Top 5 Pieces of Advice for Teachers with Refugee ELL Students

By FeedtheTeacher

With refugees at the border as the headline of many news stories and articles, we thought that it is only fitting that we remind teachers how we can better serve refugee families in our classrooms.

Every teacher has had refugee English Language Learners (ELL) at some point in their classroom. As teachers, we try our best to connect with ELL students, collaborate with their parents to ensure success, and to be a vehicle for love and support. While these tasks are not easy, considering they are just one facet of a teacher’s responsibilities, they are a critical part of the classroom to ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn from a highly effective teacher. Despite the importance of including English Language Learners in the differentiation of content and classroom culture, many teachers lack the knowledge of exactly what refugee students go through and have gone through. There are many factors that cause this lack of understanding. The most obvious are the language barrier and the complex nature of immigration.

Immigration to the United States can be an amazing, life-changing event, not only for refugees, but for their future generations. While the immigration process is very complicated in the United States, it is arguably one of the easiest processes to follow compared to other countries. Because the process is very complicated and it weighs heavily on the future of human’s lives, it is very important for immigrants and refugees to understand the process and options available to them. However, the average refugee comes to the United States without the ability to speak English, without a rigorous education, and without resources and supplies. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that he or she will easily understand the outline of the immigration process and laws, none the least, the nitty gritty details that weigh heavily on his or her life and future success. Not to mention that some refugees are small children who were given a stack of money and told to get to the United States with their sibling. Even many United States citizens do not understand the process of immigration and what refugees must go through in order to become law-abiding citizens of the United States. This article lists the top 5 pieces of advice for teachers with refugee English Language Learners that every teacher should be aware of in order to ensure their success.

1. We know how to overcome the language barrier

Too many classroom teachers treat their refugee English Language Learners as if they are the same as the rest of the students in the class; as if they already possess the skills necessary to be successful in the United States and in the classroom. This is an unfortunate and lazy oversight. Without the proper differentiation and classroom instruction, ELL students will either not optimally develop in your class or will flat out fail. Put trust in the fact that these students have enough on their plate, not to mention dealing with an uncaring teacher. The first step should be to get in touch with an ELL resource teacher at your school. If there isn’t a specialized teacher at your school, then seek out resources either online or in professional development. If you are at a loss, a quick google search will bring you to techniques to get you started. A few include making your lesson visual, pair ELL students with native language speakers, include more activities that give ELL students the opportunity to speak without judgement, include activities in which ELL students can share their culture, and send documents home in the translated language and in English. To begin lesson planning with ELL students in mind and including a few of these strategies, check the WIDA Can Do descriptors Key Uses Editions to help effectively differentiate and to make your work easier.

2.  Unorthodox Family Structures

If you grew up in the United States, then you are probably most familiar with the family structure in which the parents provide almost everything for their children and gradually move away from providing financial resources. Well, for a refugee family, this is a dream come true. However, in many refugee families, responsibility is sometimes placed upon the children to interpret anything involving the English language, cook, clean, babysit, provide extra income, and to also be successful in school. This is a heavy responsibility to bear for anybody, not to mention a child. One effect of this family structure is that discipline is difficult in the household. How can a parent who relies on his or her child to take care of them even begin to discipline his or her child for misbehaving? After all, it is wise to not bite the hand that feeds you. This is a complicated and almost imminent problem within refuge families, considering children’s brains are not fully developed. Another problem that this causes is the abandonment of the native language and culture by the child. The children are so busy keeping the family together and learning how to be successful in the community that he or she may abandon his or her native language and culture altogether. By providing love and support for ELL students, you could just be that mentor that keeps a child on the right path and on track for success.

3.  Immigration takes time and a lawyer

It turns out that the immigration process is very complex. It is so complex that immigration lawyers have dedicated their lives to understanding the laws in order to help refugees be successful in the United States. An overview can be found on the American Immigration Council’s website here .  Despite this complexity, taking the time to understand an overview of immigration into the United States will help you to connect with your refugee ELL students and their families. As well, if any status or ethical issues arise while guiding your ELL students, you should have an immigration lawyer’s contact information or business card to help direct their family toward success. In fact, many law firms specializing in immigration take pro bono cases. For example, Lewis Kappes Attorneys at Law in Indianapolis, IN regularly take pro bono cases because the firm works hard and is passionate about their work. Without these pro bono cases, how can a refugee with nothing even begin to find success in the United States?

4.  Don’t fear, WIDA is here

Nowadays, WIDA (pronounced “weeda”) simply stands for WIDA. It is an organization that is committed to the academic achievement of those students who are “linguistically diverse” ( The part that you, as an ELL teacher, need to know is how to use WIDA resources to better serve ELL students in your classroom. For one, you should obtain the ACCESS scores from the school or specialist at the school. For more information regarding ACCESS tests, see the interpretive guide here.

The results will show the proficiency level of the student in various language domains including listening, speaking, writing, and reading. These results also show a scaled score that includes the confidence interval of the score (which is great that statistics are being used on a per student basis). If the confidence interval is large, then this reveals that the score may not be the most dependable. Simply look at your student’s proficiency level in each domain, then utilize the appropriate Key Uses Edition for the grade level. The Key Uses Edition categorizes what an ELL student should be able to achieve based on the ACCESS score and the nature of the activity. This basically lays out a red carpet for you to follow to figure out how to differentiate effectively for that student. For example, if a 12th grade ELL student is instructed to explain a topic by writing a paper and has a writing score of 1.9 (on a scale from 1 to 6), then checking the 12th grade Key Uses Edition reveals that the student can  “produce short responses to questions using word/phrase banks and label charts, graphs, timelines, or cycles to describe phenomena”. Anything more rigorous will have to be differentiated and scaffolded. In fact, as a teacher with high expectations, you should definitely provide scaffolds to help that student develop skills that are more aligned with a higher ACCESS score.

5.  There is an abundance of resources

There really is no excuse for claiming ignorance on this topic. There are tons of resources for teachers and refugee families.

WIDA not only provides Key Uses Editions for moving forward with ACCESS score data, but also provide professional learning opportunities.

The AIC provides lots of information regarding the immigration process and support for different situations that could arise such as abuse.

Most states have a network of people who have come together to respond to the problems that refugees face. COIN and Exodus Refugee are examples based in Indiana that help refugee and immigrant families enter into communities and work with immigration lawyers.

In Indianapolis, the immigrant welcome center strives to support refugees. Their voluneers, known as Natural Helpers, assist refugee families in the community. A simple google search will lead you to your city’s version of a welcome center.

Immigration law firms that are committed to serving refugee and immigrant families.

A more general website that is a nonprofit resource center. Here, you can find general support and information.

It is becoming more and more apparent that all teachers are ELL teachers. Since research shows that ELL students learn best in a low-stress environment where they are encouraged to speak, make connections with friends, and share their culture, the education system has moved away from having a single ELL class for ELL students. The hope of this article is that you, as a content teacher, internalize the five pieces of advice and begin to backwards plan with these steps in mind.

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