What to do about language when the kids just don’t speak it (especially when our students have exams)?
Over the past few weeks around 5 million Ukrainians have crossed the border from their own country into the European Union. Many of whom are children and students. While the Ministry of Ukraine has done a stellar job of setting up online learning for all secondary-aged students, this temporary solution will not be enough to address social or linguistic inclusion of Ukrainian students within EU schools and societies.
Having just spent a couple of days in Warsaw moderating the Education International seminar on Education of Ukrainian Refugees : Policy Dialogue along border countries, I’ve had a first hand chance to hear how municipalities, local education authorities and teachers unions are coping with the arrival of new students. The overwhelming generosity, support and community spirit that these communities have shown in light of new arrivals was truly breath-taking. The time, care and commitment it must take to welcome these students in your school must be exhausting and full credit should go to these communities that have made this effort.
At the same time, it must be said that linguistically, educationally and socially, the inclusion of the students currently arriving is not a given. By this, I mean that we have plenty of best practice and understanding of how to best include students that don’t speak the language of instruction so that they are socially comfortable and educationally capable as quickly as possible but we’re not seeing it put into practice now.
When new groups of students arrive in larger numbers than anticipated and teachers and school directors don’t have the experience, training or support needed to include them linguistically in classroom we see a pretty uniform response worldwide .. . put the students in a separate classroom to local students and find a refugee or language teacher to teach them until they are ready to move into a regular classes. The challenge with this well-intended response, is that it doesn’t take into account simple facts about how our brains work and how students’ learn languages. Any teacher will tell you that repetition is the key to mastery and any language teacher will tell you that more exposure will translate into greater proficiency. But how much exposure do you think I would get to the Polish language if I was in a class full of Ukrainian kids?
The evidence shows us that it takes 3–6 months for students to acquire social language if exposed to several hours each day (or each school day). Social language can then be a bridge to academic language, and in more ways than one. From a simple point of view, imagine I’m in a class of 30 kids and 22 of them speak the language of instruction fluently. If I don’t understand a question or exactly what I’m supposed to do on an exercise, am I more likely to wait till the teacher has time to talk to me or turn to one of my classmates for help?
In addition, while social and academic language have significant differences, the natural way that we acquire social language can be bolstered with more formal language lessons to increase vocabulary, syntax and structures that we need to write and debate more formally. These more formal lessons will allow students to put into context the many social experiences and language interactions they have had, thus scaffolding each students path to academic success.
Now, in practice, I hear the challenges, particularly of teachers who have limited or no experience of having non-native speakers in their classroom, and when they are teaching to tests or exams (particularly at the end of the school year in Europe as we see now), that makes things even more challenging. So… how could we really go about mainstreaming kids?
Many European countries have had success with limited-time welcome classes: separate classes held in the structure of the school that last from 1 day or 2 weeks, or may up to 3 months for older adolescents so that some basics can be learned before refugee students head into the mainstream classrooms. After this initial period, language support still needs to be offered, but a couple of weeks of language acquisition can ease those first few days in a classroom with a new language of instruction.
Another option, that we see in both the UK and France are full-immersion programs. Sometimes these exist with and sometimes without targeted language support. This targeted support can be language teachers who pull kids out of their class for 20 minutes of 2 hours a day to give them extra language classes. It could also take the form of language teaching assistants, home-language speaking teachers/assistants who stay in the classroom and support the kids in learning and activities. The key thing with all of these models is that we’re offering students a significant portion of the day surrounded by the new language for their first year in school. Reaching the aims of exposure and building bonds of trust with those who speak the language well so they can depend on them for help and support.
But in practice, it’s May and… what about exam season? We can’t let our kids suffer by putting them in classes with students who are just not ready to take the same kind of exams. This is a challenge that we are seeing right now. The real problem, of course, is an over-reliance on standardized testing, but sadly that is not something that is going to change in the next few weeks, months of possible years. So, in the meantime what can we do? Apart from incentivizing Ministries of Education to reward schools and students who are in classes with newly arrived refugees with additional academic credit, we have the only solution of finding appropriate times for exposure to be increased outside of ‘cramming lessons’ for exams.
Firstly, there are always classes where the language of instruction is not as relevant. Art, music, sport and some math classes can often be an ‘easier’ space for inclusion. Piloting inclusion at ages where exam results are not as predictive of students’ final outcomes could be an option.
Secondly increasing out of school out of school language exposure, encouraging local or refugee parents to set-up opportunities for students to socialize together after school. Or at a whole school breakfast as they start their days. Setting up semi-structured activities during breaktimes on certain days to ensure that students mix with each other and pairing families or students with local students for peer learning.
Thirdly, how can we make the most of this upcoming summer? Can we set up activities and camps that bring together local and new refugee students to enjoy the long days and more relaxed schedules together? Can we use schools as spaces of inclusion for families to gather for picnics and barbeques together? Can parents, social workers, university students and more work to develop art projects, sports teams, music opportunities for all secondary-aged students?
Finally, educational inclusion of refugees can be a challenging conundrum, but we have so much data and experience from different political conflicts that it would be unwise to not put it into action. In addition, it’s important to note that we have short-term, medium-term and longer-term issues. While putting extra stress on teachers and students in exam season by mainstreaming new arrivals immediately may not be the right way forward now, it does not mean that these temporary solutions may be the right ones for the mid-term view, in which students may need to stay several more months or longer in our education systems. We need to ensure that all students start our new school year in September with the confidence and the openness that will be required in our future world.
Executive Director SIRIUS