Specific needs in the literacy and language or Syrian refugee children in Germany and Canada: a follow-up study

Project Researchers

Xi (Becky) Chen
Coordination & Operations Committee

Associate Professor at University of Toronto

Project Description

In the first study, 2017-2018, a number of differences in the contextual factors influencing Syrian children’s learning of language and literacy were found between Germany and Canada concerning i.a. families’ right of residence, their living conditions and the school systems. These conditions were reflected in parents’ expectations with regard to children’s education and cultural identity as well as children’s views of their own situation as revealed in individual interviews. Each student’s knowledge of L1 was varied but did not include reading skills. All children scored very low in the L2 tests. These findings call for more support in language and literacy acquisition since both play a key role in children’s integration into society.


In the follow-up study, the same participants will be observed for another school year to find out how they develop. Specifically, parents and adolescents will again be interviewed to find out how they evaluate their current learning situation. However, special emphasis will lie on the school environment, on interviews with teachers and principals with regard to the question of how the specific needs of refugee children to learn their second language and to acquire literacy skills are being met by the schools. The first objective is, therefore, to investigate on the basis of qualitative interviews whether children progressed and, if so, how the development of refugee children is evaluated by the schools, parents and students themselves. The second objective is to measure this development with standardized tests in language and literacy in order to assess children’s performance in relation to that of monolingual peers. These tests will be complemented by well-proven screenings (repetition tasks) to test whether children are able to grasp sequences of language-specific suprasegmental and segmental patterns as well as language-specific grammatical structures. Testing will also include writing skills since these skills have been found to be particularly difficult for bilingual children with an Arabic background (e.g. Saiegh-Haddad, E. & Geva, E. 2080, 2010).


Participants will be the same as in the first study – three families with a total of eleven children, now ages nine to 15 years, in Germany and five families with a total of nine children, now aged ten to 16 years, in Canada. Again a mixed method design will be used with qualitative interviews (teachers, principals, parents and adolescents) and quantitative tests in both languages concerning receptive vocabulary, letter, word and sentence reading, rapid naming of digits, in addition to repetition tasks of language-specific non-words and sentences along with digit span (forwards and backwards) to measure short-term and working memory as well as text comprehension and oral and written production including expository skills in describing the rules of a favorite game(Nippold 2010).

Key research questions

1. How do students’ language and literacy skills in L2 develop?
2. Which specific needs do teachers identify? To what extent does their view converge with that of parents and students?
3. What specific support do refugee children receive at school and is this support effective?