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Almost From Scratch

Learning a new language is hard enough. For some refugee students, coming to America means stepping foot in a classroom for the first time.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Today’s poem, being read aloud in this Minneapolis English language class, is almost too fitting. You have to wonder how the textbook author could have known.

     Let’s get moving!

     Come on, let’s go.

     Pack your bags and dress for snow.

     Grab a camera; take a hat.

     You’ll need a parka.

     Don’t forget that!

The kids read aloud, trying to match the rhythm of their teacher’s tapping pencil, but stumbling over the word parka. They all have winter jackets now, of course. But they never would have needed such a funny, bulky piece of winter wear in their home country. Imagine needing a parka in sub-Saharan Africa!

Nearly all of the teenagers in this Washburn High School class came to Minnesota from Somalia, some directly, many via refugee camps in Kenya. For almost every one, this is their first school. Ever. Their country’s violent civil war, now stretching well into its second decade, has killed the school system completely. (Even pre-war, it was ailing.) These kids never learned to read, in any language. They never practiced long division. They never navigated a cafeteria.

Almost every teacher in America has non-English-speaking students these days. It’s not a big-city, must-be-South-Florida phenomenon anymore. It’s rural. It’s suburban. It’s everywhere, and it’s a tough assignment for teachers, who frequently lack formal English-language learner (ELL) training or classroom support. But imagine this: What if, on top of the expected language barriers, you also had kids, adults almost, who had never seen a pair of scissors?

Educating refugee students comes with special challenges, but the teachers say that many of their strategies can (and should) be applied to all English learners. All students, for example, can benefit from the integration of culturally relevant lessons into regular curriculum and the involvement of family in school. But even those students whose parents haven’t been shot or maimed in civil wars may be hard to reach if they’re starting almost from scratch. Refugee education is like ELL on steroids.

“If you can just imagine what they’ve had to learn—and they’re already in their late teens,” says Washburn language teacher Anna Rutterman. “We need to teach all of the concepts, all of the learning skills. How do you pay attention in class? What do you pay attention to? Their critical thinking skills are very underdeveloped.”

The complications of war can’t be ignored. “Probably a few have seen their parent killed or their sibling raped. And, I think, at a certain point, it will come back to haunt them,” says Ibrahim Ayeh, a Washburn math teacher and program coordinator for Somali students in Minneapolis. However, not as many as you might expect show violent tendencies or other stress-related syndromes in the classroom, he says.

And that’s a good thing, because there aren’t many school resources for those kinds of problems. The lasting effects of war are also nothing that Somali parents would want to admit to, especially for their daughters, who they still hope will marry well, Ayeh says. And, speaking of those parents, they present another challenge. Even in its best days, the Somali school system didn’t serve many children. Nomadic parents usually couldn’t afford to send more than one kid into the city for education, so many generations remained illiterate. And it’s not their way to be involved in school anyway.

“In Somalia, the parents can’t have any input. The government does everything,” Ayeh says. “So they think it’s the same here, and they don’t know they can advocate for students.”

But there is one advantage these students do have: They’re here now, with Ayeh, in the city of Minneapolis. A former teacher and education official in Somalia’s capital city of Mogadishu, Ayeh understands where these kids have been. Better yet, he’s got plans for where they’re going.

He will be their advocate.

The issues surrounding Somali students, while more complex than some other refugee populations, aren’t unprecedented in Minneapolis. The city has a long tradition of hosting populations fleeing their homeland, including Hmong refugees in the late 1970s and, more recently, Bosnian refugees. Locals say it’s the area’s Lutheran tradition that inspires a spirit of generosity toward windblown newcomers, plus quite a few faith-based resettlement programs that provide housing and other assistance.

Between 1995 and 2001, the percentage of Somali students in Minnesota grew by a whopping 2,889 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning. (That is, from 117 students to 3,569.) They’re still greatly out-numbered by traditional ELLs, like Spanish-speakers, who numbered 12,898 in 2001 after growing by 93 percent during the previous six years. Similar trends can be found across the United States: the number of English-language learners has grown overall from 2 million in 1994 to 3.8 million in 2004, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In Minneapolis, more than 90 different languages are spoken by students in the public schools, and the system has responded with a variety of strategies, including bilingual education and dual-language programs. At the elementary level, there are even native language literacy programs, so that students can first learn to read and write in their native language, and then transfer those new skills to English. That’s the best approach for his refugees, Ayeh believes—especially as it assists immigrant communities in maintaining language cohesiveness.

When Somali students first arrive in Minneapolis, they’re steered toward Ayeh’s program at Washburn, which is a center for Somali students. (Other schools have centers for other languages, like Spanish or Hmong.) He assesses them, usually finding a canyon-sized gap between their age and abilities.

“The first goal is to fill the gap. They’re in high school and they’re functioning at the elementary level, maybe middle,” Ayeh says. Nonetheless, he adds, “We expect them to graduate.”

And, for the most part, they do.

Walking around his math class, which meets in an old band rehearsal room in this aging red-brick, three-story school, Ayeh points discreetly to a teenager in a sage-green headscarf and matching skirt. “Two years ago, Samira came here, working at the lowest level,” he says. “Can you imagine: She’s passed the Basic Skills Test!”

Washburn’s newcomers attend English and math classes with Rutterman and Ayeh, in classrooms of almost all Somali students. In general, Ayeh isn’t rushing to mainstream them with fluent English speakers. It can take two years (sometimes less, sometimes more) for them to feel confident, in English and in their own abilities to do well—and he believes self-confidence is a huge part of success.

“Dumping them into the mainstream isn’t going to work. You can’t expect them to sit there and just learn,” he stresses. “We have students who started out in other states, without support, and they’ve lost their confidence.”

In the beginning, he recommends small-group learning. In a resource room, where somebody used to stash musical scores, Ayeh’s aide works on long division and double-digit multiplication with two newcomers. Meanwhile, Ayeh’s larger group has moved on to algebra, solving for x in complex equations.

Try this, he says: 3/2(x) x 8/19. Two girls in the front row bow their covered heads, scribble furiously, and then shout out the first step to solving the equation. Very good, says Ayeh. Yes! They tap their flip-flops (which, like all fashion-conscious teens, they’re wearing in the middle of winter) on the tiled floor in quick applause, and move assuredly on to the next step.

Whenever possible, he tries to personalize their lessons with cultural references. “When I say ‘unlike terms cannot be added,’ they ask, ‘what’s an unlike term?’” he says. “Because we are nomadic people, and they might have had a herd of sheep and a herd of goats at home, I ask, ‘Can you count them as one herd?’” (No.)

Ayeh has a big advantage—he can speak their language. But Carla Cruzan, their geography teacher, most definitely does not. And, like many teachers, she doesn’t have any specific ELL training either.

She relies on some common-sense strategies instead: modifying textbook lessons to remove difficult vocabulary and making lessons more visual with additional maps and pictures. She even sliced her classroom in half with red tape to illustrate the Earth’s equator. She makes a lot of puzzles, she notes, crossword puzzles for spelling and vocabulary, and map puzzles for geography concepts.

Yes, it is more work for her, but it’s effective, she says.

Sometimes she’s still shocked at what they don’t know. “I had a student who didn’t know the Earth is round! I couldn’t believe it. He asked me where the edge was,” she says.

Still, what they lack in knowledge, they make up in motivation.

“They’re very eager learners,” she says, “and it’s nice to see that eagerness to learn.”

For more details and links to a host of other pedagogical resources for ELLs and refugees, including videos, study guides, and research, visit


Reaching English-Language Learners

While teaching strategies for refugee students are similar to those for all English-language learners, particular attention must be paid to helping them become acclimated to the school setting itself. “We need to teach all of the concepts, all of the learning skills,” explains Washburn language teacher Anna Rutterman. “How do you pay attention in class? What do you pay attention to?”

Know who they are. Understanding students’ backgrounds, their previous schooling experience, and their culture is critical, particularly for refugee students for whom the classroom setting may be as unfamiliar as their new country.

Environment matters. Consider labeling everything in your classroom. Assign classroom duties to ELLs to make them feel part of the class, and provide opportunities for them to speak without forcing them to do so. Also, avoid embarrassing students by making verbal corrections in front of the class.

Use visual aids. Along with illustrations, charts, and graphs, this includes facial expressions, gestures, and body language when speaking.

Simplify. When speaking, use one concept per sentence, and keep the sentence structure direct and active. Consider writing summaries of lessons and lectures in simple English.

Teach language and content together. Emphasize word meanings and model pronunciation.

Take an interdisciplinary approach. Doing so helps ELLs make connections and reinforces new vocabulary.

Go for depth, not breadth. Spend more time on learning subjects in greater detail. Allow ample time for students to process new information.

Teach study and classroom skills. Critical for refugee students with limited schooling, this includes explaining how to read and glean information from textbooks.

Use hands-on activities to demonstrate concepts . This is particularly helpful for students unaccustomed to classroom learning.

Modify assignments and tests. Provide multiple ways for ELLs to demonstrate knowledge, including drawings, graphic organizers, story maps, and paraphrasing.

Make connections between content and students’ prior experiences. One approach that’s worked well with ELLs is culturally responsive teaching, which integrates students’ backgrounds throughout the curriculum (for more, see

Use cooperative learning. Studies have shown ELLs work more effectively in pairs or small groups, even if they’re paired with native speakers. Peer tutoring also works well.

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How To Help English-Language Learners

It’s been nearly a century since immigrants made up as high a proportion of the American population as they do today. In those days, immigrants supplied much of the workforce for America’s new industries. Today, they’re mostly concentrated in low-paying service and manufacturing jobs. Public education must play a bigger role than ever in integrating immigrant families, especially children, into the American mainstream, because the modern economy requires much higher levels of education for good jobs.

NEA’s Representative Assembly strongly supports giving English-language learners (ELLs) the help they need to learn English and achieve in school. Surveys show a large number of teachers feel they’re not adequately prepared to help these children. About 15 percent of educators receive no special instruction at all to help students learn English and achieve in academic subjects, and another 33 percent get only a little of the support they need.

NEA and its partners offer several resources to help educators of ELLs. NEA and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) recently produced a comprehensive report on Spanish-speaking students.

NEA is also developing training modules to help members improve the education of ELLs and close the achievement gaps. One focus will be on getting the best professional development. Ask your UniServ director about availability in your area.



Something To Talk About
English-only laws are restricting more than just what’s being said.

Culturally Responsive Teaching
Race and poverty don’t need to be the elephants in the classroom.

Language Can’t Be a Barrier
Here are practical ways to reach students when they speak what you don’t.

ELL Web Resources

Bilingual Resources

Bilingual Booklist

Using Technology on ELL Classrooms

The State University of New York at Stony Brook also has an excellent set of resources for teaching ELLs at with everything from research to lesson plans to vocabulary quizzes.