QUESTION: “How can our school best support the communication needs of our new refugee children?”

ANSWER: Starting a new school is a daunting process for most children, especially if you don’t speak the language and there are no familiar faces. Many new arrivals are also coping with trauma, separation and bereavement. School plays a huge part in creating a stable, safe and supportive environment. (Bell Foundation)

Most new arrivals do not have SLCN. They just have limited exposure to English and will go on to become competent communicators. Most children will develop functional English in the first 2 years of schooling in English, but will need continued support to gain academic proficiency. (NALDIC)

Dual language development is very important. Consistent exposure to a child’s home language maintains relationships, cultural identity and acts as a scaffolding for learning a new language. (Harris, 2019) Generally, learning two languages does not cause any additional language difficulties.

Before the child starts school

Meet with Parents/Carers

Find out as much information about the child as possible. Interpreters may be required. Include their personality, interests, strengths, likes, dislikes, educational history. What language do they speak and to whom? How often? How proficient are they?
Does the child have an SEN? What is it? If a child has SLCN this is likely to occur in both the home language and English.
Agree ways to share information between home and school.
Ask parents for key words in their home language(s).
Encourage parents to speak and read to their child in their home language/s as much as possible.

Prepare School and Parents

Build staff knowledge of where the child has come from and languages spoken.
Ensure staff know how to pronounce and spell the child’s name correctly and perhaps learn to say hello in the child’s home language.
Talk with children and parents
at school about creating a safe, welcoming environment. Using resources, help children understand the refugee experience.

Ensure there are multicultural resources available such as, dictionaries and translator apps. Incorporate cultural references across the curriculum whenever possible.
Be aware of cultural differences that may be incorrectly interpreted as SLCN, e.g., use of eye contact may be different.

Use these Language Link strategies to build communication skills


Provide as many opportunities as possible to allow the child to experience success.
Continued use of the child’s home language should be encouraged. The child should feel comfortable speaking in their own language to other children or staff who speak the same language. Translanguaging (the use of different languages together) enhances learning. (Garcia)
Encourage all attempts by the child to communicate, e.g., pointing, gesture, facial expression, pointing to symbols, drawing.
Do not place the child under pressure to speak. Grow their confidence and their language will follow.
Include new arrivals in whole class teaching as much as possible.
Sit new arrivals where they can see the teacher clearly and next to children who have no language difficulties so they can hear good language models.


Visual supports ‘back up’ spoken words. Use everyday objects, videos, photos, pictures, symbols, key written words and demonstration.
Use facial expression, body language and hand gestures.
Use visual timetables to support transitions between different lessons/activities.
Use labels – display key vocabulary in English with a picture or symbol, e.g., toilet. Use the same symbols across the school and at home. Include some pictures to convey emotional language: happy, tired.
Graphic organisers can be used for explaining, sequencing and classifying information, e.g., diagrams and timelines.

Break it down

Reduce the length and complexity of language.
Avoid using figurative language or teach explicitly what words mean. For example, ‘it slipped my mind’.
Pause regularly while speaking, to give new arrivals time to process information.
Use sentence and story planners to help children structure spoken and/or written tasks.

Explain clearly

Pre-teach key vocabulary – use a multi-sensory approach and word webs.
Modelling is important for introducing new vocabulary and learning language structures. Children need to hear language used in a meaningful context before they can use it. Add specific words to extend the child’s vocabulary.

Check as you go

Check that children have understood. Use confidence indicators. If they haven’t understood, rephrase the instruction and use visual support.
Provide lots of repetition in different contexts.

Games ideas

Play games that build confidence and participation, without a pressure to speak; snap, cards, draughts, dominoes, Connect 4, noughts and crosses, pairs, lotto and action songs are some examples.

The experience of welcoming refugee children in school is an opportunity, to find out about another culture and language and learn about kindness, resilience and courage during challenging times.


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