Imagine you land in a country which does not have English as a first language. You have few resources, don’t speak the host language, yet this country will be your home. A local organisation reaches out to help you assimilate and teach you the essential native language.
What would you like English language classes to focus on?
I imagine your priority would be to learn highly useful language to enable you to function effectively.
In the same way, it’s very likely that English students in the UK who are refugees or asylum seekers will need to learn lots of relevant English as a priority, so they can quickly get by in their new environment. They may well need English to organise accommodation, banking, applying for universal credit or a new passport or visa. They will likely need English for the everyday things of life, like going to the doctor, shopping, using public transport, making friends, talking to a landlord, etc. Or they may need it communicate with their children’s school, by letter, email or face-to-face at a parents evening.
As a result, your teaching may focus on role-plays and dialogues based on real-life communication. You will likely introduce plenty of relevant vocabulary, such as parts of the body for the doctor scenario, and useful phrases, such as ‘I’d like a xxxx’ or ‘can I have a xxxxx?’, as well as practising form filling, reading local bus timetables and asking for directions in the street.
What else do we need to consider when deciding what English to teach?
While the need for highly relevant, essential English is generally true of refugees and asylum seekers, it might not be universally so and as a result, we should always ask why our students wish to learn, rather than assume. As ESOL* teachers, we need to take into account their existing level as well. Factors that can impede learning, such as low levels of literacy in the first language (it’s quite possible that some of our learners have never been to school, or schooling stopped at an early age) mean that teaching them to read and write in English will be harder and will need more consideration.
In addition, our classes may be a mixture of ages and professions, consisting of both academics and labourers, and it could be that you will be teaching people with a good level of English alongside those with no English at all. Some students who have a reasonable English level and potentially good prospects may want to learn English simply to widen their social circle, communicate with others outside their native tongue and contribute to society. Others may want to focus on getting proof of their level and so study for an English language exam, such as IELTS Life Skills.
So, it is wise to be aware of typical needs when it comes to designing English classes for asylum seekers and refugees, but it is still crucial that we take time to understand our students’ reasons for learning, as well as the individual factors that can help or hinder their progress.
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* ESOL = English to Speakers of Other Languages