Documenting Strengths-Based Approaches to English Language Education with Learners from Refugee and Asylum-Seeker Backgrounds

Year: 2021

Author: Burke, Rachel

Type of paper: Individual Paper

The Australian government emphasises the ‘three e’s’ of English, employment, and education as integral to successful resettlement. However, there are complex factors associated with forced migration that mean people with refugee and asylum seeker experiences face specific and additional linguistic and educational challenges not encountered by other migrant groups. These challenges relate to both the contexts within which people flee their country of origin, and the structural and policy mechanisms at play in resettlement settings such as Australia. Therefore, approaches and resources to facilitate English language proficiency for other groups in the community are not necessarily appropriate or sufficiently responsive to the needs and challenges of people with refugee and asylum-seeker backgrounds.Unlike many other migrant groups, people forced to seek refuge due to war, civil unrest, persecution, and poverty frequently do so with little preparation, minimal financial resources, and limited opportunities to study the target language. Further, people forcibly displaced from their homes may arrive in Australia after protracted and dangerous journeys, having had limited opportunities for education or having encountered substantial disruptions to their educational and/or professional lives. Health-related impacts of displacement, financial burdens, and carer responsibilities can significantly limit the time and resources available for English language learning following resettlement. However, a small yet growing body of research also seeks to highlight the complex linguistic and literate repertoires that language learners mobilise in displacement contexts, as they negotiate the pragmatic and linguistic demands of transit and resettlement experiences. Such research seeks to foreground the voices and experiences of people with refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds, to counter deficit framing, and better understand language learners’ varied and complex linguistic circumstances, strengths, and needs. Such understandings are a basic yet vital requisite to planning and implementing strengths-based, responsive, and tailored language education that works with learners to help prepare them for the linguistic and sociocultural demands of higher education and employment. This paper draws on the first stage of a pilot study to document the ways in which educators and learners in resettlement contexts collaborate to mobilise diverse linguistic and literate repertoires to navigate the language demands of higher education. Exploring case studies from a range of educational contexts, the paper will identify the linguistic challenges encountered by some people with refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds regarding both entry to and successful engagement with tertiary studies, and explore possibilities for collaborative, strengths-based, and institution-wide approaches to language support. Documenting the work of learners and educators to value and integrate learners’ existing linguistic expertise to build toward greater English language proficiency in resettlement contexts offers an important opportunity to reimagine language in higher education, and to transform instructional practices to better reflect the diverse linguistic repertoires of all students and staff.