Specific needs in literacy and language learning of Syrian refugee children in Germany and Canada: A pilot and a follow-up study

Researchers: Becky Xi Chen1, Katrin Lindner2, and Claudia Riehl2           
Affiliation: OISE, University of Toronto1 and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität2
Keywords: Refugee students, refugee children and youth, Canada, Germany, bilingual language development, school, family, Arabic, English, German
Go to: Methodology, Findings


Objective: This research explores the family and school learning environments of Syrian refugee students in Canada and Germany to better understand the acquisition of their language and literacy skills in Arabic and English or German.

Justification: Language and literacy skills are the most important prerequisites for successful integration into a host society and are heavily shaped by the learning environment of schools and families. Canada and German are common destinations for refugee settlement, yet they differ in terms of refugee living situations and school integration. This study will contribute to a better understanding of how the family and school situations in both host countries impact refugee children’s language and literacy skill progression.

Practical goal: The study is a pilot for a large-scale investigation on the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic comparison in the development of refugee children in Canada and Germany. It informs policy makers, educational institutions, and the wider public on the current situations, supports, and special needs of refugee children and their families for their language and literacy acquisition and integration into their hosts societies.

Primary audience: Educators, policy makers, and service providers


In the pilot study from 2017 to 2018, 20 Syrian children (aged 6-15) and their parents (n=13) participated. These participants were from five families in Toronto, Canada (three Arabic and two Kurdish) and three families in Munich, Germany. A mixed-method design was used, where semi-structured interviews were conducted with parents and the older children (age 9-15) and quantitative language and literacy tests were given to all children.

In the follow-up study from 2018 to 2019, the same three families were observed in Germany. In Canada, one family from the pilot study dropped out and an additional child from one Kurdish family was included. In total, 8 children from 4 families were observed in Canada. The follow-up study employed the same mixed-method design: quantitative tests were used to measure language and literacy development, and qualitative interviews were carried out with parents, and adolescent students to determine how they evaluate their current learning situation. Teachers and principals of the participants were also interviewed.


  • Based on patterns of language use, differences in acculturation experiences were found between Syrian families in Canada and in Germany. In Canada, parents enforced the use of Arabic or Kurdish at home to maintain a common language and preserve their cultural identity. While their children would comply in interactions with their parents, they preferred to use English with their siblings. In Germany, parents favoured Arabic but allowed the use of German at home due to its impact on their children’s education and future. While the older children spoke Arabic at home, the younger children used German; thus, older children often acted as language brokers in the interactions between parents and younger siblings. These differences are related to contextual factors, likely refugees’ sense of security in Canada and insecurity in German, where the approval of residence needs to be renewed after three years.

  • Similarities in language skills were found in both countries. The conversational use of the major language had developed well, but its academic use was still a challenge for refugee children. In both countries, children improved on most English or German measures from the pilot study, specifically receptive vocabulary and letter-word reading. There was also an increase in Arabic receptive vocabulary and letter-word reading, suggesting that the acquisition of skills in the second language may contribute to the development of skills in the first language.
  • Interviews with educators revealed that teachers in both countries were not prepared to address the needs of refugee children; they noted that the children lacked basic literacy skills in the majority language, had difficulties focusing, and were overwhelmed by homework, particularly in Germany. Children received homework assistance in small groups in Germany, however children in these groups reported that the groups were too large to be effective and they preferred one-to-one support.

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