This week I want to talk a little bit about English Language Learners (ELLs) and how Syrian refugee students are ELLs, but also usually count as Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE) due to fleeing their country as a refugee (DeCapua, 2016). Many immigrants come to Canada as ELLs, and most school systems have practiced, well oiled systems in place to serve them. Students are encouraged to practice literacy in all of their languages, not just English, and are supported along their journey to English proficiency, whether it begins in an intensive English class or in a regular classroom with extra language support and expectations.  Due to the typical ELLs previous school experience and academic support from home, within a few years they are working on the same materials as their Canadian-born, English speaking, peers and are eventually virtually undistinguishable from the other students. These students may not be proficient when they come to Canada, but they are familiar with basic expectations within school and doing academic work within the context of their home country.

The situation for SLIFE is very different than that of ELLs. These Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education come to Canada with either no experiences with school at all, or when they have school experience, it is likely very different from Canadian schools. The majority of the Syrian refugee students that are now in Alberta schools experiences long periods without schooling. In refugee camps and while fleeing survival takes precedence over school.  For older students that means they will be without years of content, as well as behind in literacy and numeracy skills. For younger students that could mean that they have never sat at a desk in a school before. For this whole population the education targeted at them must be more than merely that which targets ELL students. Basic literacy and numeracy skills, skills which ELL students usually have in their native language, need to be at the forefront. The behavioural expectations of Canadian culture and schools need to be kindly and explicitly taught. No teacher should take Canadian culture for granted and always realize that just because that is how we do things here, an alternative method may be what students are used to.

Every child and every student is different, so each situation must take this into account. While the Syrian refugee students are ELL, they also are SLIFE and need to be fully supported according to that. Targeted supports can ensure that these students achieve success.

DeCapua, A. (2016). Building bridges to academic success through culturally responsive teaching. MinneTESOL, Spring(1). Retrieved from



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