ELL Consortium aims to bridge refugee language gap

An incredible feat took place in the final months of last year and early 2016, when 25,000 people – mostly families – made their way from the surrounding countries of Syria to start new lives in Canada.

In BC, some 3,000 refugees from Syria have since arrived, and while many communities have welcomed these newcomers with open arms, school districts are beginning to recognize the very real pressure of an influx of students who speak little to no English.

“Think of someone born in a refugee camp, a child who fled cities being bombed who ended up in a foreign country. The issues arising from some of those very traumatic experiences are starting to emerge in school districts all across the province, and that gets exacerbated when many of these students don’t speak English or have learning difficulties,” said Val Windsor, Vice Chair of the Delta Board of Education.

Windsor is part of the English Language Learners (ELL) Consortium, a group of district trustees and staff from West Vancouver to Abbotsford. The Consortium meets four times a year to share district best practices on the government-mandated ELL program, the province-wide curriculum for students whose primary language (or languages) at home is not English.

The Ministry of Education has developed ELL toolkits and resources to assist in the planning process and determine the instructional support needs of ELL students. But with the unprecedented increase in refugee students needing access to ELL support, advocates like Windsor say the province needs to step up and collaborate more effectively.

“We have been advocating for some time for a designated staff person at the Ministry who has knowledge of ELL students and curriculum to work with us to provide effective learning and support,” Windsor said. “We’re trying to impress upon the government that we welcome these students, but we need more support. And that support often comes in the form of hiring people who have the capacity to deal with them.”

Windsor is quick to point out the ELL program doesn’t cater exclusively to students from refugee families. The five-year curriculum covers “the gamut of ELL students, everyone from international students paying a premium price to enhance their language skills, to immigrant families who choose to come here, to students of refugee families, some of whom have never been to school before,” Windsor says.

With such a wide set of backgrounds, immigrant and refugee students can be vulnerable because they’re unable to express their frustration or ask for what they need, Windsor said.

“The other thing we’re finding is that many students come with learning difficulties, compounded by a lack of language skills,” she added.

The ELL Consortium recently took a motion to the BCSTA AGM, which recommended the BCSTA encourages the province to hire a dedicated ELL staff person.

“We’d also like the province to release the standards for ELL education. They’ve been sitting on those for three years. Surrey was asked to work on the standards for ELL students, which went to the province, and we’ve been urging that release so we can all benefit,” Windsor said.

In the meantime, the Consortium will continue to share best practices amongst Metro-area school districts, and it welcomes any trustees from elsewhere in the province who are interested in joining the meetings via video conference or call-in. The Consortium also includes representatives from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, which provides a vital link for post-secondary best practices on ELL curriculum.

“It’s great to see an exchange of ideas,” Windsor said. “At all levels of education, we’re doing the best we can, and doing some pretty incredible things, all things considered. Kids are well-served, but they could be better-served. They need champions.”


Written by Daniel Palmer, Writer, BC School Trustees Association

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