Refugee education in Germany: A document analysis

Boy in classroom Munich Bavaria Germany

When the Syrian refugee crisis hit the news headlines in Canada, I couldn’t help but notice the news that Germany would be providing asylum to large numbers of refugees. As part of my research program looking at second language teaching and learning through the lens of pre-service and in-service teachers’ understanding, I embarked on a comparative international education project on responses to refugee education. As a first step, I worked with Sabrina Lohmann, a bilingual in-service teacher to help me with a document analysis.  We wondered: how did the German education system respond to the sudden increase of school-aged children needing to learn German and what can that response teach us, as Canadian educators?”

Refugee migration in Canada and Germany is quite different. Canada is often considered a country of immigration (Triadofilopoulos, 2012). Refugees are accepted with permanent resident status that can lead to citizenship. In early 2016, the Canadian federal government announced the acceptance of 25 000 Syrian refugees (Molnar, 2016). The selection was limited to women, complete families and single men from sexual minority groups, who were vetted prior to their entry into Canada. Children are enrolled in school upon arrival. Schools usually provide full or partial integration into a mainstream classroom, often coded as ELL (English Language Learner). While this integrated approach is not universal across schools, it represents a typical approach to refugee education in Canada.

In contrast, immigration policy in Germany does not have a path for refugees to become citizens, but because of the geographical location asylum seekers arrived in large numbers and could only request refugee status upon arrival. In 2017, 1.4 Million asylum seekers came to Germany (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 2018). These included families, single individuals and even unaccompanied minors. With large numbers of people housed in temporary housing, local school authorities arranged for introductory language instruction on site. These classes are often run by volunteers. Once children are in school, they spend one year in sheltered classes focused on learning German. Students who do not have basic literacy spend an additional year in those classes. After these 1-2 years of sheltered instruction, students are integrated into mainstream classes. This sheltered approach is relatively uniform across Germany.

With the large numbers of students and the focus on sheltered instruction in Germany, we wondered what Canadian educators could learn from the German situation. As a researcher, I looked at what documents were readily available for teachers in Germany and what the key messages were in those documents. As a teacher, Sabrina wanted to know what practical tips these documents could offer. Together we conducted a document analysis of 16 documents we found online between 2017-2019. The preliminary searches were done in Hamburg, Germany during my three research visits: June 2017, June 2018, and May 2019. Since Google searches are localized, it was important to conduct the searches in German, in Germany, in order to find the types of documents a local teacher would find.

We read the documents for what they could tell us about second language learning, intercultural communication, and trauma-informed pedagogy as these topics emerge in research done in Canada (Dressler & Gereluk, 2017). Second language learning in this case referred to learning German, but the theory and practical tips are applicable across languages. Intercultural communication refers to information provided to teachers about how to communicate with families as well as specific backgrounds of their students, in many cases, Arabic-speaking children from Syria.Trauma-informed pedagogy would include any messages about how the situation of fleeing one’s country, experiencing war and trauma, and the reality of interrupted schooling might necessitate interacting differently with these students than with other immigrant or local students. The documents represent what teachers might find if doing an online search under the topic refugee education, but serve to provide  a picture of German refugee education in general.

Five key messages emerged from the documents:

  1. Language learning involves immersing the student in meaningful social and academic language. Since language learning needs to happen quickly for students to communicate on a daily basis, the documents advocate for an “immersion in the new language”. This immersion can be facilitated by a whole school approach in which all teachers, regardless of subject-area or teaching assignment, are part of the team that supports the students in learning the new language. 
  1. Literacy instruction involves the awareness of different writing scripts as well as the effects of interrupted schooling. SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education) is an acronym used in the English-speaking world as shorthand for the situation of many refugee children described in the documents. Some will have lost years of formal schooling due to migration, time spent in refugee camps, or temporary living situations in one country where formal schooling was restarted, but not continued. As well, for students learning German or English who have learned to read and write in Arabic, there will still be an adjustment of getting used to different alphabets, writing direction and writing styles.
  1. Trauma-informed pedagogy can mitigate student stress while learning. Teachers who  know the signs of trauma can avoid triggers that might seem innocent to outsiders. A school assembly with loud music and cheering might be frightening to students who have experienced bombing and raids. While our school system prizes choice, some refugee children respond to choice with confusion and anxiety. For them, structure in the school day may provide greater safety and comfort.
  1. Language learning can occur through music, art, and drama. These modes of learning support language development. They also connect students socially, creating trust and safe spaces. These modes allow students to express themselves in ways they might not be able to do through speaking.
  1. Family involvement can enhance the efforts of teachers. Informing families about the process of integration in school, language learning goals and how these will be targeted can provide families with reassurance that their children are learning. Families that feel supported can be free to be more involved in their children’s schooling.

In reviewing all of the documents, an overarching message is the importance of teaching children the societal language (German in this case, but French or English in Canada) as quickly and as well as possible. To their credit, several documents not only convey this message, but provide concrete lesson plans and teaching activities that work toward this goal. These activities are useful in the Canadian context for those who can read German as they can be used in German bilingual schools or translated into English for use in ELL classrooms or mainstream classrooms with high ELL populations. Especially in a setting where differentiation usually occurs through streaming lower-achieving students into a school route that limits post-secondary educational choices, learning the language of school instruction is closely linked to academic success. Similarly, in Canada, ELLs represent a large group of early school leavers Thus, a focus on second language learning is not misplaced here either.

The learning from the German situation has implications for teachers and administrators in Canada. Teachers can improve their practice by considering the importance of language learning in the mainstream classroom in all subject areas. Administrators can consider the time, class structure and support refugee students needed in order to thrive in schools. The strength of our school systems is in how they serve those who need them the most for making their home in a new country.

Dressler, R., & Lohmann, S. (2020). Refugee education in Germany: A document analysis. University of Calgary.

Keeping language learning going when school is out!

Girl Learning Language Outside

This week schools in Alberta have closed to minimize community spread of the COVID 19 virus. These are not the first worldwide to close, nor likely the last. However, since Alberta is home to very vibrant school language programs , it occurred to me that some parents and older students may be wondering how to keep their language skills up when their French Immersion, Bilingual Programs, or other second language program has closed down. Teachers will be providing support online for core subjects, but the minimum number of hours they program for may still leave some people searching for tips to keep up listening, speaking, reading and writing in German, Spanish, Mandarin, Ukrainian, Arabic, Punjabi, Italian, or another second language programs they are studying in. The key is to follow your interests and practice authentic language in context. The tips below are written to the person wanting to practice, but for parents, consider each instruction to have the phrase “or your child” tacked on.

Language Apps

Language apps do not replace a teacher, but they are always advancing. I use them to learn the basics of a new language or strengthen the ones I already know. If you already know the language, you can start with a placement test. If not, start from the beginning. If you get bored, move up a level; if you are struggling, repeat a level. I have experience with Duolingo and Memrise, but there are others you can find by searching online and most have a free version. Duolingo has recently added stories, which are a real hit, but if you are studying more than one language, you will recognize the story! Memrise has a rapid practice function where you work against the clock. Some days I like it, but other times it is too stressful. Most of these apps have Leaderboards (for the competitive) and Friend lists (so you can compare with and encourage others). The important take-away is to set yourself a regular, if not daily goal, and tailor the experience to your needs.

Video streaming

With the many affordable online streaming apps, often feeding directly to our TVs, films and TV shows in other languages are at our fingertips. More and more allow you to search by language or “international”. Once you have found something to watch, got to the settings to see if you can change the language or the subtitles. You may also be able to do this with streaming services from TV stations from other countries. I recommend subtitles in the same language as is on screen. That way your listening is reinforced by reading the words in the second language, rather than blocked out because you are busy reading English. This especially helps when the speech is in dialect, too fast for your ear, or you have hearing challenges. These shows can be a great way to add to your knowledge of the language and culture in context. I learned how to say “not until after the autopsy” from my favourite German police procedural show. Perhaps you weren’t looking for that phrase, but you get my point: follow your interests!

YouTube channels

Speaking of following your interest, do you have a favourite hobby or want to learn about the country where the language you are learning is spoken? YouTube is an excellent source of such videos. My son lives in Japan so my husband and I frequently watch videos about different places we may visit the next time we are able to go. I learned about the specialty foods in Hokkaido before a work trip there and was able to know what the “must try” foods were. Ever hear of Ghengis Khan – the food, not the warrior? Search YouTube and you will see one of the meals I had a chance to try.

E-books and audio books

Whether from the library, an author’s website, or Storybooks Canada related sites (Global Storybooks Portal etc.), there are many e-books and audio books in other languages available online. Some even read to you!


While you are checking online for music videos for sing-a-longs or movement breaks (to get the wiggles out), check out Lisa Anderson’s blog Speech Thru Song. Lisa is a musician, composer, and singer as well as a French and Spanish as a Second Language Teacher. She has compiled an amazing list of resources and information about how music can help you learn a second language.

Connect with a Speaker of the Target Language

Do you know someone who speaks the language you are learning? Maybe it is a relative or elderly acquaintance who is feeling isolated and lonely. Write them a letter in their language and send it by email or snail mail. Alternatively, you could use the phone or Skype/Facetime to talk to them. If, however, the timing isn’t right, record an audio message and send it to them. They would be thrilled!

This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully you are now inspired to keep up your or your children’s languages while schools are closed. Even once our schools reopen from the COVID 19 precautions, there is always summer break to overcome!

Responsive Interviewing: Allowing Interviewer Voice

In my graduate training, I read studies that used interviews and conducted some in my masters and doctoral research but received no explicit training in how to conduct them. In my experience, this is not unusual. We often assume that we know how interviews work and therefore it often would not occur to us that we need to learn how. Recently I read about a technique called “responsive interviewing” (Rubin & Rubin, 2012). My main take-away was that the traditional interview where the interviewer attempts to stay neutral or refrain from commenting or correcting is just one way to conduct an interview. This traditional interviewing comes from a particular mindset – that the interviewer should not influence the interviewee and therefore needs to stay out of the interview. Alternatively, responsive interviewing comes from the view that an interview is a conversation. The interviewer may agree or disagree, pose unscripted questions or provide their own opinion. The inherent view is that the interviewer is both researcher and participant and can promote insight and reflection by contributing to the conversation.

Intrigued, I switched up my interviewing style in my most recent research interviews. My internal reaction was interesting. I felt guilty, thinking that I was interfering with the process. In particular, one interview stands out. The participant did not agree with my use of a certain term. She argued her point well, so I considered dropping my use or discussion of the term in order to move on. Instead, I pushed back, pointing out what the research says about the concept and how it may strengthen our understanding of pedagogy for particular students. She agreed to disagree, and the interview went on. However, the next morning, I awoke to an email from the interviewee. Apparently, our discussion during the interview prompted her to do her own research. She discovered the term being used by researchers in a field she respected, which resulted in her warming up to the concept. In reflecting up on her email, I was confirmed in my decision to change my interview style as I feel it brought about learning both of us. Had I limited myself to a more traditional interview style, our exchange would not have happened.

Moving forward, I am motivated to explore another aspect of interviewing methodology: identity memos (Maxwell, 2013; McGregor & Fernandez, 2019). These memos require the interviewer to take notes after the interview, noting how the researcher herself was affected by the content and process of interviewing. I have not yet employed it, so stay tuned.

Maxwell, J. A. (2013). Qualitative research design. An interactive approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McGregor, J., & Fernandez, J. (2019). Theorizing qualitative interviews: Two autoethnographic reconstructions. Modern Language Journal, 103(1), 227–247.

Rubin, H. J., & Rubin, I. S. (2012). The responsive interview as an extended conversation. In Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data (2nd ed., pp. 108–128).

Update: International Symposium on Bilingualism 11 Limerick, Ireland

As an update to my post from last week, I have returned from my conference and networking trip to Ireland. Here are a few highlights

  1. I was able to meet with someone from the Study Abroad office and learn about the structure of their education program and international programs. The challenges are similar – their students are in a fixed program and it would take some creative thinking to accommodate an international experience such as Teaching Across Borders (TAB). However, I don’t see this as a stop sign, rather than a time to yield and reflect.
  2. I presented on some initial research on blogging, as a preparation for future research on the use of the Ning blog for reflection during the TAB program.
  3. I networked with several scholars in applied and educational linguistics.
    1. I learned that my research on the linguistic landscape of the classroom is being read by graduate students at a university in Israel.
    2. I reconnected with Aiofe Lenihan, the person who had originally said “You should come to Limerick some day” and learned about her research on Facebook and how it overlaps with mine.
    3. I discussed future research ideas with Francis Hult, who was the external examiner on my dissertation committee and the person who introduced me to nexus analysis and linguistic landscape analysis.
    4. I learned that Bernard Spolsky is doing a series on language policy management in former colonies. His work on Brazil makes a helpful addition to the body of work that colleagues and I are looking at in our comparative study on conceptualizations of diversity between Canada and Brazil.
  4. On top of all of this, I had a chance to experience Limerick. The conference providers arranged Irish dancers at the Monday evening BBQ, I toured the town and King John’s castle, and enjoyed the friendly hospitality of the local people.

It was a full and rewarding trip. I look forward to traveling to Ireland again some day with more time to see the countryside.

Job searched and found

One of my first posts to this blog was about my job search:

“Anticipating the completion of my Ph.D. this academic year, I have been responding to job postings for Assistant Professor (Tenure Track) positions. This has involved the creation of a teaching and researching portfolio of quite some length. Online resources such as youtube videos from university HR departments and sample Statements of Research Experience and Statements of Teaching Philosophy have been insightful as to ways others have found of expressing what they do and why, as well as what employers look for and why. None of this replaces in-person mentorship for which I am extremely grateful to several professors who have been willing to read over my writing and provide me with constructive feedback. The job market for professorial positions is competitive and despite preparations for success, one must somehow also prepare for rejection. I am grateful to those university personnel who take the time to update applicants on the status of one’s application.  Wish me luck!” January 16, 2012

Looking back at this post two things stand out:

1. Oh boy, if I had only known how long it would take!

2. Why didn’t I add hyperlinks to make the post more useful to the reader?

In January 2012, I had just begun to write up my PhD research results into a dissertation. I kept myself to a tight timeline and encourage (nagged) my readers to do the same. As a result, I defended in August of that year and crossed the stage in November. With a PhD in the pipeline, I began that fall as a sessional instructor at the University of Calgary. From December 2011 – December 2014, I sent out job applications for any Assistant Professor and Instructor positions within Canada that I felt qualified for, some in German departments, but mostly in Education faculties. I even sent out two Post-Doc applications. The job applications resulted in three interviews. The first was July 2013, 18 months after I had started applying for positions. Receiving this interview taught me that there was no point in applying for general education positions or any that I was only remotely qualified for. It was a position that closely fit my qualifications that netted me attention. The second interview was for my dream job (on paper, didn’t get to find out for real). The experience was also valuable because I was able to visit a university I only knew by reputation, affording me the thrill of meeting some of my heroes, while also casting the institution in a more realistic light. The third interview was the charm. I was offered the position I now hold: Instructor in an education faculty with an administrative position that draws upon my international research experience and ties in nicely with my work in teacher education. Looking back, three years as a sessional instructor seems like a long time, but as I knew even back in 2012, there aren’t enough positions for all of the wonderful people out there who are qualified, interested and worthy. Still, on one hand, while I wish I had spared myself applying for those positions that weren’t a perfect match, on the other hand, I know that each application and interview was a step toward that one that proved successful and the one in which I believe I will be happiest in.

So, to make up for the lack of hyperlinks in the original post, here are some resources and tips based on what I found helpful in my job search as well as my experience on a hiring committee:

1. The cover letter is the most important item in your package. Taylor it to the job advertisement specifically addressing how you fit what they are asking for. All of the other items may just be glanced at, but if you point out one item in your package that is specifically relevant to the job, it will get more attention if you highlight it in your cover letter. For tips on this and all matters academic job related, visit You can find out why your cover letter sucks and how to stop acting like a grad student.

2. If you are asked to provide a portfolio, put together one document with samples of your best work, rather than a collection of separate documents. I modeled the one I used to land the prestigious university interview after one I found online where someone was applying for tenure. I introduced each section with a brief explanation of what it showed about my skills, relating it back to the job advertisement.

3. Read up (or watch) all you can about academic interviews and take advantage of one of those how to eat properly dinners your university might offer. Going from the free food diet of grad school to the fine dining of (some) academic interviews can quite a challenge. Don’t forget to practice answering those typical academic interview questions out loud! You will be glad you did.

There are a great many tips out there, some useful and some not. Take these for what they are worth and good luck!

Working toward a thesis proposal

Now that I have returned from my trips to LA and Europe, I am working toward my thesis proposal by completing projects, reading and later, working on the actual writing.

There are a number of projects that will occupy my time until then. I am continuing with the data collection in my pilot project with a German-English bilingual school. Dr. Tanja Kupisch and I will be continuing our research with young bilinguals with the goal of writing an article together.

The time is drawing closer to the Congress 2010 and the CACS Pre-Conference, so the logistical work requires regular attention. During the Congress, I will be attending the CACS Pre-Conference and parts of the Canadian Association of University Teachers of German (CAUTG) and Canadian Association of Applied Linguistics/Association Canadienne de Linguistic Appliquée (ACLA) conferences. The presentation that I have had accepted for ACLA is based on an article that I am currently revising for submission.

Upcoming Conferences

February 2010

1st International Heritage Languages Conference, Los Angeles, California organized by the National Heritage Language Research Centre. I will be presenting on Increasing the Effectiveness of Website Promotion for Heritage Language Bilingual School Programs.

Annual Conference of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sprachwissenschaft (DGfS), Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. Dr. Tanja Kupisch ( and I will be presenting Why 2L1 may sometimes look like child L2: Effects of input quantity.

August 2010

Traditions and Transitions Conference, Waterloo, Ontario, organized by the Centre for German-Canadian Studies. My planned presentation is entitled Challenging the Tradition of German Bilingual Programs in Canada: Transitioning to a Dual Immersion Model?