Specific Needs in Literacy and Language Learning of Syrian Refugee Children in Germany and Canada

Researchers: Becky Xi Chen1, Katrin Lindner2 , Claudia Riehl2, Annette Korntheuer3, Abir Shamin1, Kathleen Hipfner-Boucher1, Mohcine Ait Ramdan2, Anna Yamashita1, Jessica Lindner2, Rayan Korri2, Fatema Isam1, Wadieh Zerkly2, Verena Beschinsky2   
OISE, University of Toronto1, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität2, University of Kassel3
Keywords: refugee students, refugee children and youth, Canada, Germany, bilingual, language development, literacy, school, family, learning environment, Arabic, English, German
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Objective: This study explores the family and school learning environments of Syrian refugee students in Canada and Germany. It aims to better understand language and literacy acquisition in Arabic and English or German.

Justification: Language and literacy skills are among the most important prerequisites for successful integration into a host society and are heavily shaped by the learning environment of schools and families. This study will contribute to a better understanding of how family and school situations impact refugee children’s language and literacy skill progression in Canada and Germany.

Practical goal: This study informs policy makers, educational institutions, and the wider public on the current situations, supports, and needs of refugee children and their families for language and literacy acquisition and integration into their hosts societies.

Primary audience: Educators, policy makers, service providers, and the public.

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Executive Summary

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This project began with a pilot study that took place from 2017 to 2018. Twenty Syrian children (aged 6-15) and their parents (n=13) participated. 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 – semi-structured interviews were conducted with parents and the older children (age 9-15) and quantitative language and literacy tests were administered 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 another family was included. In total, 8 children from 4 families were observed in Canada. The follow-up study employed the same mixed-method design. Teachers and principals 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 cultural identity. While children complied when interacting 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. Older children often acted as language brokers between parents and younger siblings.

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. Although conversational use of English/German had developed well, academic use was still a challenge for refugee children in both countries.

Interviews with educators revealed that teachers in both countries were not prepared to address the needs of refugee children. Educators reported having no professional development specific to refugee children. The study noted refugee children’s need for homework assistance, especially in math and German.

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