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Laurier professor helps refugee youth with language education

August 14, 2016

CBC News | With school just a few weeks away, many Syrian refugees in the Region of Waterloo will be getting ready to start their first-ever school year in Canada.

Because of the war, many adolescent refugees have large gaps their formal education resulting in limited literacy skills both in their mother tongue and in English.

To address this, Kristiina Montero, an associate professor in the faculty of education at Wilfrid Laurier University, helped develop an English Literacy Development (ELD) program at Eastwood Collegiate High School in Kitchener.

Now with six classes, Eastwood has become the magnet site for refugee students to access the program.

Not ESL, ELD

Unlike the English as a Second Language (ESL), Montero says the ELD can be looked as a first step to learning English literacy because it uses the same method of guided reading that is used when young children are learning how to read. But with a twist that recognizes the age and maturity of the students.

“We used books that were going to be interesting and engaging for these adolescents,” said Montero. “If suddenly we used books meant for very young children, that motivation starts to drain very quickly.”

They also took it a step farther. Montero explains that they also created their own books based on stories the students told.

Extra training for teachers

However, ESL teachers needed to also do some learning of their own. Many didn’t have early literacy training. So Montero, along with other ESL and ELD consultants from the Waterloo Region District School Board also created their own professional development sessions.

“It taught the teachers what guided reading was, how to…do an assessment that helps teachers track what reading level students are on,” Montero said.

Early literacy wasn’t the only skill the teachers were taught. Many refugee students can experience mental health issues related to their life experience in coming from a war zone. Therefore, teachers within the program are taught to look for signs of depression, anxiety or even post traumatic stress disorder and help students get care.

Prepared

The program started running three years ago just as an early trickle of young war refugees started.

However, having an established literacy program in place already has helped the transition and growth as educators help youth from the 1,500 Syrian refugee students admitted in the last year.

“When the new refugees came with the same linguistic vulnerability, we were ready to work with them,” Montero said.

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