Adult refugee learners with limited literacy: needs and effective responses.

Author:Benseman, John


Adult refugees with limited education are a distinctive learner group with substantial and distinctive educational, social, and psychological needs. Working with these learners is a highly specialized activity, requiring high levels of educational skill and commitment. With a paucity of original research available about this group of learners, this study provides a systematic documentation of their distinctive needs as well as effective educational strategies for use with these learners. The study involved interviews with 36 adult refugees, two program co-ordinators, five course teachers, and six bilingual tutors from a community-based program in New Zealand. The challenge of working with these learners arises due not only to their experiences as refugees, but also as learners with minimal or no educational experience. Their progress depends on a skilful development of "learning to learn," acquiring basic literacy skills, personal confidence and transfer of these skills to everyday life outside the classroom.


Les refugies adultes peu scolarises forment un groupe distinct d'apprenants ayant des besoins educatifs, sociaux et psychologiques importants et particuliers. Travailler avec ces apprenants est une activite hautement specialisee, qui exige des niveaux eleves de competences educatives et d'engagement. Etant donne le peu de travaux de recherche originaux disponibles sur cegroupe d'apprenants, cette etude fournit une documentation systematique de leurs besoins particuliers et presente des strategies d'enseignement efficaces pour ces apprenants. Vetude a porte sur des entretiens avec 36 refugies adultes, deux coordonnateurs de programme, cinq enseignants et six tuteurs bilingues dun programme communautaire en Nouvelle-Zelande. Travailler avec ces apprenants pose un defi non seulement en raison de leur experience en tant que refugies, mais aussi en tant quapprenants nayant que peu ou pas d'experience educative. Leur succes depend de leur habilete a >, de Vacquisition de competences de base dalphabetisation, de la confiance en soi et du transferi de ces competences a la vie quotidienne en dehors de la salle de classe.


New Zealand accepts up to 750 refugees each year from around the world. Typically, these people are "the casualties of crises such as brutal regimes, civil war, anarchy and famine. Often, they are at risk because of their ethnicity, political beliefs or religion. They may have endured persecution, torture, rape or abduction, or have witnessed killings. Many arrive after perilous journeys and detention in refugee camps, having lost loved ones, homes, possessions and jobs." (1)

Once they arrive in New Zealand, the refugees who have spent time in transit camps are initially inducted over a six-week period into local life and introduced to refugee-focused NGOs and other settlement agencies at a refugee centre in Auckland. From here the new arrivals are dispersed around the country to centres usually chosen because there are already compatriots settled there. On reaching their new destination, a range of services (both government and voluntary) come into operation to help in the settlement.

Each new arrival is entitled to up to 100 hours of teaching with a government-funded provider. Typically, those with more education study at more formal institutions, while those with low-level skills attend courses run by community-based organizations.

Research Purpose

The purpose of this study was to document and analyze the learning needs and issues of adult refugees with low language and literacy skills by looking at how their prior experiences and current contexts affect their educational participation and learning. In addition, the study has sought to identify preferred educational strategies for teaching these learners. The specific focus of the study was adult refugee learners with low-level language and literacy skills (in English, but often also in their first or mother language (LI) currently enrolled in educational programs with a major community-based provider.

Related Research

The quest to identify effective teaching methods has a long history in education but is much shorter in adult education. Historically, some adult educators have looked to philosophical models such as Paulo Freire and Malcolm Knowles, but most have relied on established traditions and variations of practitioner wisdom. More recently, however, there has been a move to emulate other professions and the schooling sector to base teaching practices on research findings. (2) While there is a wealth of relevant research to draw on in schooling contexts, (3) adult education has been less endowed, although this situation is steadily changing.

The intention with research-informed teaching is for practitioners to shape their practices in keeping with the best available research evidence, which maximizes the potential for learner impact, in contrast to operating on the basis of old habits and hearsay. Although the ideals of research-informed research inevitably give priority to "gold standard" large-scale, sophisticated quantitative studies to ensure generalizability of findings, smaller-scale qualitative studies are also recognized as having an important contribution to this approach, especially in opening up new areas, complementing quantitative studies, and offering valuable insights through their "thick descriptions" of subjects, contexts, and specific learner groups. It is in this regard that the present study is presented as a means of understanding effective teaching practices for adult refugee learners by exploring what a group of refugees in New Zealand and their teachers report as valuable and beneficial for them. While there is considerable general literature about refugees and their children, there is very little original research on adult refugees as learners or teaching them, especially in New Zealand.

The Importance of English and Literacy Skills

Some research evidence (4) shows that becoming literate in the host country's language is essential for making friends outside refugees' own community, finding and sustaining employment, gaining secure income, as well as maintaining social and psychological well-being. The New Zealand Immigration Service (5) reported that only 12-53 per cent of refugees were working two years after arrival, usually part-time and still supplementing their income with government benefits. Refugees of all ages are therefore often identified as a high-need target group for educational interventions.

For those adults with minimal or no schooling experience, the need is primarily centred on their lack of literacy skills (including oral English), especially for those not literate in their first languages. Not being literate in one's first language has considerable implications for learning literacy skills in a second language. Researchers (6) have shown that learning to read in a second language will invariably be difficult and slower: "Besides learning specific processing skills, a literate person learns to process information in ways qualitatively different from those of a non-literate person. Formal schooling provides particular skills, possibly used primarily in formal school settings, and the combination of thinking and performance skills is a reciprocal relationship that permits learning in a formal classroom setting."

In other words, the more education one has, the easier it is to learn all aspects of a new language. Learners who are reading for the first time in any language need to learn a range of reading-related skills such as interpreting figures, text organization, even oral discrimination, left-to-right orientation, associating symbols with objects, and picture interpretation. Once students have learned these sorts of skills, they can then be transferred to new languages, even if they vary significantly from the original one in which reading was taught.

Educational Provision for Refugees

A number of studies (7) have detailed the overall shortfalls and inadequacies of educational provision for adult refugees in New Zealand. Their criticisms include not just the inadequacies of course availability, but also the irrelevance of the teaching content of many courses, with the potential to "create an underclass of refugees who subsequently experience significant direct and indirect discrimination." (8) Some writers (9) have also identified specific barriers that prevent or restrict refugees' enrolment and attendance at classes such as lack of child care, caring for family members, health issues, financial barriers, attending paid employment, transport difficulties, gender barriers, living in isolated areas, and understanding how "systems" work in order to access information and resources.

Learning Issues

A government report on New Zealand English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) (10) acknowledged that "learning progress for pre-literate learners is extremely slow. Traditional assumptions about stair-casing to higher level programmes need to be challenged in the case of pre-literate learners." The report recognizes that these learners' needs are complex and require specialist resources and teaching approaches.

Invariably, most studies report the importance of understanding the psychological trauma that many refugee learners have endured prior to arrival in their new countries. Trauma can include physical and psychological torture, living in primitive conditions in transit camps for long periods, sustained separation from family and friends, and cultural alienation in their new host societies. One study (11) identified three distinct types of stress that refugees face (migration, acculturative, and traumatic) that occur when the burden on people from external events or internal pressures on their lives exceeds their resources to cope.

An in-depth study of eight refugees and ten educators (12) concluded that while it is important not to pathologize the...

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