Successes and challenges of children who are Syrian refugees: Language, literacy and wellbeing (Edmonton)

Project Researchers

Johanne Paradis
Coordination & Operations Committee

Professor at University of Alberta

Project Description

More than 28,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada since late 2015 (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, As such, there is an urgent need for research to provide evidence for effective policies and practices tailored to the needs of refugee children. However, few Canadian studies have focused on Arabic-speaking refugee children (Geva & Wiener, 2015). To this end, the proposed research will examine factors that contribute to the successes and challenges in language and literacy development, both in English, the second language (L2) and Arabic, the first language (L1), as Syrian refugee children settle in Canada.

In order to fully participate in Canadian society, refugee children need to achieve fluent language and literacy skills in the relevant official language (Jia et al., 2014), which is English in context of the present study. At the same time, maintenance of the L1 is key to family and community relationships (Tseng & Fuligni, 2000), and may confer cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism (Bialystok, 2007). Our project will make several important contributions. The first contribution is its focus on L2 children from refugee backgrounds. Due to refugee children’s unique experiences, existing research on L2 learning is not sufficient for establishing best practices. A second contribution is a new and broader outlook with respect to sources of individual differences in language and literacy development. Given their difficult pre-migration experiences, it is imperative to consider the contribution of socioemotional wellbeing to refugee children’s language and literacy development. A third contribution lies in its cross-cultural perspective. Our methods will be aligned with a project being carried out in Germany. German policy makers and educators face challenges that are similar to their Canadian counterparts, while the social and educational contexts are different between the two countries. Thus, this collaboration will create comparable ways of working with refugee populations and generate transnational comparative data.

The present study will adopt both quantitative and qualitative methods to gain a broad and an in-depth understanding of Syrian refugee children’s language and literacy development and socioemotional wellbeing. Data will be collected at two time points, in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019. We seek to meet the following objectives in both countries: 1) To investigate changes in English or German (L2) and Arabic (L1) language and literacy, 2) To determine how child (e.g., cognitive abilities, age of arrival, schooling) and family (e.g., parental education, home activities) factors underlie individual difference in the L1 and L2, 3) To examine interdependence between the L1 and L2, 4) To examine the association between socio-emotional well-being and language and literacy skills, 5) To create and refine Arabic measurement tools, and 6) To form a foundation for larger-scale research and to forge new partnerships. To meet these objectives, data from measures of language, literacy and cognitive abilities, socioemotional well-being, and home language-literacy environment will be analysed using linear mixed effects modelling to determine the complex relationships among these variables. Semi-structured parent interviews will provide an in-depth understanding of available resources and specific challenges for refugee children. Together, our results will have significant implications for the ways in which educational and service agencies interact with refugee children. Accordingly, our knowledge dissemination plan prioritizes outreach beyond the academic community.