For most of my career I have had the privilege of working with EAL/D students including students of refugee backgrounds. Before retiring, I worked at a large primary school in South Western Sydney. 40% of the school’s enrolment were students from refugee backgrounds. The school had a long-established tradition where grades or teams across the school would read and “perform” a text for Book Week. One year, it was the Learning Support Team’s turn. Having a large team, we decided we would perform “Where is the Green Sheep?” by Mem Fox, as there were lots of characters and everyone could take part. Every member of our team as well as the Deputy and Principal were assigned a particular sheep. We bought a bulk order of sheep onesies and had fun personalising our character’s costume and props. Our Deputy was particularly enthusiastic as the “bath sheep” and our Principal played the “green sheep.” As a narrator read the book, we performed the story and the students and parents loved it. Some years on, my grandchildren have taught me what a rich, little text “Where is the Green Sheep?” is.
Currently this book is the favourite of both my granddaughters. I have read this book to them from birth, as have their mums and dads. Now aged two and two and a half, they choose this book from the book shelf and snuggle up on my lap as we read. They point to pictures, lines, shapes, symbols and words on every single page. Comprehension is developing too with connections to various characters such as the “bed sheep” with comments like “I like reading in bed too” and there is so much talk, every time the text is read.
“Where is the green sheep?” has reminded me of my work as an EAL/D teacher with newly arrived refugee students from Afghanistan. My school had so many newly arrived students enrol within a short time frame, that we formed two new arrival classes in Stage 3. There were fourteen students in each class. Very few students had the opportunity to attend school before, so most students were not literate in their first language but all of the students were enthusiastic and so keen to learn. We were lucky enough to have a beautiful bilingual teacher’s aide Wahida, who spoke Dari. Every morning we started school by reading a beautiful picture book. To help students settle after each break we would read another book. I would read in English and Wahida would translate. We all loved this time, the students made connections to the stories that were read and told to them. They mostly spoke in Dari, and Wahida would translate for me what the students were talking about. I designed learning sequences around the texts we read to assist students to develop and practice English language and literacy skills. I set up “play” activities for the students where students could retell stories with puppets or felt cutouts and props.
A few months after the students had settled and were learning more English I read students “Ziba came on a boat” by Liz Lofthouse with illustrations by Robert Ingpen. “Ziba came on a boat” is about a young girl who is making a journey by boat to a new homeland. On the journey, Ziba thinks about her homeland, her family and the smells of the rich spices of the evening meal. Whilst reading this text, students made connections to their homeland. They talked about the mountains they could see at home. They said the pictures were like Afghanistan. The girls talked about preparing spices and cooking flatbread and using the tandur just like in the book. The students talked about their mother, aunties and grandmothers weaving. They recognised that “tandur” in English is very similar or the same to the Dari word (tandur or tannur). Some students also talked about escaping from their homes and coming to Australia by boat. They talked about family members left behind. We talked about how Liz Lofthouse described the sea, the darkness and Ziba’s mother’s lullaby. We talked about the colours Robert Ingpen had used in some of the images. We thought about why he chose those colours and how that made us feel. We also talked about why the author may have written this text. Our conversations were both in Dari and in English and they were very rich. We drew pictures and labelled them with words and phrases in English. Then we wrote about Ziba.
I have used these experiences to demonstrate the power of using rich, authentic texts and talk to develop language and literacy skills. I have found that this approach has fostered a love of language, a love of books, a love of reading and learning and for my Afghan students a love of coming to school in Australia.