Developing language and literacy skills to support refugee students in the transition from primary to secondary school.
Refugees from Sudan have come to Australia either from Egypt or from refugee camps in Kenya or Uganda with experiences which constitute somewhat different readiness for school in Australia. For children from refugee families Egypt provided no welfare services, very little or no opportunity for education and no exposure to English. These children arrived mostly pre-literate. By contrast, children in refugee camps had access to some formal education in English even though resources were few, with teachers mostly poorly trained and mainly using transmission teaching strategies (Burgoyne and Hull, 2007). Both groups of children had to some degree experienced violence, suffered chronic malnutrition and health problems which have been shown to impact severely on development (Grantham-McGregor, 1995; Lustig et al., 2004; Newman, 2005; O'Sullivan, 2006).
The Literacy Transition Pilot Program (LTPP) grew out of an awareness that existing programs designed for new arrival, non-English speaking students from countries such as Sudan were found to be inadequate to meet the special needs of refugee students. Too young to be enrolled in an Intensive English Centre (IEC) on arrival in Australia, students were placed in upper primary classrooms with only limited new arrival support. Usual arrangements for new arrivals assume that upper primary learners have developed cognitive skills as well as literacy from previous schooling in their mother tongue. However, it became rapidly clear that the needs of pre-adolescent refugee students were not being met and that they were at serious risk of educational failure in secondary school because of poor English language and literacy skills.
During 2006, 11 students, 6 females and 5 males aged between 12 and 15 were nominated by Primary schools and invited to be part of the LTTP. Each student selected their own pseudonym for the case study research. Within the cohort there were varied needs--Koka, Gabriel and J-D had no meaningful experience of schooling before arrival in Australia and went straight to IEC; Christina, Tasha, Monarita, Victoria, J-Zee and Fedelle had spent between two years or less in mainstream upper primary classes; and Macy and Roberto experienced 3-4 years in Primary school. Of the 11 students, Fedelle and Gabriel showed evidence of giftedness while Macy, Roberto and J-D were identified as special needs. During 2007, these students were a separate cohort within the IEC with a curriculum that was specially designed to reflect specific learner needs , fill gaps in skills and knowledge about the world and provide background knowledge required for key learning areas (KLAs) in high school. Teaching strategies targeted special learning, language and literacy needs and a high level of counselling support was provided.
Settlement in a new country inevitably involves culture shock which is associated with varying levels of emotion from mild panic to deep psychological distress and even physical illness (Brown, 1986). A case study by Herbert (1995) of new arrivals in Australian school settings noted behaviours such as confusion, lack of concentration, over compensatory behaviour or detachment, difficulties forming friendships and physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia and nausea. For refugees, culture shock is compounded by conflicting emotions: sorrow at the many losses of the past and fear of the future as well as hope. Lustig et al., (2004) suggest there is value in 'school based, trauma and grief-focused groups which reduced post traumatic stress, depression and grief symptoms' (p. 34).
New arrivals in Australian schools are not only faced with the task of learning to communicate in English for different purposes and in different contexts but also need to learn new and often complex content in English. There has been considerable research into the processes and rate of second language acquisition for the purposes of learning in a formal academic setting. Cummins (1979) identified the distinction between Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Communicative Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) and suggested that while BICS language can be acquired in approximately 2 years, CALP language can take up to 7 years. Studies of students with disrupted schooling suggest that it takes significantly longer for these students to acquire academic language proficiency (Hakuta, Butler & Witt, 2000). Collier (1995) has found that the most significant variable in the rate of English language acquisition is the amount of formal schooling students have received in their first language.
In a study of African refugees with interrupted schooling in Victorian high schools, Miller, Mitchell and Brown (2005) identified some key gaps for these students. They have missed the staged cognitive development which occurs in formal schooling, have little age-appropriate experience of literacy, numeracy, use of print and multi-modal texts, limited content knowledge of the world and little experience of problem based learning. Such students require more time and more focused support than is currently provided in Australian school systems (Oliffe & Couch, 2005; Kirk & Cassity, 2007). There is also significant evidence from a study of adult African refugee students (Burgoyne & Hull, 2007) that pre-literate learners from an oral culture with rich traditions of story-telling have particular difficulties in moving to printbased literacy The school teachers surveyed by Miller et al. (2005) report that in addition to significant deficits in content knowledge and English language proficiency, refugee students without stable previous schooling have poor organisational skills and time management.
A study by Gow and Cassity of 65 young African refugees in high school in Western Sydney in 2006 found the following:
Overall ... the schooling system is not working well for new African students. There are success stories but, in general, students are struggling with new institutional settings and unrealistic expectations. Young people are attempting to integrate into a schooling system with which they and their relatives are almost totally unfamiliar. (p. 55)
Schools and teachers have faced a number of significant new challenges in managing behaviour as well as planning and teaching lessons which many have found overwhelming. (Miller et al., 2005; Centre for Multicultural Youth Issues, 2006; Kirk & Cassity, 2007). The LTPP program was a significant initiative that was developed in the light of such research and resourced to face these challenges in a new way.
This case study collected data about the LTTP from February 2007 until the middle of June 2008. Weekly classroom observation and interviews with both students and teachers provided information about student learning and the effects of special provisions such as targeted teaching strategies, modified curriculum and counselling support. Student work samples were analysed according to the ESL Scales levels (Curriculum Corporation, 1994) to measure English language development. Students were also given a NSW ELLA (English Language and Literacy Assessment) test at the end of 2007 to provide a comparison with an 'average' year 7 cohort. Data were analysed in order to extract key issues and themes which took account of a variety of perspectives, teachers, parents, counsellors and students. Evidence from the various kinds of data served to contextualise, describe and evaluate the outcomes of the 2007 LTPP.
The development of the 11 students during 2007 was remarkable as evidenced through the analysis of data obtained from classroom observations, work samples and interviews. The following discusses the findings in relation to how the LTTP attempted to address student general well-being, development of learning skills, acquisition of English language and literacy skills and the transition to secondary school.
Data from classroom observations: general well-being of students
Classroom observations of LTTP students throughout 2007 corroborated studies about the effects of culture shock (Herbert, 1995) and past trauma (Miller et al., 2005). Interviews with teachers confirmed that most students, even after some years in Australia, were still experiencing significant stress related to flight and resettlement: two students spent time in refuges for the homeless, another 2 moved house and 4 of the 11 students lived in single parent or blended families. Monarita wrote in June 2008:
... I have seen lots of stuff and real pain in the eye of everyone older than me.
Unsettled behaviour in the classroom continued for at least two terms and included difficulty staying seated, or on task, attention seeking behaviour, inappropriate outbursts such as anger or weeping, hyper-vigilance and withdrawal or complaints of physical symptoms. Classroom observation particularly in early 2007 showed that, whenever routines were disrupted by events such as a change of teacher or a special celebration, students became restless and often agitated. Time and again, students were observed to regain composure when required to perform apparently tedious tasks such as handwriting or copying text. Clearly, these tasks allowed students to feel in control and relieve the tension of managing uncertainty.
Students in the LTTP were supported in a number of ways, including smaller class sizes, a Sudanese teacher's aide, specialized counselling support, all of which helped to create a highly pastoral care classroom environment. Teachers were able to develop close relationships while the Sudanese teacher's aide at the CIEC who spent at least a part of the week in the classroom, provided a familiar adult role model as well as a linguistic and cultural bridge between students, teachers and parents. All students participated in a special program for adolescents, 'Settling in', designed by STARTTS (the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors) and had regular, individual access to counsellors. Lunch time 'drop in' sessions run by counsellors included craft activities or games which allowed for 'time out' from the playground. The benefits of these features of the LTTP were increasingly evident during 2007 in more mature class room behaviour as well as in their disposition towards learning.
Data from classroom observations: Learning how to learn
Students were generally successful and enthusiastic learners. One teacher remarked at the end of 2007:
All except for J-Zee who was a largely unwilling participant and had significant family issues were highly motivated learners.
Using everyday classroom equipment was a major task for all students. Even those students such as Christina and Roberto who had spent time in primary schools in Australia had great difficulty in organising and using everyday equipment such as rulers, scissors, or glue. Several students lacked the fine motor skills needed to cut straight, rule lines or paste paper. Handwriting continued to be an issue as students initially struggled with simple writing conventions such as letter formation and spaces between words. Christina wrote: 'At the beginning of the year, I could not hold my pen properly.'
The effects of disrupted schooling on cognitive development and general concepts about the world were also evident on a regular basis: for example most students could not tell the time at all in early 2007 and even at the end, one of the most able students, Fedelle could only read a digital watch. In a science lesson in March 2007, all students had difficulty sorting laboratory apparatus into objects made of rubber, glass and plastic. The problem seemed not so much one of language or even the unfamiliarity of the objects, but the operation of sorting and classification according to stipulated criteria.
Reading strategies as well as reading processes reflected LTPP students' limited understanding of literacy practices. In April, the English teacher confirmed that foundations in literacy were almost non-existent for LTPP students. In May 2007, students were required to create a power point presentation about an Australian animal but many had great difficulty skimming web based text to identify images with captions identifying them as Australian animals. In June 2007, students were asked to sort picture books into categories of factual and fictional texts. Only one student was able to predict accurately from the covers even though one cover included in the title 'Picture Facts'. This task also demonstrated gaps in visual literacy in so far as students could not recognise that a photograph of a truck was more likely to belong to a factual text than a cartoon image of a truck with a smiling face. In August 2007, students were observed having difficulty identifying the name of the author. After some scaffolded tasks with factual texts students were better able to identify purpose and audience, recognise and use text conventions such as chapter headings and indexes. By December there was increasing confidence in using both print and web based material. But even at this stage, the History teacher commented on the difficulty of providing relevant content knowledge within the limitations of texts at an appropriate linguistic level. Unlike English language learners with age appropriate education and literacy experiences, LTPP students often did not have mother tongue concepts to provide field knowledge to support reading in English. Initially teachers attempted to use resources which related to previous life experiences by selecting texts and topics with an African theme. But as the History teacher commented:
Most students had either been too young or had only experienced a refugee camp or a crowded apartment in Egypt. I changed the topic back to Australia.
Interestingly, classroom observation repeatedly showed that students engaged with multi-modal texts, regardless of subject matter, much more readily than with print-based material.
The life experiences of these students which produced a need for predictability also resulted in aversion to risk-taking and a corresponding high dependency on teacher direction. Classroom observations repeatedly showed that students had a low tolerance for the kind of open-ended tasks which characterise constructivist pedagogy and needed a great deal of scaffolding before engaging in simple problem solving tasks or group activity which involved cooperative learning skills. Such explicit modelling provided important learner training.
LTPP teachers repeatedly made detours to fill gaps: for example in a science lesson to construct a 3-D model of the digestive tract, the teacher needed to stop and explain how to roll plasticine. Teachers frequently broke instructions down into micro skills more familiar in lower primary classes: for example tasks checking posture for handwriting writing or modelling how to rule a margin. Much patience, repetition and a great deal of practice was needed to achieve learning outcomes.
Interestingly, it seems that for these refugee students, the length of time spent in primary school did not necessarily result in better learning how to learn skills. For example, Christina who had 10 terms in an Australian primary school was no better prepared than Koka who arrived at CIEC in February 2006 with no experience at all of formal schooling. A comparison between Macy who also had 10 terms primary education and J-D with 6 terms at CIEC revealed both students assessed as mildly intellectually disabled, suggesting little difference between them.
Data from work samples: English Language development
Work samples also showed some remarkable progress. The LTPP was conceived with the aim of supporting students to move from levels 2-3 in oral interaction, reading and responding and writing as measured by the competencies identified in the ESL Scales document (Curriculum Corporation: 1984) to levels 3-4 by the end of 2007. Initial assessment of students at the end of 2006 demonstrated that all students were post-beginner learners of English. They had developed 'BICS' (Cummins: 1979) with some degree of oral fluency though most lacked accuracy in the use of basic grammatical structures such as pronouns and verb tense. Reading and writing skills lagged behind. When Victoria, Christina, J-D and Macy left primary school they were all assessed as operating at a Stage 1 level which is equivalent to Year 1/2.
Table 1 shows the progression of individual students from November 2006 before LTPP to December 2007 as measured by teacher reports as well as the ELLA test. While all except one student showed significant progress, it is important to note that one student, Macy arrived into the LTTP as a funded Special Needs student, while J-D and Roberto were tested and identified during 2007 as working in the range of mild learning disability.
The table also shows that 4 students exceeded the targeted outcomes of level 3-4 on all three strands of the ESL Scales. The ELLA test, administered in 2007 and marked externally, measured three aspects: Writing, Reading and Language (punctuation and spelling). Given that ELLA tests are designed for mainstream native speakers and are not moderated either in content or marking criteria for English language learners, the ELLA results are remarkable: Fedelle and Roberto, students with the least amount of time in Australian schools but all of it spent in the IEC, scored Proficient in all three strands, Monarita, Victoria and Tasha scored Proficient in writing and Koka, who arrived at the IEC as a pre-literate student with no previous schooling, scored Proficient in reading, an impressive result.
Oral language development clearly reflected the students' cultural background with its strong oral traditions. Teachers regularly noted the students' superior listening skills and well developed auditory memory. When engaged, students were able to remember and process quite complex information particularly if presented in a narrative form. This quote comes from an oral re-telling by Koka in March 2007 of a story the teacher had read aloud a number of times:
She went to the big city and she asked the old man to give him the address and after that she went to her uncle and her uncle said 'you can help to clean the animals and she was a good cleaner and one day the Emperor was about to arrive, the animals must be very very clean. (Koka)
A running record from the same text, showed that Koka at that stage was an emergent reader, had limited word attack skills, lacked confidence and needed constant prompting. By Term 4, the various instruments for reading assessment showed that all students except for J-D, were able to read increasingly complex texts with improved word attack skills, greater confidence, self-correct more often and answer comprehension questions with reasonable accuracy. However, most students had predictable difficulty with inference and reading figurative language since competence in reading beyond literal meanings tends to occur around level 6 on the ESL Scales. Written work samples collected during 2007 demonstrated significant development in writing in different contexts and for different purposes at both text and sentence level as LTTP students. Extracts of writing collected from 2 students at different times during the LTPP demonstrated the range of individual progress from different starting points. Victoria's writing represented the more proficient students, Christina the less proficient.
Victoria's work samples (Table 2) illustrate the gains won through explicit teaching. Weekly observation of lessons in a variety of KLAs provided many examples of instructional scaffolding (Gibbons, 2002; Michell & Sharpe, 2005; Dufficy, 2005) of grammatical structures and language features relating to different text types and text forms. While teachers in primary and to a lesser extent in secondary schools use similar explicit strategies, what was different in the LTPP was the slower pace of lessons, the frequency of repetition and the amount of recycling required for students to develop new skills and understanding.
At the end of November 2007, students were asked to write about how they felt about learning in the LTPP. All students fore-grounded the development of their English language communicative skills: ten students mentioned writing, eight mentioned reading and six mentioned speaking:
At the beginning of the year I could not read or write a story. But now I am able to read and write a (little) short story. Christina
I am now able to read and write better than before. Before I can say that I could read and speak. But that was not enough for High school. Tasha
Transition to Secondary School in 2008: data from student interviews
While participation in the LTPP resulted in often remarkable gains in learning skills, cognitive development and English language competence, transition to High School was problematic. Even though there were frequent explanations about the purposes of LTPP, a carefully staged orientation to high school and reminders that the extra year at CIEC would support successful learning, 8 of the 11 students were dismayed when in the beginning of 2008 they found themselves in Year 7. Despite acknowledging that they found the Year 7 work challenging, they resented their placement and lobbied to be placed in Year 8. The students who were content in Year 7 included the special needs student J-Dee whose sporting skills aided peer interaction and the highest achievers, Fedelle and Gabriel who were motivated learners and mature enough to recognise the advantages of their placement. None of these students had arrived into the LTTP from year 6 in primary school and so had no sense of being one year 'behind' their peers. Interviews with the other students in 2008 revealed specific concerns about age, height and relationship with peer groups.
J-Zee wrote this in April 2008:
When I made friends I then felt confident and happy. The subjects that I have realy enjoyed are English because when we have English I feel relaxsed and feel that I can put my hand up and answear something ... The things that I don't like when I first came to (school E) when they had put me in year 7 ... I was very angry ... I felt like fight I was very sad ... I just felt very down.
Most students, like J-Zee, valued social relationships as the most important feature of their school experience were unable to link their placement in Year 7 with their language and learning needs. Interestingly, J-Zee's perception of his participation in English is inconsistent with the English teacher's comments in the April/ May interviews. When students were asked to reflect on their learning, several commented that topics covered to some extent at CIEC during 2007 gave them confidence and important background knowledge. Tasha remarked: I like history ... Ancient Egyptians ... it helped that I already knew about it. Predictably, other issues raised during interviews included those typical of most transitions from Intensive English Centres including difficulty of adjusting to learning in large noisy classes and listening to teachers who talk fast and do not modify their language as at the IEC. These issues merit additional enquiry and are beyond the scope of this article.
This case study demonstrates above all the complexity of the challenges facing both teachers and students in the LTPP in 2007. English language acquisition for learners with a history of disrupted education and who arrive at school essential preliterate is a slow process where progress needs to be measured in small increments. Expectations about what constitutes successful outcomes need to be contextualised by the life experiences as well as the starting point of individuals. English language learning is only one facet of a much more complex educational process which has to address the inevitable gaps which result from disrupted schooling: gaps in cognitive skills, concepts of literacy, undeveloped or culturally distant understandings about the world. This requires the flexibility to provide the kind of skill and cognitive development common in lower primary classes while at the same time preparing adolescent learners to become independent learners who can deal with complex concepts.
Though the small size of the cohort makes wider application of findings inappropriate, there are some relevant patterns in the outcomes for refugee students who arrive with disrupted education in Australia. However, data suggests that there is no necessary relationship between length of time a student has been enrolled in an Australian school and the development of English language competence. Time in primary school is not especially helpful unless foundational skills and understandings are developed.
Positive educational outcomes resulted from particular features of the LTPP such as the small class size, the use of a specially designed curriculum, responsiveness to students' learning styles, the integration of language with all KLA content and the explicit teaching. The amount of repetition, recycling and practice of language required for learning to occur is a key characteristic which distinguished the LTPP from typical mainstream primary or secondary teaching. In addition, the pastoral care at CIEC created a safe nurturing environment which could respond flexibly to individual needs.
The data from reports and work samples clearly demonstrates that these students are far better prepared for secondary school in 2008 than they would have been in 2007 without participating in the LTPP. However, this conclusion must be set against the evidence from 8 of the 11 students interviewed in 2008 which show significant resistance to their placement in year 7. This resistance, if it develops into negative attitudes towards school could undermine some of the educational benefits of the LTPP.
Therefore there is a need to better balance English language, literacy and learning needs with the social and emotional needs of students in cases where students lack the maturity to recognise the long term advantages of delaying the start of secondary school. This could be achieved by exploring ways of integrating the best features of the LTPP model in an earlier intervention. Instead of waiting until students exit primary school with insufficient English language, learning and literacy skills, an intensive program should target upper primary students. Placing more resources into new arrival education for refugee students in the latter years of primary school would result in better preparation for secondary school while responding to students' need for positive, age appropriate social relationships.
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Australian Catholic University
Table 1. Summary of Transition Student Results * Name ESL Nov Term Term Ella test High * Gender : Scales 2006 1/07 4/07 Nov 2007 School Age * Date of arrival in Australia Fedelle Oral 2-3 3 5 A F: 6.6.93 Reading 2-3 3 4 Proficient 15.9.05 Writing 2-3 3 4 Proficient Language Proficient Gabriel Oral 2-3 2-3 5 B M:31.12.93 Reading 2-3 2-3 4 Proficient 3.9.06 Writing 2-3 2-3 4 Proficient Language Proficient Monarita Oral 3 2-3 5 E F: 3.3.94 Reading 2-3 2-3 5 Elementary 15.10.2005 Writing 2-3 2-3 5 Proficient Language Elementary Victoria Oral 2 3 5 E F: 2.5.94 Reading 3 2-3 5 Elementary 20.7.04 Writing 3 2-3 5 Proficient Language Elementary Tasha Oral 2-3 2-3 4 E F:14.4.93 Reading 2-3 2-3 4 Elementary 7.3.04 Writing 2-3 2-3 3 Proficient Language Elementary Koka Oral 2-3 2-3 3-4 M:3.2.93 Reading 2-3 2-3 3 Proficient 10.12.05 Writing 2-3 2-3 2-3 Elementary Language Elementary Christina Oral 2-3 2-3 3-4 C F: 10.5.94 Reading 2 2 2-3 Elementary 9.5.04 Writing 1 2 2-3 Elementary Language Elementary J-Zee Oral 3 2-3 3-4 E M: 21.5.94 Reading 3 2-3 3-4 Elementary 15.8.04 Writing 3 2-3 2 Elementary Language Low J-D Oral B 1-2 2 2-3 D M: 28.7.93 Reading B 1-2 2 2-3 Elementary 15.12.05 Writing B 1-2 2 2-3 Elementary Language Low Macy Oral 3 2-3 3 C F:27.9.04 Reading 2 2 2-3 Low 4.11.03 Writing 2 2 2-3 Elementary Language Elementary Roberto Oral 2-3 2-3 3-4 B M:6.6.94 Reading 2 2 3 Low 17.6.03 Writing 2 2 2-3 Elementary Language Low * Name ESL * Educational * Gender : Scales background Age * No. of school * Date of terms arrival in Australia Fedelle Oral 2 / Primary, 6 / F: 6.6.93 Reading CIEC = 8 15.9.05 Writing disrupted Language schooling-- Egypt Gabriel Oral 5 /CIEC = 5 M:31.12.93 Reading disrupted 3.9.06 Writing schooling-- Language Kakuma refugee camp Monarita Oral 3 /Primary, 5 - F: 3.3.94 Reading CIEC = 15.10.2005 Writing 8 disrupted Language schooling-- Egypt Victoria Oral 6 / Primary, 4 / F: 2.5.94 Reading CIEC = 10 20.7.04 Writing disrupted Language schooling-- Egypt Tasha Oral 5 / Primary 6 / F:14.4.93 Reading CIEC = 11 7.3.04 Writing disrupted Language schooling-- Egypt Koka Oral 8/ CIEC = 8 M:3.2.93 Reading no previous 10.12.05 Writing schooling - Language Egypt Christina Oral 10/ Primary 4/ F: 10.5.94 Reading CIEC = 14 9.5.04 Writing Language J-Zee Oral 10/ Primary 4/ M: 21.5.94 Reading CIEC = 14 15.8.04 Writing Language J-D Oral 6/ CIEC = 6 M: 28.7.93 Reading mild range of 15.12.05 Writing intellectual Language disability tested July 2007 Macy Oral 12/Primary / F:27.9.04 Reading CIEC = 16 mild 4.11.03 Writing range of Language intellectual disability tested Dec 2006 Roberto Oral 14/Primary / M:6.6.94 Reading CIEC = 18 mild 17.6.03 Writing range of Language intellectual disability tested July 2007 CIEC NB Students have chosen pseudonyms and schools have not been identified Table 2. Victoria's texts November 2006 Yesterday was Sunday Shows a logical and first thing I did sequence of events I went to the church showing good use of and after church I simple past tense went to my aunt house regular verbs, some at 1.45 and we stay time connectives but there in about 7 hours little sense of and after that ... audience, inconsistent use of capitalisation and no full stops. September 2007 On Friday I slept in Shows understanding until 10.00 then I had of recount text to clean the kitchen. structure, sense of One hour later it was audience, use of text sparkling clean. connectives, Afterwards I watched evaluative language Rollercoaster on T.V. and more consistent Much more fun than capitalisation and cleaning! punctuation. ELLA test A big ugly dragon came Shows control of November 2007 out and I called her narrative text big ugly grey dragon structure, complex and it got angry with sentences and use of me and when it got descriptive angry with me it adjectives though burned my house so I punctuation is still said your not ugly you rudimentary. are the most beautiful dragon I ever seen .
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|Publication:||Australian Journal of Language and Literacy|
|Article Type:||Case study|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2010|
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