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SLIFE challenges: literacy


I was listening to PRI recently and heard a story that reflects my own teaching situation. It’s about a boy who is attending a special school in Belgium. What makes him stand out is that he cannot read or write in his own language, which makes learning a new language even harder.

The latest research states that it takes at least seven years for a student to become as proficient as peers in another language. And that’s when you are on an equal playing field with your peers. But my students, and this boy in the PRI story, are not.

A few years ago, I successfully made the argument that we needed a different way to teach our students because a 9th-grader is not a 9th-grader is not a 9th-grader.

Students who have attended U.S. schools their entire lives develop a pool of similar experiences. They are exposed to reading, writing, the social aspects of school when it comes to sports, school dances and Parent-Teacher Organizations.

But not all students come to us with the same experiences.

SLIFE is the term we use to refer to Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Eduation. Some states use SIFE. It’s a fairly new category we are seeking ways to put students in.

One of my former students told me that the camp where she lived in Thailand had no school. To go to school, she would have to travel an hour down the mountain and two hours back up. So she never learned to read or write in Burmese or Thai, the two languages she was exposed to in her youth.

I interviewed another mother who said she left Mogadishu to escape violence. The camp she went to with her family was brand new; there were no buildings, no infrastructure. So it took three years for them to get a school. By this time, several of her children had gone years without formal education. And when they did go to school, in Kenya, that looked like 80 students sitting in a room from 8:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. while teachers rotated through, asking students to copy down what they were writing. They went to school for three years at the camp, but this does not mean that they learned literacy. They say they are literate in Somali, but when they saw Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear translated in Somali, they claimed this must be some other language.

In Nepal, camps that have been established for 25 years and therefore were the birthplace of many students who enter the U.S. educational system, have well-established schools. But instruction is in English. Students for the most part cannot really read Nepali until they have passed 10th grade. The test for this is a cumulative test for everything they have learned, books they must memorize. Not an easy task. But when I bring up Nepali words on the computer, most cannot read those words.

Students coming from war-torn areas have other issues; they may have gone to school, but political unrest and just concerns for safety make continuing school impossible for years on end.

Most of my students’ parents are illiterate. They do not feel empowered to answer questions about school, to question what decisions the school is making (or not making) on their child’s behalf, or even question their children when they say the school gave them a computer and so the parents cannot take it away even if they are only using it to play video games.

My own children have me to advocate. And I am such a mama bear when in comes to my own offspring.

What resources do children of refugees have in other areas? Are they enough? Could we do more?


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