Teaching English to Refugees | Top Tips for ESOL/TEFL Teachers

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 4 min

With the war continuing in Ukraine, many TEFL/ESOL teachers will begin to encounter refugees in their classrooms. At the same time, there are still refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other poverty or conflict-stricken areas starting new lives in our communities. Some of us may volunteer to teach refugees in special programs while many more of us will find refugee children and young adults attending our normal classes. With this in mind, we have summarised some of the top tips recommended by agencies working with, or teaching English to, refugees.

I have also written a more anecdotal account of working with refugees which you can find here.

  • Educate yourself about the part of the world your refugees come from. Be careful about media bias, the truth is usually more nuanced than anything we see in the headlines. Try to learn a little about the basic history, geography and climate of the region your students come from, as well as get an overview of any conflict or political problems affecting the area. Don’t neglect the small details. The difference in climate might be a more immediate problem for some of your students than the more dramatic situations they have left behind.

  • Try to create a safe and welcoming environment in your classroom where your refugee students feel confident to express themselves if they choose to. However, don’t overtly probe into their backgrounds or backstories. If possible, brief the other students in the class on the need to be kind, friendly and diplomatic before the refugees join the group.

  • Remember you are a TEFL/ESOL English teacher first and foremost, and the subject you are teaching is an important tool for the refugees in your class. English can help your refugees to socialise, gain employment and generally rebuild a meaningful life in your community. Don’t underestimate its value.

  • Seek advice when necessary. Sometimes you may be able to clarify some things with the refugees themselves but don’t be afraid to ask for help from colleagues if you are concerned about your students in any way. It would also be useful to familiarise yourself with any agencies or social institutions your refugees are dealing with locally and speak to them for guidance if necessary.

  • Look after yourself. Sometimes working with refugees can expose you to stories, information and experiences that most teachers don’t have to deal with. It is almost impossible not to be affected by these things in some ways. Make sure there are people you can talk to about your experiences and give yourself time and space to process any difficult situations.

  • Check your teaching materials including workbooks and handouts and be prepared to adapt or omit sections as necessary. Think about references to the region the refugees have come from or situations they may have been exposed to. Even references to normal city and family life could be triggering to pupils who have left part of their family behind in war-torn areas. Safer topics might include daily routines, getting around, giving directions, shopping, dealing with money, and making appointments. Other generally non-threatening topics could include the history, festivals and culture of your home country or the town, city or region where your classrooms are based. Music and sports can also be safe but engaging themes which can stress similarities and common interests shared by people from different countries.

  • Be ready to adapt your teaching style. Your normal banter and the way you praise or give instructions might not be understood by people from very different countries and cultures. Sarcasm and dry humour need to be avoided at least until refugees have gotten to know you. If refugees join your class mid-way through a term or semester, see it as an opportunity to remind the whole class of your rules and teaching style.

  • For most refugees, English will be an additional language. You can find information and resources online specialising in EAL (English as an additional language).

  • Expect there to be some gaps in the general educational knowledge your refugees arrive with. Some refugees may have had limited formal education in their country of origin and what education they have had will have followed a curriculum quite different to that in your school. For some, their most recent experiences of school or any form of education might have been in refugee camps or on the road. Your classroom setting in itself might seem foreign and strange to people from other countries and cultures. However, while there may be gaps in their knowledge base, you may also find they are far more knowledgeable about some things than other learners in your class. It is useful to notice these areas as it will give your refugees something to excel in and feel confident about.

  • While many of these tips may imply avoiding subjects the refugees are sensitive to, once you have gotten to know the refugees in your class it is important to give them structured opportunities to express themselves and talk about the countries and situations they have left behind. They are the experts in what they have experienced and if handled sensitively, sharing their stories could be beneficial to them and any non-refugees in the class. Simple drama work, drawing comics and storybooks could be a good way in for younger students. Older students may be able to organise presentations, write compositions or produce more complicated drama sketches. Such activities will require a lot of sensitive monitoring and guidance.

If you happen to be given a class comprised exclusively of refugees you will probably find support, advice and teaching resources are provided for you. However, for the TEFL/ESOL teacher who suddenly finds a few refugees in their class (which is likely to be the case with Ukrainian refugees), there is a balancing act to be performed between following the intended curriculum and keeping things normal on the one side and being sensitive to the needs and concerns of your new students on the other. Part of the integration process for refugees entering our communities and our classrooms is about adapting to whatever is normal in our countries and schools. It can be a difficult and bumpy transition. We are bound to make mistakes along the way, but our task is to make the transition as smooth as possible for people who may have experienced things we would find horrific.