Language of instruction and learning outcomes in refugee contexts

This briefing paper summarises the key findings from two studies, both published in July 2018. The research studies both examined the impact of refugee influxes on education. The two studies were carried out in the same districts at approximately the same time and although the focus and specific questions being addressed are different the studies when seen together provide an important reflection on the current situation in the schools and give practical recommendations for strengthening education for both refugees and host communities.

 Key findings with recommendations

1. Growth and capacity

There has been a dramatic growth in the number of pupils in schools in the districts with an average of a fivefold increase in the numbers of refugees in schools over three years. This has resulted in severe shortages of teachers and learning spaces. Teacher to learner ratios now average 100 and often exceed 200, in many cases, 300 learners were observed in one class with one teacher, especially in lower primary and nursery classes. Only 12% of schools located outside refugee settlements and 19% of schools in refugee settlements had a double shift system.


  • Expand the use of double shift system.
  • Use language assistants qualified in their country of origin as temporary teachers.

2. The language situation 

A very complex situation was discovered across all of the districts, with 19 languages in common use in the 30 schools studied by the British Council team. There was considerable confusion over which language should be used as the language of instruction (LoI) when so few children understand English and so many had previously been learning in a different language. 15% of lessons observed were using a local language as the LoI. 


  • In line with the Ministry’s language policy, establish a language that is familiar to the greatest number of children as the LoI in Nursery and P1-3 and use English but with L1 support in P4-7. The languages selected should be chosen at school level as they look for a language common in the playground.
  • Recruit language assistants to support language groups that cannot easily follow the LoI both in the class and outside. Language assistants can have lower levels of qualification or training than at present envisaged. They should have a support role bridging English and the child’s known language but also a role that is supportive of the whole child, not just the language. 

3. Overage children

There is a severe issue with overage children in lower primary. On average, refugee children were 3 years older than they should be for their grade. The result of this will certainly be learner drop-out and failure to complete, especially for girls. One cause of this was the system of placement on arrival. New refugees would be assessed through an interview or written test in English. As a result their placement was based on their ability in English. Refugees from countries using French or Arabic as the LoI were particularly disadvantaged.


  • Expand the Alternative/Accelerated Learning Programmes (ALP) for older learners who are able to learn faster once language and curriculum gaps are addressed.
  • Provide language support and rapid English Improvement classes for learners from different language backgrounds, especially French and Arabic. 

4. Learning outcomes: literacy in English and numeracy

Both studies highlight severe issues with literacy levels among pupils. Approximately 30% of all pupils tested were able to read at the expected level for P2. Uwezo findings indicated that literacy levels in English were low across all pupils, but lowest among refugee pupils. In the British Council research, letter recognition was particularly poor (only 15% recognised most letters) though scores improved on word reading (34%), picture matching and responding in writing to questions read silently (44%).


  • Through training and reading, support materials get teachers to introduce a stronger phonics element using a language familiar to the children in the early years.
  • Develop reading approaches and strategies for children who do not know the language they are trying to learn to read orally. This may involve greater use of the child’s first language to develop phonic knowledge through the language assistants.

Click here to read the full summary.

Read more: learning outcomes



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