studies in the School of Education at IU Southeast. “But it is a need because adults who don’t read in any language have particular needs and obstacles that go above and beyond the task of learning English.”
Hoffman explored both the needs and methods for addressing them in a workshop at the World Refugee Day Summit in Lexington, Ky. last week.
World Refugee Day—June 20 this year—was created by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2000 to attention to the millions of refugees and displaced persons forced to flee their homes, and is observed around the nation and, indeed, the world.
The Summit, now in its third year, was sponsored by the Lexington-Fayette County Human Rights Commission, CareSource and the Lexington Public Library, where the event was held.
The conference included sessions on mental health and the effects of trauma, government and community services, healthcare, housing and education, and screenings of two documentary films dealing with refugee resettlement and children.
Hoffman, an ESL expert and also a member of the board of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, was invited to lead a workshop on ESL instruction and tutor training, involving teachers from Lexington and Louisville, professors from universities in the region, local government officials, librarians who coordinate programs for adult English learners as well as community volunteers and one-on-one tutors.
The challenge for workers in these areas is that many ESL approaches assume that adults have basic reading and writing skills, and may not apply to individuals whose language learning has been obstructed.
“Some refugees were not able to attend school in their native countries, and never learned to read their own language, and some languages don’t even have written forms,” Hoffman said.
She drew particular attention to Nepal, Burma and Somalia as examples of origin countries with some ethnic groups whose emigrants need instruction in basic literacy as well as English.
In addition, many are older adults, requiring even more specialized tools and sensitivities.
“Children learning to read their first language already understand the words they will be reading,” Hoffman said. “Preliterate adults learning English don’t know the vocabulary.”
Hoffman’s presentation focused on meeting preliterate adult learners “where they live,” suggesting that teachers combine different types of activities—from conversational practice and role playing to games and field trips to build vocabulary—to keep lessons fresh and immediately relevant to their daily lives. In addition, older learners may require larger or darker print in their materials, and overall may respond better to less stimulation.
“For preliterate adults new to the U.S., the barrage of print in the visual space around us adds another layer of complexity to a new life that can already seem overwhelming,” Hoffman said.
Kentucky’s refugee population is growing in numbers and complexity. Contributions such as Hoffman’s will help community members and service providers develop the skills necessary to address its needs intelligently and effectively.