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Activities for language learning

Examples of activities you can use with refugee learners
So, obviously the activities that I choose to do depends on the age of the child. And I try to keep them as practical and hands on as possible. So, for example, in the refugee camp where I was working with younger children, I tried to link songs to actual crafts so the children could learn the vocabulary by doing a song, listening to the song, reading a book about that key vocabulary, and then doing a craft about it. So, for example, if it was We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, you would be the story about going on a bear hunt, mime it and sing it out, and then do a drawing about the bear and wherever the bear goes.
So, they got the vocabulary throughout. If I’m working with older children who are actually learning English at school, for example, in the UK where they’re already in school and they just need that extra support, is more trying to make what they’re doing in school more practical, because sometimes they find the written work at school a bit boring, or they find it hard to understand because long sentences. So, for example, if we’re doing grammar, using lots of post-it notes– coloured post-it notes– with key grammar bits, so punctuation one colour, capital letters and the other in another colour, verbs. That helps to visualise what they’re focusing on.
So, the kinds of activities that I like to involve refugees in are community building activities, things that are fun, things that are going to make people feel comfortable and develop into personal relationships. Which why music is a great way to start. It’s a lovely foundational way because it brings people together, it allows people to express themselves. And in a group, also, people can hide a little bit if they don’t want to step to the forefront, so it allows different kinds of personalities and different needs to be addressed in different ways. And then, from there, because that’s a great way to get to know people, you can start to find out what people actually want to start learning from that point.
So, it’s a starting point and then you will allow the people you’re working with to take you in a direction that’s most important for them. The kinds of activities that I did– things that I felt that I could do comfortably. So, I did quite a lot of language teaching because I’m a linguist. But I also did cooking, and some basic building, and some gardening– built a vertical garden out of a pallet. So, things that I knew how to do, those were the kinds of activities that I led.
And then, it kind of turned around and the learning was led by the refugees themselves, so then I learned how to do things, and they were teaching me, and I was helping them with the language that went along with that activity. One of the best activities I found, working with the young boys especially, was kind of trading words. So, I’d made myself a little book, where I wrote words to learn– mainly in Pashto and in Arabic. And so, I would get them to teach me a word by I’d point at something and say, well, how do you say that in Pashto? And then they would teach me the word, and I would teach them the word in English.
And so, they really loved kind of testing me and telling me, oh, you’re pronouncing that wrong, you have to say again, and then getting me to do it again and again. And then, at the end of the day, or a few days, they would say oh, what words have you learned? And I could run through them, and then I would do the same to them. We have trips that are linked to the topics, lots of role play, so they can act out scenarios before they go and do them in real life, because they’re here in the UK. Yeah, a lot of movement in the classroom, lot of speaking activities, collaborative writing.
Anything that you can use to help them to write a story– about anything, that’s been really, really successful. We’ve got them to write stories about journeys, just general stories about using prepositions. Getting them to put certain language, stories have been one of the biggest things that we’ve used. I think it’s worth taking a few moments or minutes to figure out what kind of group, what culture you’re working with because some of them are more easily brought into things, which you might consider to be quite– especially basic language often requires things which can be viewed as quite childish. And some groups can get into that and it’s absolutely great.
Some groups will feel that they’re being insulted a bit if it seems to be too childish. And I was mainly working with Sudanese, and they could go in anything with great gusto. That was fine. So all we had was a kid’s book at first. We had one kid’s book, and they were fine with that. We could use that over and over again. And they did like it to be quite jolly, they like it– So, things that you would do, making things a game. So if it’s the numbers, you throw a ball and you make people– you try and keep it a little bit lively. And they like a lot of speaking and listening.
They know that they want to be able to read and write, but they’re not really– it’s very short bursts. And I think in that situation, generally people’s attention span often becomes quite poor, they’re tired– they’re unfocused. So you have to change it around quite quickly.

There are many activities you can use to establish rapport, build confidence and support language development. Listen to teachers and volunteers talking about the activities they use.

Match the person on the left with the activities they talk about on the right. For example, Alon talks about ‘trading words’.

Activity about activity ideas

Now check your answers here.


Which activities did you like? Which could you use in your context? Can you think of any other activities that could be used? These may be ones you have used or ones you have experienced as a learner. Share your ideas in the comments below.

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