In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Refugee and New Immigrant Learners

  • Introduction
  • Language Skill Development
  • Culture
  • Trauma, Resilience, and Refugee Needs
  • Program Models
  • Technology
  • Policy and Programming
  • Journals and National Organization Publications
  • Textbooks
  • Data and Online Resources

Education Refugee and New Immigrant Learners
Martha Bigelow, Jenifer B. Vanek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0141


The scholarship on the topic of newcomer refugees and immigrant learners (hereafter newcomers) is broad and deep. Research that informs educational matters about these learners reaches into multiple disciplines including sociology, anthropology, geography, cognition, linguistics, and education. This annotated bibliography includes scholarship related to newcomers with a focus on adolescent and adult refugees and immigrants in the United States. This review includes the most current and persistent topics common among educators who work in the many contexts of language and culture learning among newcomers. While we showcase the most influential as well as recent research available in books and journals, we also include easily accessed but informally published written material because these sources often provide useful evaluations of programs or syntheses of literature unavailable in more formal outlets. Of primary importance for newcomers is language skill development because successful adjustment to a new society often hinges on being able to communicate in a new language. Most of the research reviewed comes from contexts where learners are acquiring English as an additional language (ESL). It is not uncommon for newcomers to have experienced interrupted formal schooling due to the political or economic circumstances that precipitated their migration. Newcomers seek out opportunities to learn the language of their new home in high schools, community centers, churches, and adult basic education (ABE) programs of many types. The flip side of language learning is cultural or societal adaptation, which is of equal importance to newcomers as they adjust to their new home. Cultural adaptation includes learning the norms of a new society in many domains and includes such things as how institutions such as public schools work, how to connect with other immigrants from similar linguistic/cultural backgrounds, and cultural norms about interacting with people from the host country who come from different cultural and economic backgrounds. In addition, there is often a high incidence of trauma among adolescent and adult newcomers. Ways of addressing trauma are often culturally grounded. Finally, language and culture learning are both situated within programs with different aims and different funding sources. For this reason, it is important to include scholarship on program models and technology-enhanced learning, as well as the education and economic policy climate of the city, state, or country of resettlement. Finally, we offer useful journals, textbooks, and websites for educators, researchers, and policymakers on the topics of adolescent and adult refugees and immigrant newcomers.

Language Skill Development

There is an extraordinary amount of diversity among newcomers in terms of their language skills and how they develop. Their reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills are the result of many factors, including their various educational, migratory, and linguistic trajectories (Bigelow and Schwarz 2010; Burt, et al. 2008). It is important to recognize that many newcomers are multilingual, with a wide range of formal schooling experiences. Having learned multiple languages and having experienced classroom languages is usually an advantage for learning another language (Bigelow and Schwarz 2010). Likewise, newcomers may have lived in various countries before they settle. Some speak, or have studied, the language(s) of the countries in which they will eventually reside. In many cases, they read and write a language that has an alphabetic script and/or uses the Roman alphabet. If not, they often bring a range of literacy and language skills in their other language(s) to the process of learning an additional language. Newcomers who are adolescents or adults typically have little difficulty seeing the relevance of learning the language(s) of their new community and are very motivated to do so (Reder and Bynner 2009). If educators can link language skill development to newcomers’ goals and interests, progress can be very quick. There is a substantial body of mainstream research on adult second language acquisition, much of which applies to newcomers. However, adolescent and adult language learners without prior schooling have been underexplored in the research, and far less scholarship is available on their language skill development (Bigelow and Schwarz 2010, Murray 2005). This latter group tends to overlap with refugee and migrant language learners. The geographical, health, and political issues associated with refugees and migrants have inspired research from multiple disciplines. This research has the potential to greatly inform what occurs in the classroom in terms of developing skills in a new language.

  • Bigelow, Martha, and Robin Lovrien Schwarz. 2010. Adult English language learners with limited literacy. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

    Adults who lack print literacy and the experience of being in school have unique instructional and programming needs. This report reviews what their language literacy strengths are, how they differ from other ESL students, what strong programs for them look like, what motivates them to learn English, and what teachers need to know to be effective with them.

  • Burt, Miriam, Joy Kreeft Peyton, and Kirsten Schaetzel. 2008. Working with adult English language learners with limited literacy: Research, practice, and professional development. In CAELA Network Brief. Washington, DC: Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

    The authors provide an overview of adult English learners with limited print literacy in the United States and skills required for literacy: alphabetics, fluency, reading, vocabulary, and comprehension. The article provides concrete instructional strategies to support literacy development. It concludes with a description of professional development requirements and a call for research to more deeply investigate literacy acquisition of adult ELLs with both limited previous formal education and limited literacy skills in their native language(s).

  • Curtis, Mary, and John Kruidenier. 2005. Teaching adults to read: A summary of scientifically-based research principles. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

    This publication summarizes the results of a review of adult literacy research on each of the four components of literacy development: alphabetics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. The material presented by the authors is foundational and intended for teachers who wish to read a synthesis of original research on literacy. It provides basic definitions and recommendations for practice and focuses on the needs of English-speaking adults, not English language learners.

  • Fitzgerald, Jill, and Michael Graves. 2005. Reading supports for all. Educational Leadership: Educating Language Learners 62.4: 68–71.

    Authors draw on current literacy instruction research to present an instructional strategy called scaffolded reading experience (SRE). They define scaffolding as “temporary and adjustable support” that breaks down the complex cognitive tasks required for reading in a second language into staged activities. This creates smaller less complex steps that, combined with teacher support, allow learners to accomplish reading tasks that would be beyond their potential if working independently. They provide ample justification for and examples of SRE implementation.

  • Lambert, Olga D. 2008. Who are our students? Measuring learner characteristics in adult immigrants studying English. Adult Basic Education & Literacy Journal 2.3: 162–173.

    This study was done to create and then pilot a survey for assessing adult immigrant learners’ goals, definitions of success, and beliefs about language learning. The article describes the results of the survey and suggests that the survey could be an effective tool for teachers and administrators to make decisions about programming and classroom instruction.

  • Murray, Denise E. 2005. ESL in adult education. In The Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning. Vol. 1. Edited by E. Hinkel, 65–83. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    This chapter focuses on teaching ESL to adult immigrants in adult basic education (ABE) programs in various English-speaking countries. Policy, popular curriculum practices, program evaluation, learner needs and characteristics, and assessment in these countries are all described. Murray suggests that research is context specific; however, there are some similarities with respect to educating newcomers in all countries, particularly that it is underfunded and that adult ESL learners are not part of a national education policy agenda.

  • Reder, Stephen, and John Bynner, eds. 2009. Tracking adult literacy and numeracy skills. New York: Routledge.

    This book is a collection of longitudinal studies of adult literacy and numeracy, conducted primarily in the United States and Britain. The authors note that globalization and the increasing use of technology in the workplace put a higher premium on literacy and numeracy skills and that the consequences of not developing these skills are economic, social, and emotional marginalization. Examining long-term activities and the resulting changes in literacy development can inform literacy program practices and policy, creating opportunities to generalize and positively impact a broader audience of adult learners. The book is divided into four sections: literacy development studies of adults over time; “What works” studies examining student, teacher, and classroom experience; studies on the impact of policy and programmatic structure; and studies of the impact of socioeconomic context. The studies are largely quantitative, providing sound examples of such methodologies for social research.

  • Wrigley, Heide Spruck. 2004. We are the world: Serving language minority adults in family literacy programs. In Handbook on Family Literacy: Research and Services. Edited by B. H. Wasik, 449–465. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    This work appears as a chapter in a handbook on family literacy. The first section describes the community of newcomers who make up most family literacy programs in the United States, increasingly diverse and living in poverty, and highlights how programs can best serve them. The author suggests a hybrid approach to instruction, to provide best fit between curriculum, program resources, and learner needs. The second half of the chapter illustrates effective strategies drawn from promising family literacy programs in the United States. Wrigley suggests that the stakes for these ESL learners is high; thus, programs should strive to offer meaningful learning opportunities that will impact the lives of their learners.

  • Zepke, Nick, and Linda Leach. 2006. Improving learner outcomes in lifelong education: Formal pedagogies in non‐formal learning contexts? International Journal of Lifelong Education 25.5: 507–518.

    DOI: 10.1080/02601370600912089

    This article applies past and current research on effective formal education to effective learning in nonformal contexts. The authors define nonformal contexts as “settings where learning may not lead to formal qualifications,” which likely includes many ESL programs in English-speaking countries. The authors present a model for effective nonformal learning designed to support retention and goal attainment in four nonformal learning contexts: community development, adult literacy, workplace learning, and personal interest learning. The model contains key attributes required to support learner success: integration strategies, adequate institutional services, institutional responsiveness to diverse learner cultures, and strategies for developing learners’ critical awareness. The article is useful for practitioners and researchers who wish to better understand requirements for holistic language and literacy programming.

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