This is an ongoing pilot study which explores differences in contextual factors influencing Syrian children’s learning of language and literacy in Germany and Canada. The comparison includes childrens’ performance at school as well as their family dynamics and wellbeing in their new environment. The study employs a mixed method design: quantitative tests to measure language and literacy development of both English/ German (L2) and Arabic (L1) and qualitative interviews with the parents and the (same) adolescent students with regard to how they evaluate their current learning situation. In addition, most teachers (and some principals) of the participants were also interviewed to find out how the specific needs of refugee children learning a second language and acquiring literacy skills are being met by the schools.
In both countries, children improved on several L2 measures. While many of the scores did not improve greatly, this finding implies that the children are becoming more acquainted with their second language, in particular with the academic language used at school (as represented by the vocabulary and the reading tests). There was also an increase in scores of Arabic receptive vocabulary, letter-word reading, text comprehension and narrative production, which may indicate that the acquisition of skills in the second language may contribute to the development of skills in the first language (cf. Cummins, 2000).
Interviews with teachers revealed that the that the regular classroom teachers of both countries are not prepared for the needs of refugee children. The teachers acknowledge that these children show a lack of basic literacy skills, that they have difficulties focusing and that they are overwhelmed by homework (particularly in Germany). Although they agree that refugee children should participate in a special program in very small groups, they themselves are too limited in resources (i.e., time) to implement that. The specific support these children receive from school is homework assistance in groups of 4-6, which refugee students say are too big.
Interviews with refugee students produced many important findings. Students only profit from 1:1 support, they cannot find space to do their homework or learn in mass shelters, these youth are becoming more and more frustrated and there is danger that they may join youth gangs, there is a need for organized activity in the afternoons, and most of the study participants were traumatized, which was not acknowledge at school, instead they were treated as migrant children.