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Specialised digital learning platforms help illiterate immigrants to integrate

Immigrants who are illiterate or have low levels of literacy face significant economic and social barriers in their host country. Teaching low-literate, culturally diverse learners to read, write and speak the language of the country they have resettled in, offers them the best possible opportunities to integrate, enabling them to contribute as workers, taxpayers and consumers. However, due to a lack of resources and research-informed guidance, the majority of educators – many of whom work part time and/or are volunteers – are faced with difficulties when teaching this population. Northumbria’s Dr Rola Naeb is working with seven partners from six countries to deliver free online training and development modules, helping teachers improve immigrants’ educational attainment levels on a global scale.

A senior lecturer in applied linguistics and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), Dr Naeb is an expert in technology-enhanced learning environments. Her research focuses on the linguistic integration of low educated adult migrants, and her specialism has been integral to EU-Speak, an eight-year project that seeks to improve the educational outcomes of immigrants with little or no education. 

Dr Naeb is a co-investigator on EU-Speak 3, the third phase of the EU-Speak project funded by the EU Commission to roll out six, free online modules in five different languages for teachers of low- or non-literate immigrants. Her research on the human technology interface and computer assisted learning has helped guide the modules, which provide educators with cutting-edge research findings as well as innovative pedagogical approaches, and have already attracted 900 participants from 60 countries. She was responsible for developing the sixth module on The Acquisition and Assessment of Morphosyntax, alongside Newcastle University’s Professor Martha Young Scholten, and oversees the interactive design of all of the modules.

The funding for EU-Speak ends in 2018, but there are plans for the project to continue. Dr Naeb, who has responsibility for social media and module evaluation, is a member of the EU-Speak Board, which will oversee the continuation of the six training modules once the project has been finalised. In addition, Dr Naeb co-edited English edition of The EUSpeak Volume, a book that summarises the six modules in five languages. As such, thousands more teachers will be able to access the much-needed training and development tools, and join the expanding community of international, specialised tutors who have benefited from EU-Speak.

The Council of Europe is also drawing on Dr Naeb’s expertise to develop a European Framework of Reference for Second Language and Literacy with six other specialists. The aim of the Framework is to come up with descriptors that will ultimately provide the skeleton for the design of syllabus and tests that brings non-literate adult migrants to A1 literacy, the basic, beginner language level formalised by the Council of Europe. Until now, no such Framework existed, meaning that non-schooled and low-educated adult migrants did not receive structured learning support and were therefore falling through the net.

Prior to the Council of Europe’s Framework and EU-Speak 3, Dr Naeb worked on DigLin, a digital learning instructor focused on helping immigrants acquire the language of their host country through innovative, digital language learning materials. She was responsible for equipping DigLin with a logging system to record all interactions between the user and the system. This has enabled teachers to successfully monitor individual learners’ progress, and has informed further research and development. Indeed, Dr Naeb has been asked to act as an expert consultant on a similar project to develop Spanish and English Language learning materials with an international reach.

Recently elected Vice President of Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults (LESLLA) – the first and principal organisation to focus on immigrant and refugee-background adults and adolescents –, Dr Naeb has highlighted the importance of digital learning platforms for educationally-disadvantaged people at numerous conferences and media events, including in an interview with Ich will Deutsch lernen. As she points out, many refugees, asylum seekers and chain migrants with limited or no education are still able use technology such as smart phones to navigate themselves around Europe geographically and linguistically. Understanding how to effectively harness this knowledge will not only improve their learning experiences, but will provide immigrants with the necessary tools to successfully integrate into their new homes.

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