Resources on Refugee Groups: What Works for You?

Hi, all.

I've been doing a lot of teacher training in the past several months in places as disparate as Lake Charles, Louisiana; Buffalo, New York; Charlotte, North Carolina; Houston, Texas; West Palm Beach, Florida; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and  Morgantown, West Virginia, to name a few. Many of these areas are seeing refugees with little or no previous literacy in any language from areas of the world such as Sudan; the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); Bhutanese from Nepal; and Burmese, Karen, and Karenni from Burma.

I'd like to point out some resources here at the the Cultural Orientation Center at the Center for Applied LInguistics (CAL) on these and other groups. There are backgrounders that can be downloaded on these groups and others at;

There are also longer publications, videos, and cultural orientation lesson plans.

There aren't lesson plans for learning English though, as the focus for this site is on cultural orientation.

So, what have you found that works for you in teaching groups with emergent literacy - whether they are immigrants or refugees?  Do you have anything to recommend? Would love to hear from you on what you are using successfully with your learners.


SME, Adult ELL CoP



Apparently the US and Canadian departments of Ed and whatever our northern, somewhat more refugee friendly neighbors have, have funded and produced some good materials. I recently discovered work from bow Valley College in Alberta, which has great pictures and good, simple but realistic text. Many other things here and there, which I am eager to coordinate for our ESL teachers, and from what I can' tell far superior to commercial texts. 

another amazing resource, area studies centers outreach programs. We have a good one at Cornell I'm looking to engage with our region, focused on Southeast Asia. But the person I talked to mentioned setting up a workshop on Burma with people in Texas, so look around.

The ESL Literacy Readers, published by Bow Valley College, are an excellent resource for the ESL Literacy classroom. 

There are forty theme-based readers, along with an instructors guide, that will support ESL Literacy instructors to create comprehensive, theme-based lessons for adult ESL literacy learners.

Audio versions of twenty-eight of the Readers are also available:

Hi MiriamB3,

For the Sudanese culture and language resources, this Melbourne, Australia group, SAILS have some great stuff on their website.

Resources?  My refugee and other low literacy  learners find Elizabeth Claire's ESL Phonics .  (USA) very approachable once they have settled in to classroom routine. We also use Theodora Lafkas' Everyday Interactive English Tasks. (Australian) Very friendly, highly relevent and useful. Dora also has a Numeracy book.  For the US, you might need to change postcodes to zipcodes etc.

Students also love Bitsboard- an app on the one iPad we share for looking at beautiful images for new vocabulary, and an advantage with Bitsboard is that each teacher can superimpose their own voice on each flashcard so the accent is familiar. (I won't say right, but we get used to having to change pronunciations of many learning materials!)

Other than these, we use realia; class time projects  (gardening, music, cooking) and excursions  (supermarket, emergency department, op-shops) to make into student created, individual take home mini books.

A series of easy readers  from Rosemary McHenry Sound English are written for Australian learners ; they are easy but relevant to new migrants.

Hope that helps.


Most of the low literacy materials that I have worked with have been pretty unremarkable because they either do not offer enough repetition for mastery/retention or they offer no level of challenge at all.

I do agree with one of the other poster's in the remarks on Elizabeth Claire's materials.  I also am loving the Queen's Library Health Literacy Curriculum that Miriam posted about last month.  Someone on another board referenced the site and her recommendation.  I loved it so much that I joined the LINCS forum because of it.

While not a book, a good training is available at  The title is Adult English Language Learners with Limited Print Literacy - A Group with VERY Special Learning Needs.  It provides some information to keep in mind when working with this population and is research-based.

The best experiences that I have had have been from the materials that I create.  I can than adjust them based on the issues that I observe in class.  I will recommend  I had students who wanted more vocabulary but wouldn't practice outside of class.  I picked a topic of interest to the class.  I wrote the vocabulary terms on the back along with a sample sentence.  I then laminated them, cut them out and hole-punched them.  Every day they get a new card to add to their ring.  At any time, I can quiz them on them.


I too find that materials I write myself work best with my literacy students. I work in themes(family, daily activities, etc) because I believe that makes learning easier. On a given theme I write very short stories, usually about myself and my family. By writing my own stories I can control vocabulary and structures. I often bring photographs to illustrate the stories. I used to think it was rather self-centered to tell my own stories but it doesn't seem to come across that way to my students. Rather, it encourages them to tell their own stories. There's also the reality element: they're reading about real people instead of  made-up characters. Even those published readings that start from real people are  distant and unreal.


I am so glad that the post from LINCS on the health literacy curriculum referenced above made it to you and that you joined the LINCS forum because of it. Thank you for your suggestions above. I, too, am a fan of the laminating machine - in fact, I bought one myself to use to laminate materials I use in trainings! (We have one at the office, but it is big and bulky.) I noticed that the flashcards site you recommend is free, but you have to install something to use it.

Something I have also used in trainings on working with learners with emergent literacy is the bingo card creator at You can design the cards - and the site will spit out sixteen or so different versions of whatever you put in the bingo squares. You can put letters, words, phrases and so on. You can show photos/pictures and students select the correct word or words to represent the picture.

Other ideas, anyone?


SME adult ELL CoP


Thanks for the bingo generator.  I had tried several over the years and never found one I really liked.  I would just randomize an Excel spreadsheet.  This seems like it will work nicely.

I love flash cards for emergent literacy.  There are an abundance of flash card sets specifically for ESL (and FREE) at  (Although they are free, you can "donate" to the page owner, which is a nice courtesy.  He also gave me permission to replicate his cards for a state training here in Texas, by the way.  Really nice guy.  I bet he'd come up with a set if you asked him to.)

You can print the cards in different sizes, which is great for large and small group work.  You  have students play games like matching the picture to the first letter and then later the word. You can also play games like "go fish" and memory.  I usually give a set to each student and have them glue them to index cards to make them more durable.  (If your program is more affluent, I suppose you could just print them on card stock, but the students seem to learn during the cutting/gluing process.)  We also play the "what am I" game by putting the flashcard on your forehead.  (Actually, I usually display it on the overhead and have a student "in the hot seat" with his/her back to the screen.  The rest of the class has to give clues.)

I've become a fan of Quizlet because you can add pictures. You can print the cards out in different styles in .pdf format.   Of course, if you have access to online, it's even better.  You can record your voice (or use the computer voice).  There are spelling options, matching options, games and a quiz option.  A lot of teachers have already created sets you can borrow (or steal, depending on your preference) and adapt to your own class.




Thank you, Glenda Rose, for bringing up "Quizlet." I checked out the sample lesson on nursing terms and abbreviations and had fun answering true/false, typing in answers, choosing multiple choice answers, and listening to the audio. The game at the end eluded me, however.   But then I never was very good at Pac Man or other video games where you had to stop someone from crossing the screen by trapping them with your joystick or mouse. .But I think it would be fun for students to try to  answer the questions in all of the applications. And I found the medical abbreviations useful.

Anyway, the address is

Are there other websites for English learners that some of you find you can use with learners with emergent literacy?


I've used Starfall  with people at the very beginning literacy stages who had trouble with basic literacy.  It's really written for children, though, and some people were embarrassed to use it during lab.  Others loved it, so it may be worth a shot.  

Online activities seem to be a natural fit for emerging literacy.  That's why they work so well with preschoolers - they are based on visual and audio channels.  I'm finding this question really interesting.  I know there are THOUSANDS of applications, websites and programs to help children ELLs learn basic literacy, but I haven't come across any good ones for adults yet.  Maybe we should make an app for that. :)  One of the great things about Quizlet for my students is that they can access it on a phone or tablet.  (And you can get a tablet for less than $60 now.)  I'd love to have an application that I could put on my class tablets for learners with emergent literacy.

By the way, here is the link to my (pretty long) working list of interactive online websites for ESL and ABE/ASE/GED. If you have a favorite site that you think should be added, please let me know.  Also, if you find broken links, I'd appreciate a heads up.  I use this document in several professional development workshops. 

Interactive Online Activities for ESL and ABE


I use LEA (Language Experience Approach) a lot with my emergent readers. We write about what we've done in class or about their own personal experiences. After we've created the text, we do a choral read aloud, volunteers read sentences aloud, and partners read aloud to each other. I use the text for mini lessons on vocabulary, reading strategies (sound/symbol correspondence, prefixes and suffixes), grammar (tense, pronouns), and writing strategies (how to form letters, capitalization and punctuation, spelling patterns). My most reluctant/fearful readers happily participate in our LEA stories, and the text often generates questions about language and culture.




Yes, using LEA with emergent readers is a great idea. And it is a way to look at the whole of language - when the class creates the story, and then parts  - when students engage in activities such as you describe above, and then back to the whole -- when students tell their own stories, write another story themselves, and so on.

A brief written by Patsy Vinogradov and Martha Bigelow, "Using Oral Language Skills to Build on the Emerging Literacy of Adult English Learners" (2010, Center for Applied Linguistics explains that method well. To see the method in action, check out the video " Building Literacy with Adult Emergent Readers"

Other ideas or resources, anyone?




The ESL Literacy Network is a website that provides information, resources and an online community of practice for ESL Literacy practitioners. There is a wealth of resources on the Network to support practitioners, including an active blog and a showcase where instructors can share resources. 

The ESL Literacy Network is produced by Bow Valley College in Calgary, Canada; however, the information on the website would also be useful to practitioners from the United States.

Yes, I have looked at the ESL Literacy Network resources and find them quite useful. In fact, I just joined the network now  (no cost, took about a minute) and found many useful and downloadable resources  for teachers, as well as consumable, reproducible booklets, etc., to use with students in the classroom.

I checked out the resource from the reader "Mark goes to the dentist" and found nothing in it that wouldn't work in the US classroom as well.

Thanks for sharing this, Shelagh.



Thank you for your comments.  I want to share this information from COABE - TUTOR CURRICULUM GUIDE FOR TEACHING ADULT ESL PRELITERATE LEARNERS by Cielito Brekke, which you can find as a website.  Since some refugees are in the pre- literate group,  this information helped me to understand and recognize their needs and the techniques to work with them.

Among the many issues highlighted in this reading is that since these students do not know any English and therefore can't  read and write in English, we need to be cautious about placing them in beginning classes. In the intake we need to consider their previous levels of education and their degree of literacy in the native language.

Another is to begin our teaching with a lot of oral practice and then introduce writing skills like pencil holding, shape/letter recognition, and left to right script orientation.

Finally the author states that it is important for teachers to be very flexible, to lower their expectations and not to be disheartened if the outcomes are not successful.

Thanks, Claudia, for sharing the resource above.

Julie McKinney of the Health Literacy Community of Practice  posted the following message on her website and is discussing it in a thread there at

" Hi Everyone,

I want to share a really well done curriculum that is geared toward refugees, but could be a great starting point for ESOL and ABE classes.

Health Action in the U.S.: A Health Education Curriculum for Refugees From Burma.

Here's the PDF:

This is a very good overall health curriculum that addresses many important issues related to health and healthcare access. There are units on Good Health, Personal and Home Care and The U.S. Healthcare System. Each unit includes a few different activities, ideas for evaluation and some great handouts. It's not a literacy or language curriculum, but you could create some supplemental grammar and language activities around these topics very easily.

Although it is written for Burmese refugees, there is very little that can't apply to any group of newcomers. It uses a participatory approach and is suitable for lower level ESL classes.

I'd love to hear if anyone has used this or has any comments about it! Julie "

Has anyone tried it?  Thoughts?



Thanks, Miriam!

Here are a few other health resources:


Refugee Health Information Network


These are not specifically for ESOL instruction, but they could be used as referrals or made into instructional activities. Especially HealthyRoadsMedia: it has brief fact sheets about a wide range of health issues in many different languages. You could have people read the information in their own language and in English and then discuss, etc. It also has the information in audio and video formats. There's a bunch of cool stuff you could create with this site!

Hello Miriam-- 

I've been working with low-literate refugees from Bhutan, Burma, and East Africa, and we ran into the same trouble-- there are not always lot of ready-made resources for students at this level. 

So, we created a curriculum for low-literate elder refugees (but can work with adults of any age) that can be used anywhere there is even just one volunteer and one student. It includes over 250 leveled activities across 13 themes, with all materials and instructions included. Each theme only works with about 6-10 words, and the activities provide plenty of opportunities for practice and repetition in meaningful contexts-- first orally, then in writing. The curriculum is available for free digitally at I have also included instructions for how to assemble the curriculum materials as a permanent resource that can be used again and again.

Because it is all-inclusive and easy to use, this curriculum is being used by educators in a variety of organizations-- from senior housing agencies to community colleges. It has been a pleasure for me to work with this population of learners, and so I am eager to connect with others doing similar work.