“I didn’t know there were words in math until I moved to America.”

January 19, 2017

In refugee camps around the world, education is either not available to students or is very low quality for many reasons, such as students must work to support their families, volunteers are teaching and they don’t have access to effective teaching practices, or students do not feel safe to go to school.  The average amount of time families live in refugee camps before being resettled is four years.  This means that a student who is entering 9th grade when they are resettled to the US may not have been in school since 5th grade.  A lot of information is covered in those four years of school.  As an educator by training, I know that education year after year is compounded so what students learn in, for example, 7th grade science is built on what they learned in all of the years prior.  And the academic vocabulary associated with each content area is reinforced year after year.  So, a student who may not speak English and who has gaps in their schooling is going to struggle when teachers are teaching to the students who the curriculum was designed for, native English, white students much like myself.

Ninth grade student, H, said this when we were working on his Geometry homework.  This nugget of wisdom shared by H is very clear evidence that there is a need for explicitly teaching academic vocabulary to ensure that our students who are coming from diverse educational backgrounds are able to access the content teachers are teaching.  I am still so blown away when I think about how confusing it must have been to go from only numbers in math, to the types of words problems students are expected to master, like: The perimeter of your neighbor’s rectangular garden is 250 ft. Three times the length is the width minus 5. Find the length and width of the garden.  

Vocabulary can be a barrier for students in every subject, not only English.   When all of the words are unfamiliar to a student, how do they even begin to prioritize the words that they should learn?  

A few tips:

1.       When I was teaching high school math, one of the foreign concepts hindering my students was proper nouns so much so that they would spend all their time deciphering trivial details like defining character names rather than recognizing them as names.  Teach students, regardless of your content area, what a proper noun is and how to not get hung up on them.  Like, replace the names with your own or the cities with your home town. Make them rewrite it so it flows as they read it.

2.       Preview the vocabulary words that students will be learning.  This can be a group activity where students must collaboratively create definitions for new/important academic vocabulary words from sentences and/or pictures.  As a class, define the new vocabulary words based on the work that the students have already done.

3.       Remember that just because students may not have proper command over the English language does not mean that they do not have many strengths and assets.  Learn about them and build on what your students are already great at. 

What other strategies have teachers found helpful to break down the barrier that vocabulary can put up?



October 24, 2016

Hello!    Welcome to our blog, where we hope to share more of what we are doing for the refugee population in Tulsa. 

Students are our motivation for the work we do every day and student voices are the motivation for our blog.  Nearly every time we sit down and work with our students, they say something that really hits us, intellectually and emotionally.  Something that lingers in your mind for days. They have so much to share.  Our hope is to use this blog as a means to advocate for the best education students who are refugees deserve by sharing some of the wisdom they have imparted with us.