Update : Teaching English to refugees

October 27, 2009 at 3:41 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

It’s been several months since I last wrote about teaching English to a group of several refugees who live here in Salt Lake, so I reckon it’s time to deliver an update.  Although I have been teaching ESL for about 4 years now total, it’s only been since January that I’ve been working with the ESL Center helping my current group.

The group began as 6 people who among them speak more than 7 languages and come from various countries throughout Asia and Africa.  As I mentioned in the previous post, we reached a maximum of 11 people in the class with several students from Iraq.  However, these new students are no longer attending and we are back to original 6.  This group is extremely hard working and we consistently have an enjoyable time together learning English.  The class has not been without its challenges, but it remains an incredibly rewarding experience that I look forward to every week.


One of our students Mariane holds her newborn baby Natasha after one of our classes. I asked her if she minded me sharing her photo and she was thrilled to be able to share her story.

At times it has been difficult to create lesson plans which I feel are effective with the group.  Since the ability levels vary so much within our small group it has not been a simple task trying to come up with material that can benefit all of the students at once.  Since only a few of the students can read or write in their native language, it can be very difficult to communicate some of the concepts of language that they need for their daily lives.

I initially thought that given my 3 years of experience teaching English I would not have a tremendous amount of difficulty with these students but I soon learned that I would have to spend some time reading papers on how other teachers cater their lessons to pre-literate students and this homework has been worth the effort.  There was a time in April where I got very discouraged and felt a serious inability to develop lesson plans which were both effective and engaging.  Just when I started to get very frustrated, I had a few tiny ideas for a lesson around the material I was trying to teach.

Immediately after this lesson, the reaction from the students was so positive that all the frustration and doubting melted away.  One of our students named Juma walked up to me after class with a giant smile on his face.  As he got closer, he grabbed my hand and his smile changed and his expression transformed into one of deep sincerity.  He took my hand and he bowed down and touched it to his forehead.  He gave a broken thank you in English and since his French is much better, he started repeating thanks : “Merci, Kelly.  Merci, mon professeur.  Ca…. c’était une tres, tres bonne lecon.  Merci beaucoup!” He held my hand against his forehead for a few moments longer and slowly stood up from his gesture of great respect.  He looked me in the eyes and thanked me one more time in English and then laughed at his accent.  I smiled and he squeezed my hand once more before leaving the classroom with his wife.


ANOTHER REASON TO VOLUNTEER -- Since volunteering I have met officially the cutest kid I have ever made the acquaintance of. Jean-Claude is the sweetest, funniest kid. 2 weeks ago he ran inside with his feet covered in mud and he was able to scramble around the room for a couple of minutes before he could be apprehended. Nice work, Jean-Claude! 🙂

It’s because of moments like these that I encourage others to volunteer at the ESL Center.  From what I understand, there have been a couple of people who have  since become volunteers after having read my last article so I’m hoping that I might be able to convince a few more.  If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to send me an email across the electric internet and I would love to answer all of your questions that I can.  If you are thinking about volunteering, go ahead and contact the ESL Center to learn more about the program and inquire about volunteering :

English Skills Learning Center
(801) 328-5608


  1. maplesyrup21 said,

    That’s interesting

  2. Battle Bunny said,

    There are opportunities to volunteer in other ways as well.. for people like me who are intimidated about teaching English.

  3. Sandy said,

    I admire both of you. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Rachel said,

    Thank you, Kelly, for the great post! I’m so glad that you’re having a great experience tutoring! I will send you some more information about tutoring pre-literate students, and would love to hear about what you have been doing that has been working for your students. Thanks again!!!

  5. Vickie Steffey said,

    I am a newcomer to teaching English to refugees but have also found it very rewarding, challenging and even fun. I have recently read two books which I thought were helpful in understanding the refugee experience: Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder is about a refugee from Burundi and Lucky Child: A daughter of Cambodia reunites with the sister she left behind by Loung Ung.

  6. Cheryl Heymann said,

    I have been working with a Burmese family that came to the USA in June and they have asked me to begin teaching English to a group of them. I would like to see some of your lessons that you’ve used successfully. I am an English teacher in the public schools, but this is a whole different thing. Thanks for any help you can share.

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