Syrian refugee students overcoming language obstacles

Four times a week, Denise Wehner and four Syrian refugee students get together during the day and watch movies or video shorts.

Four times a week, Denise Wehner and four Syrian refugee students get together during the day and watch movies or video shorts.

The students at Central Middle School will watch a movie and Wehner will ask them to summarize what they saw, verbally or by writing it down to help with comprehension and learning new words in English.

This is just one of the methods Wehner, who is an ELL specialist teacher at the school, has been using over the past few months to teach English to three privately-sponsored refugees and one government-assisted refugee students to help ease the transition from life in a refugee camp in the Middle East to a classroom in Canada.

“I use stories, movies, and videos to make it fun and funny,” Wehner said. “The reason I use that is the visuals help with their comprehensible input so that they understand. Then we pull out the vocabulary in those and they’re talking about it and re-telling it . . . they’re able to use all the facets of their language to develop.”

Simon Burgers, district principal of modern languages and multiculturalism, said they have 26 confirmed new Syrian refugees who have joined the Sooke, Saanich and Victoria school districts across 47 schools ranging in age from kindergarten to high school.

The four students Wehner works with have trickled in since February, none of whom knew any English prior to coming to Canada.

Upon arriving at Central Middle School, the students were provided with iPads with a translation device so they could communicate with friends, and were partnered with other Arabic-speaking students.

However, since then Wehner, who works with the students four times a week, has seen a dramatic increase in their ability to understand and speak the language.

“They’ve picked up the language beautifully, they’ve had a seamless transition to our schools,” Wehner said, noting they all had strong first language skills which helped them pick up English quickly.

“Even in their first weeks of school, they were able to do Grade 8 work in social studies and math. They’re doing well and love it here in Canada.”

Some of the students have joined extracurricular activities such as rugby, soccer and badminton as well.

Burgers said students across the district have been welcoming, some students even brought Canadian flags and maple syrup for the newcomers.

“Welcoming of new Syrians and newcomers in our schools enriches school life and cultural understanding of our kids,” he said, adding at one school, the vice principal had a bike donated and taught the Syrian student

“We have all these great stories across our buildings. The Victoria school district is absolutely welcoming and benefitting from our Syrian newcomers.”