* Utilising reading texts with unschooled refugee students

QCAL Conference, Making Waves, Brisbane Oct. 2006


Hazel will use custom-written, simple, illustrated reading texts as a basis for discussion of some of the principles behind her teaching practice, as well as for demonstration of a range of classroom techniques to assist newly-arrived adult refugees who have had minimal or no prior formal education.  She will demonstrate methods which take advantage of the learning styles from the students’ countries of origin, which practise decoding skills gradually introduced throughout her courses, and which encourage healthy lifestyles and positive interaction with the wider community in the unfamiliar environment in which the students find themselves.


Hazel Davidson has been an ESL teacher for some 25 years, with a long-standing interest in literacy for students who have minimal or no print literacy in their first language.  She is co-editor of A Whole New World and the accompanying sound CD, Songs for a Whole New World.  She is also co-author of four reading packages, as well as two volumes of beginner spelling materials.


1. Underlying Principles

a) Students' perceptions of school

Even when students have never themselves been to school before arriving in Australia, most have perceptions of what a school is and expectations about how teachers teach and students learn.  These practices are very often quite different from those in modern Australian educational institutions.  Needless to say, I am not suggesting that we must replicate African, for example, teaching and learning methods.  However, for a number of reasons it can be very helpful to use and build on those methods in our classrooms. 

Many, many things in Australia are new, different, overwhelming and frightening for refugee students.  Therefore the reassurance and confidence, which are provided by at least occasional links with the familiar, in themselves assist learning.  Moreover, it would be arrogant of us to assume that all third world techniques are completely useless.  On the other hand, I certainly do not confine myself solely to these practices but mix them with others which are more common in modern Australian classrooms.

On the grounds that no-one here needs to be reminded of more modern practices which we all use every day, in this paper I will focus mainly on the less familiar, old fashioned techniques which have fallen into disuse in Australia.

Rote learning and repetition:  However much we find rote learning a mind-numbingly boring experience, there are some things which can still be efficiently learned in this way by students who are not resistant to the practice.  Students from poor countries expect to learn by rote.  They have to be encouraged, of course, to think about the meaning of what they are repeating and, as teachers, we need to make sure we put the rote-learned information and skills into many different contexts so that students transfer them appropriately and gain maximum benefit from them. 

Routine repetition at the beginning of each lesson of material learned on previous occasions provides a reassuring, confidence-building start to each day.  The routine in itself provides a much-needed security blanket and helps students to be aware that they have indeed learned something already.  It also helps them retain what they have already learned since many will have little or no opportunity to revise at home.

Reading books:  In most third-world countries, books are valued in a way which the incidental realia we often use in classrooms are not.  There is real status in having and being able to read a book.  Moreover, finishing a whole book, however small, brings a great sense of satisfaction and achievement to beginner students.

Choral reading:  For us choral reading is a mindless waste of time.  For Africans it is often THE way reading is done in schools.  For people from oral cultures reciting (and singing) aloud is a natural and important part of life and of transmission of wisdom.  This custom is extended into schools where teachers are in very short supply and therefore cannot possibly provide individual attention. 

Reading along with the rest of the class is also reassuring because the weak readers can hide within the group and gradually become more proficient without making spectacles of themselves.  Moreover, many cultures strongly discourage exhibitionism and severely punish errors.  So students can be very reluctant to offer answers or read by themselves.  (I'm not suggesting here, of course, that we never single out individual students from the group but rather that the choral practices to which they are accustomed give them some relief from our individualistic systems.)

While we doubt the educational value of these techniques, they are unlikely to harm students' progress and may be far more effective with students who enjoy them than we have come to believe.  On the other hand, we clearly cannot stop at merely choral reading of a text and do nothing more with it.

b) Reinforcing & extending other parts of course

One of the great values of using sustained reading texts is that they can be used to put into a meaningful context other parts of our courses.  Some of these are listed below.

Names and most common sounds of letters:  Many of us spend a lot of time and energy on making sure students know the names of the letters of the alphabet and, increasingly again nowadays, the sounds these letters represent in our language.  (Personally I restrict myself initially to the most common sound value for each letter and only later, after these have been mastered, start to introduce the many variations which occur in English.)  Decoding a reading text which engages the students' interest, gives an ideal opportunity to use and practise yet again these skills we have been teaching.

Reading gives information (meaning):  An extended text allows us to demonstrate clearly that the point in all of this "letter stuff" is to be able to acquire information, enjoy stories etc.  I'm sure we all spend time discussing the actual meaning of the text, looking at the illustrations and so on with exactly this in mind.

Clear articulation:  For non-English speakers (and sometimes for native speakers too, of course) encouraging clear articulation is crucial to helping them to communicate with the community in which they live.  Reading aloud slowly can be used as yet another way of moving towards this goal.

Links between pronunciation and squiggles on page:  For some students the squiggles on a page of text are rather akin to magic, magic to which other people have the key but from which they are locked out.  Many believe they have to learn every single word and, not surprisingly, feel completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.  Teachers often need to work hard at getting across the message that pronunciation and reading are in fact closely linked, that listening is really one of the crucial keys to both reading and spelling in English.  The process of reading aloud can be used as just one of the tools to impart and reinforce this message.

Exercises for writing practice:  Reading texts can be, and commonly are, used as a basis for writing activities.  "Write one sentence/five words about the story" through to "Write your opinion about …"

Introduction to syllabification:  An extended text will almost inevitably contain some words of more than one syllable.  While I do not overtly teach the rules of syllabification at this level, I demonstrate them by dividing words into syllables on the white board.   I then decode one syllable at a time and finally return to decode the whole word.  This is a precursor to actively teaching the principles of syllabification as an important tool in both reading and writing.

Introduction to digraphs:  Similarly, without trying to get the students to remember at this stage, I consistently point out, for example, that e and a together (and I underline them or put a box around them) represent the sound /i/ and so on.  This lays the groundwork for starting the process of actively teaching the digraphs at a later stage.

Introduction to un/stressed syllables:  English is peculiar in its use of frequently unpredictable unstressed syllables and this causes huge difficulties for non-English speakers who are struggling to comprehend spoken English and to be understood by native speakers.  It is also the base of a very large proportion of spelling problems for everyone who wants to write in English because almost every unstressed vowel sound is reduced to the neutral schwa sound.  Oral reading gives repeated contexts in which to demonstrate this phenomenon.

Sentence rhythms:  The stress-timed rhythms of English sentences cause many problems for speakers of other languages.  Oral reading can give opportunities to demonstrate and practise these.

2. Sample texts

a) Custom written

There are many advantages in writing texts specifically for our students and most conscientious teachers do this from time to time.  There are a few pitfalls here, however, especially with students whose first language is not English.

·        Photos:  Most students love to see their photos in a book.  However, it is necessary to be a bit cautious because some cultures prohibit images and some students are fearful of identification and political persecution even after they have reached Australia. 

·        Names:  Students often do not know their classmates' names, which then become additional challenging vocabulary items at a time when they are already overloaded with new words.  Including students' names also makes a book more difficult to use with other classes.  On the other hand, inclusion of photos and/or names of students certainly provides greater identification with the text.  So teachers need to use their own professional judgement about these issues.

·        Shared experiences: Texts based on excursions, special events etc are very valuable tools of engagement.

·        Focus of students' interests and needs:   Books written for individual students or classes can cover at a realistic level topics such as health and other practical issues, background information on Australian history, geography and customs  ("values"!!) and so on.

·        Disadvantages  The main negatives of this type of text lie in the teacher TIME & ENERGY they inevitably consume.

·        Technical issues which need to be overcome when you write for these students:

Tense:  It is imperative to use one consistent tense in a text and to concentrate of the basic use of that tense: present continuous for unfinished actions NOW; simple present as the habitual (Every day, sometimes, always, never) tense; simple past for recounts.  NEVER use the historic present which is so common in children's story books (Goldilocks sees a house and knocks on the door…)

Vocabulary:  Use common, known words for the bulk of the text, while aiming to increase GRADUALLY the students' active and passive vocabulary.  Always avoid the whimsical uncommon touches, so beloved of children's authors.  Don't use puns and plays on words because they cause great confusion.  Jokes are also culturally very tricky.

Short sentences:  Students' extremely limited grasp of English sentence structure makes short sentences imperative.  Basically avoid passive verbs and all conjunctions apart from and, but and because.

Chunking text for meaning:  This traditional practice provides a valuable prop at the very early stages of reading.  If a phrase such as in the house is wrapped at the end of the line after the, for example, these students will read it as in the with house disconnected from the rest of the phrase.

Font: It is important to choose a large, clear sans serif font.  You can find all the different states' primary school fonts through www.schoolfonts.com.au .

Left to right:  We cannot assume students know to read from left to right.  So that must be a convention we constantly reinforce.  So make sure the texts you produce follow this convention.  Putting text on funny, decorative angles is very confusing in these early stages.

Complete text:  A text needs to be coherent but not too long because exhaustion sets in very quickly and students also lose the thread of meaning easily because they decode very slowly.  (Of course, another crucial technique is to return regularly to reread previously decoded texts at a pace fast enough to retain meaning.)

Colour or black and white:  For many reasons (attractiveness, clarity of meaning, mastery of names of colours etc) coloured illustrations are better than black and white with these students.  However, funding and available resources will often make colour an impossibility.  A coloured cover with black and white inside is the next best alternative.

Illustrations:  Some cultures do not use pictures so that illustrations which are self-explanatory to us, are sometimes a complete mystery to the students.  (See notes in A Whole New World pp.x-xi)

In general, photos are more effective than drawings if they are available.  Using lots of photos of students engaged in class activities and photos of famous landmarks from their countries of origin will accustom students to our propensity to using pictures.  Then we can gradually move on to drawings as illustrations.

b) Existing texts 

Although the vast majority of published texts are far too difficult in topic, length, vocabulary and  sentence structure for these students, there are some which are appropriate.  For example, there are three reading texts in A Whole New World, which Dorothy Court, Marg Hounslow and I edited earlier this year as a resource for teachers grappling with the challenges of teaching unschooled refugees.

The earlier books which Dorothy Court and I produced have an Easy section, which can sometimes be used, albeit VERY slowly, with these students. (See bibliography below.)

Paula Withers has also written some excellent beginner reading materials aimed at newly arrived unschooled refugee students. 

3. Demonstration

I have chosen as a demonstration text John and Hazel Live in Brisbane which appears on pp.81-100 in a Whole New World.  For teachers who could not attend my session at the Making Waves conference in Brisbane in October this year, there is a detailed explanation of how I introduce and use this text in the teachers' notes of A Whole New World (pp.xvii-xix).

4. Conclusion

Throughout my teaching career I have found it beneficial to balance the teaching practices with which our students are familiar and comfortable with those favoured by modern Australian educators.  Within this framework I very frequently prefer to use sustained, continuous texts as a vehicle for practising and reinforcing the skills of decoding, encoding, listening, intelligible pronunciation, use and understanding of sentence structure, reading for and analysing meaning in print texts.