Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Approaches to Teaching Low Literacy Refugee-Background Students

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Approaches to Teaching Low Literacy Refugee-Background Students

Article excerpt

Australian schools have received growing number of students with disrupted schooling arriving from places of conflict and persecution, including Afghanistan, Burma/Myanmar, Iraq and Sudan. Australia granted 13,770 humanitarian visas in 2009-10, and in the past decade has hosted or resettled 130,338 refugees (Refugee Council of Australia, 2011). More than half of the world's 42 million refugees have been living in exile in a developing country for five years or longer, which at best involves life in a camp but more often even more difficult situations in urban and rural areas (Refugee Council of Australia, 2011; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2010). Asylum seekers usually have no access to education or other forms of social support. For example, stateless people in Thailand, including Karen refugees, are 75% less likely than Thai citizens to attend primary school (van Waas, 2010). This kind of exclusion has a dramatic impact on young children and adolescents, who make up a majority of the world's refugees (Newman, 2005).

Education authorities in Victoria, the state which settles 27% of humanitarian arrivals (Refugee Council of Australia, 2011), recorded 1600 refugee students in government schools for the year 2007, observing:

Over the past 10 years, the national origin of refugee and humanitarian entrants has changed substantially, resulting in many of the students who are now enrolled having had severely interrupted schooling or little or no experience of school. The lack of literacy in a first or a second language, little or no knowledge or understanding of how school works, and the trauma associated with the refugee experience, means that refugee students are likely to face substantial obstacles to settling, including learning in our schools (DEECD, 2008b, 4).

Subsequent reports observe that 'the number of newly arrived ESL students entering primary and secondary schools on refugee and humanitarian visas with no, little, or severely disrupted schooling continued to increase' (DEECD, 2008a, 5; 2010, 22). While no exact figures have been published, the Victorian Department of Education estimates that 'the overwhelming majority of young people from refugee backgrounds enrolling in Victorian schools will have experienced some disruption to their education prior to arriving in Australia' (DEECD, 2008b, 8).

Typically, this group is not reported on separately by educational bureaucracies and falls under the wider category of ESL and equity (Sidhu & Taylor, 2007). Here we adopt as a working research definition the term 'low literacy refugee-background' (LLRB) students, understanding literacy as the ability to 'take part fluently, effectively and critically, in the various text- and discourse-based events that characterise contemporary semiotic societies and economies' (Freebody & Luke, 2003, 53). We focus on literacy because low or no literacy in students' first languages and in English presents as a distinctive obstacle to accessing all other parts of the curriculum--the textual life-world of the school--including mathematics and science.

The enrolment of low literacy refugee-background (LLRB) students has precipitated an as yet little understood quantitative and qualitative shift in classrooms, particularly in the low socioeconomic fringes of major cities. Like other new ESL arrivals, LLRB students receive up to 12 months of intensive English language instruction in separate schools, following which they enter mainstream schools. Many students entering mainstream classes from language schools in the secondary years have reading and writing levels similar to those of lower primary school students, and previous studies have deemed current time in language centres insufficient (Olliff & Couch, 2005).

In this context, we sought to investigate the approaches used by teachers working with LLRB students in Victorian Secondary Schools. We wanted to know in particular the extent to which teachers of LLRB students were using strategies recommended by popular approaches to building language and literacy. …

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