Research interests:

second language teaching & learning; linguistic identity; bilingualism; teacher education

Refugee education in Germany: A document analysis

Posted: June 23rd, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: multilingualism, research, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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. http://hdl.handle.net/1880/112214



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