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6 Ways to Support English Learners from Refugee Backgrounds

June 22, 2022

I've been teaching people seeking refuge and asylum in the UK since 2007. I feel absolutely privileged to have them as students. 

They are some of the kindest, friendliest, most generous humans I have ever met.

I've learned so much about international culture and affairs. I've also been particularly lucky in sampling all sorts of delicious traditional treats, and I've been introduced to some amazing books, films, and music. 

Even the loveliest of students come with challenges.

Many of them have experienced forced displacement and severe trauma. Some of them have lost families and loved ones or been permanently separated from them. 

When people ask me where my students are from, it often depends on the political climate.

When I first started teaching ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages), my classes were predominantly Eastern European, Congolese, Somalian, and Afghan.

Over the years, this demographic has changed.

Now I teach a lot of students from El Salvador, Kurdistan, Eritrea, Syria, and, I’m sure very soon, Ukraine. 

In this post, I’d like to share with you six ways in which you can support English learners from refugee backgrounds. 

1. Keep it relatable

When selecting topics to study, choose something relatable which will benefit the learners in their daily lives. 

For example, students who can’t leave the country because they don’t have the travel documents or the funds may not be motivated to talk about dream holidays in exotic locations. Instead, you could bring in leaflets for free things to do in the local area. 

One Ellii lesson that my students really enjoyed was Hiro’s Apartment. It was a great way to introduce vocabulary related to housing similar to their own. 

2. Offer options

Just as it’s important to keep topics practical for learners, it’s also important to ensure they're not triggering. Some seemingly harmless topics could upset learners. So it's always good to provide options.

For example, a learner who's lost family members may not wish to talk about their family in detail. In this case, you can ask them to choose to talk about someone special to them. This person could be a friend or an acquaintance. 

Providing options and adaptations ensures learners always feel included and that they can practice the language points. 

3. Explore intercultural diversity

ESOL and ESL classes are often very multicultural.

I've learned so much about festivals, food, clothes, and traditions around the world. These topics can really enthuse learners from refugee backgrounds and create rich discussions. 

They're also a great way to encourage cross-cultural understanding and acceptance. 

Have a look at a diversity calendar or ask your learners when special events are coming up for them. Then teach a lesson on these special events. Ask them to share their own ways to celebrate. It’s likely that each individual or family has their own unique way of marking a special occasion.

This is a great way for English learners to explore the diverse ways people live around the world. It’s also beneficial for considering differences in individual and collective cultures. 

Have a look at Ellii's Holidays & Events section for 100+ English lessons about holidays, events, and cultural and religious observances around the world.

4. Be trauma-informed

As I previously mentioned, some learners may have mental health problems such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You may need to be flexible in your approach.

Some students may have priorities greater than their language classes. For example, they may be trying to relocate loved ones, find a job, or navigate homelessness. 

English language classes can be a great distraction from the pressures of life. Try to keep lessons as fun and engaging as possible.

Also keep in mind that for some learners, holidays may not be the welcome break we’d expect. English language classes can be a mental health lifeline. A way to keep busy.

If possible, try to find alternative ways for learners to pass the time during holiday periods. For example, look for things to do in the local community. 

You can read more on supporting your learners' mental health needs in my previous blog post: 5 Ways to Promote Mental Health in the English Language Classroom.

5. Advocate

Throughout my years as a language teacher, I've signed countless petitions, written numerous letters to politicians, and stood in the rain at many protests. 

Advocating for refugee rights in this way helps me feel like I’m making the world a better place. It also lets students see that I'm there for them. 

In class, it's important to support students to find their own voice.

Always be ready to listen to their needs and support them to advocate for themselves where possible. This can mean teaching them to write emails to their local councillors or simply pointing them toward organizations that can help. 

6. Fundraise

A smiling Emily Bryson posing with her bike in front of a giant ceramic mosaic sculpture of a fish in Belfast, Ireland.

Photo of Emily Bryson posing with her bike in front of the Big Fish sculpture in Belfast, Ireland.

I recently cycled to the 2022 International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) conference to raise money for a refugee education charity. 

I cycled 150 miles (241.4 kilometers) in two days from Glasgow, Scotland, to Belfast, Ireland (I cheated a bit and took the ferry from Cairnryan). The hardest part was packing a limited conference wardrobe—and trying to dry my wet socks with an automatic hand dryer! 

I raised £2,500 pounds (approximately US$3,060) for Amala. I was stunned by everyone’s generosity!

Amala delivers educational programmes to refugee communities all over the world. They currently facilitate courses in refugee camps in Jordan, Kenya, and Greece. 

Curious to learn more about my cycle and fundraising? Follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter

Share your thoughts

What do you do to support learners from refugee backgrounds? Have you been involved in or are you planning any fundraising? We’d love to know! Share in the comments below. 

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Comments (10)

Jessica M.(Teacher)

Wonderful and insightful post, thank you so much!

Reply to Comment

Emily B.(Teacher)

Glad you found it useful.

Joanne H.(Teacher)

You raise some good points, thanks. Also, we have to be flexible when some days they arrive at school feeling very ready to learn, while other days they might seem distracted, confused, unwell or have poor memory-recall. Building a supportive classroom environment, including supportive relationships with other classmates, is important.

Reply to Comment

Emily B.(Teacher)

You're so right. Language learning may not be their top priority. Learners from refugee backgrounds have so much to think about and organise. It's important to be aware and allow flexibility.

Tina W.(Teacher)

A great post, Emily...and I second Joanne's comments.

Reply to Comment

Donna L.(Teacher)

Great post, thank you- I also loved that you provided a picture and shared Emily's story.

Reply to Comment

Sara L.(Teacher)

Thank you for the insightful post!

Reply to Comment

Nathalia C.(Teacher)

Thank you for this tips, my native language is not English but I volunteered to teach English in a library close to my house and my first student is from Ukraine.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

We're happy to hear you found these tips helpful, Nathalia. I'll pass your comments on to Emily. Best of luck with your Ukrainian student!

Taylor Abrams(Guest)

It is depressing to learn that many of the migrants have endured tremendous trauma and forced relocation. This is the exact reason why my family talked about skipping going on an expensive vacation this summer and just donating our money to a more meaningful cause. Refugees are close to our hearts so we will definitely look for ways to donate help for refugees' humanitarian service.

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