Classroom management strategies to address the needs of Sudanese refugee learners

By Ursula Burgoyne, Oksana Hull Research report 5 June 2007 ISBN 978 1 921170 38 6 print; 978 1 921170 44 7 web


This study examined the extent to which English language, literacy and numeracy teachers used classroom management strategies to meet the needs of adult Sudanese refugee learners. While teachers met the needs of these learners insofar as they coincided with those of other refugee groups, the highly oral language culture of these learners appeared not to have been accounted for in teaching strategies. Recommendations include greater flexibility in program content, outcomes and delivery.


About the research

This study examined the experiences of Sudanese refugees undertaking English language, literacy and numeracy classes. It also identified classroom management practices that are ‘working well’ and enabling teachers to address the needs of Sudanese adult learners.

  • Sudanese settlers in Australia are culturally and linguistically diverse. Many have been denied access to formal education as a result of years of conflict and therefore are at a low starting point. Because they come from a highly oral cultural background, they have well-developed informal learning strategies that can be utilised as a ‘way in’ to English language learning.
  • Programs requiring concurrent development of speaking, listening, reading, writing, numeracy and learning skills may constitute too great a learning burden for Sudanese learners. Greater flexibility in course content and outcomes to enable learners to concentrate initially on oral English language skills may provide a better strategy.
  • Greater emphasis needs to be placed on the teaching of numeracy. Inadequate attention to numeracy may disadvantage learners when accessing work opportunities or entering vocational education and training.
  • The teaching of Sudanese refugees would work better if: registered training organisations
    • provided teachers with relevant background information on the Sudanese students
    • class sizes were reduced from 15 to ten students per teacher for these learners
    • Sudanese learners could be taught separately from learners from other backgrounds.
  • English language programs developed in consultation with the local Sudanese community and learners and linked to an immediate resettlement need or vocational purpose have been successful models of delivery for this learner population.

Executive summary


This study arose from the findings of a previous research project completed for the National Centre for Vocational Education research (NCVER) on the professional development needs of the English language, literacy and numeracy teaching workforce in Australia (Mackay et al. 2006). That research indicated that many teachers were struggling to adapt their teaching to meet the needs of a new population of learners. These new learners were humanitarian refugees from African countries. As indicated by statistical data from government sources, Sudan was the main source country for humanitarian refugee arrivals in Australia between 2003 and 2005. Hence, while acknowledging a wide variety of individual variation, the focus of the present study was on the specific needs and characteristics of adult Sudanese refugee learners presenting for tuition in English language, literacy and numeracy classes. In particular, the study sought to identify teacher interventions that were successfully addressing these needs and characteristics; it also sought to highlight areas where needs were not being adequately met.

This study included participants from New South Wales and Western Australia and was supported by input from Victoria via the project’s advisory group. To date, these three states have the highest intake of Sudanese refugee families in Australia. Data for this study were gathered from two types of participants: specialist English language, literacy and numeracy teachers currently teaching Sudanese refugee learners; and non-teaching experts in refugee rehabilitation and resettlement, including representatives from Sudanese community organisations. Teachers of Sudanese refugees provided data via an online survey and telephone interviews. Non-teaching experts provided data via telephone and face-to-face meetings.


The learners in the study

The consultations undertaken for this study highlighted the diversity of Sudanese refugee arrivals. The majority of recent arrivals in New South Wales and Western Australia, as for other states, are refugees from southern Sudan where the economy is based primarily on subsistence farming and pastoral activity. Their pre-migration experiences included armed conflict, and often years in refugee camps in other African countries. Years of prolonged conflict resulted in the disintegration of schools and other forms of government infrastructure. While there was a small but significant number of learners in this study with substantial schooling, the majority of Sudanese learners had little experience of formal learning.

Southern Sudanese refugees came from highly oral cultures in which all significant social transactions are conducted orally. They are mostly speakers of Dinka or Nuer languages— languages without written forms. The literature indicates that members of highly oral cultures have highly developed strategies for the transfer and retention of information. Furthermore, our study confirmed that Sudanese adults from all parts of the country typically speak a minimum of two languages. The learners in this study have extensive experience of oral language learning, but many have no experience of using written forms of language. Those who do have some knowledge of reading and writing have used specialised forms of written language (mostly confined to replication of religious texts in Arabic). It would be fair to say that, on arrival in Australia, all Sudanese refugee learners are unfamiliar with ways of operating in a culture that places a high premium on the universal daily use of the written word.

Although many Sudanese refugees have high levels of learning needs, they also have the strength of survivors. Teachers in this study reported that their Sudanese refugee learners apply many positive attitudes to their learning.

Findings relating to responses to learner needs and characteristics

The challenge of transition from Sudan to Australia

Sudanese refugees face a complex range of resettlement challenges. The transitional challenges highlighted in consultations in this study were related to: learning English; work opportunities; educational aspirations; family; financial management; and system requirements. Sudanese learners face these challenges concurrently, and daily. The study indicated that registered training organisations were already responding to these challenges by providing information and assistance through interpreters. Teachers were also addressing these cultural concerns in their classroom management practices. Many of their teaching activities and the content of their lessons directly addressed issues relating to the learners’ transition from their life experiences in Africa to their new life in Australia.

The effects of torture and trauma on the learning process

The consultations undertaken (and substantiated by the literature) on this issue indicate that it is difficult to distinguish the effects of past sufferings from the effects of forced migration itself and the challenges of re-adjustment in a new country. There was general agreement among participants in this study that the effects of past torture or trauma were not explicitly nominated as barriers to learning. Support from the Sudanese community and support in the context of religious affiliation and church attendance were overwhelmingly cited as significant factors in assisting learners to deal with the stresses of past and present. Teachers in the study reported that, for the most part, their Sudanese learners preferred to resolve their problems amongst themselves without assistance from teachers or counsellors. Teachers indicated that some of the strategies implemented to address issues related to the refugee backgrounds of learners were equally relevant in addressing issues relating to their limited experience of formal education.

Introduction to formal learning in Australia

This study indicated that teachers were successfully using classroom management strategies to introduce their Sudanese refugee learners to the processes of adult learning in Australia. Some arrangements requiring institutional support, namely, placing learners with those from similar backgrounds, and smaller class sizes, were recommended by participants in the research and supported by the literature, but were not always in place.

Teaching and learning English language, literacy and numeracy

There was general agreement among participants in this study that learning to read and write presented the greatest learning challenge for Sudanese learners. However, there was no general agreement about the ease with which Sudanese learners were able to learn to speak English. There was little evidence that teachers were aware of the literature on learners from highly oral cultures or of the need to develop oral language teaching strategies that do not rely on written prompts. This is especially relevant in teaching the many Sudanese learners at beginning stages of spoken and written English. The Sudanese community representatives in this study expressed concern that many learners were overwhelmed by the task of learning all the skill areas of speaking, listening, reading, writing and numeracy concurrently. The community representatives recommended prioritising the teaching of oral skills before literacy skills are introduced; these recommendations are supported by the literature.

Teachers with learners at more advanced levels of spoken English also reported the need for extra time to enable these learners to learn the intricacies of writing with accuracy and in a style appropriate to an English audience.

The study indicated that not all teachers were explicitly addressing the teaching of numeracy. Those who did teach numeracy discovered that learners needed substantial tuition in learning the concepts and also the language of mathematical operations.

Successful initiatives addressing the needs of Sudanese learners

This study identified a range of initiatives which successfully accommodate the needs of adult Sudanese and other African learners. Such initiatives link English language tuition to immediate settlement concerns, local employment opportunities, or practical skills. These initiatives were strongly promoted by the Sudanese community representatives participating in this study.

Support for teachers

In relation to bilingual support, opportunities for sharing strategies, and availability of counsellors, this study indicated that teachers were receiving a high level of institutional support. The need for professional development, however, far outstripped supply. This study indicated the requirement for specific professional development to explore the teaching ramifications of learners with backgrounds in highly oral cultures; the study also highlighted the need for professional development to extend teacher skill in developing learners’ numeracy.


This study demonstrated that teachers succeeded in meeting the needs of their Sudanese learners generally where the needs of these learners coincided with those of other learners of a similar profile. Teachers were less successful in those areas requiring specific knowledge and understanding of their Sudanese learners’ backgrounds in language learning and use. The ability of teachers to address these learners’ needs also appeared to be compromised by: contractual obligations to funding bodies, whereby all language and literacy skills were required to be addressed concurrently; the placement of Sudanese learners with learners from other backgrounds with different needs, or different levels of the same needs; and large class sizes, inappropriate for learners with such a high level of need.

A number of key strategies to address the specific needs of Sudanese refugee learners emerged from the study. These included professional development for teachers in the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of new populations of learners (such as Sudanese refugees), particularly where their backgrounds had a direct bearing on teaching practice, and professional development in developing or extending teachers’ classroom techniques to build on learner strengths. In addition to recommending greater flexibility in program content, the strategies also highlighted the importance of outcomes and methods of delivery to more adequately respond to the needs of Sudanese and other learners presenting with very limited spoken English, very little experience of literacy in any language, and very little experience of formal education. To implement these strategies, support from funding bodies and registered training organisations is necessary.


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