Curriculum and English

In this interim period, as we relocate from France to Greece, we are doing some work on the curriculum. In refugee contexts one of the most important elements of the curriculum is English language. This is because English is the lingua franca of the camps (as it is of the world at large). If Aid workers have an additional language then it will invariably be English. If refugees from different countries want to converse together then they will often use bits of English to bridge their own linguistic differences. When we talk to parents and children, requests for English teaching far outstrip every other educational request.

We are firmly committed to the fact that ideally educational programmes do need to be delivered in the children’s own first language, but it is often not possible to do this straight away in an emergency situation. So, English has an important part to play as a curriculum vehicle as well as a subject in its own right.

It is also the case that in many countries around the world parts of the standard school curriculum are now being delivered through the medium of English, as part of wider educational strategies to encourage the learning of English. Delivering elements of the curriculum in English is therefore useful in an emergency context and standard practice in some of the countries which the children have actually come from.

Our reflections on the curriculum needs of the children therefore begin with English. Unfortunately we have experienced very serious difficulties in finding an English programme which works well in a refugee situation. This has come as a considerable surprise to us. English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world so it was inconceivable to us that someone, somewhere, wouldn’t have written an English course and text book which we could just adopt and use. Sadly, having reviewed an ever lengthening list of courses, we are still unable to find a course which works well in refugee education contexts.

Sometimes it is the structure of courses which do not fit our context. Sometimes the problem lies in the vocabulary which the courses prioritise. We don’t need an English course which teaches children how to ‘order a cup of coffee.’ In a classroom tent in a refugee camp we are more likely to urgently need the children to understand a phrase like ‘open your book’ or ‘draw a picture.’ We need a course which prioritises the vocabulary and grammatical structures which we actually urgently need in the field, and a course which builds on this in a logical but rapid way.

Children in refugee camps are often unable to access a full curriculum and often have limited access to other activities. They are sometimes desperate to learn and happy to spend considerable time memorising and learning outside of lessons. We need a course which reflects this.

With many of the commercial programmes, they carry expenses and design features which we just don’t need and which overly complicates their use in refugee contexts.

What we need is a programme which:

  • is accessible to a group of students when there is no language in common with the teacher, or even in common amongst the pupils

  • is linked to international levels for language learning, so that there is a clear sense of progression and achievement

  • has an initial vocabulary more suitable for school and learning use, than for community use

  • has more tasks and activities for children to do in lessons, so that a teacher can circulate and help whilst the rest of the class always have appropriate work to be doing individually

  • has ambitious out-of-lesson extension tasks for children

  • fits into an academic-year model which can vary in length from country to country, but which nevertheless allows us to carry out regular assessment and comparisons between pupils in different contexts

  • is simple and can be printed cost effectively (ideally copyright free) in a local situation at programme level and at individual lesson level

  • can be used in contexts where there is no electricity, poor infrastructure and potentially limited opportunities for teacher training and development work

  • can be distributed easily and in ‘light weight’ format so that there is no need to move bulky and heavy books around, and so that when pupils move away we do not have wasted half completed books, and so that we will not lose significant costs in materials if a set of classroom supplies is destroyed in a precarious camp context.

We haven’t yet been able to find the programme which delivers these outcomes and reluctantly we have come to the conclusion that we are probably going to have to design and write our own materials. Help gratefully recieved..!

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