David Mallows reflects on the role of volunteers in migrant language education and reviews the VIME project as a good practice example.
In our globalised world, migration is a fact of life. Migrants are crucial for the future of many European countries, to meet gaps in the workforce as well as to reverse negative trends in birth rates. In order to support their full integration and avoid social exclusion, migrants should be supported in participating in the labour market and civic society. Learning the language of the host country is an urgent precondition for such participation, and in this, language education has a key role to play. Without mastery of the host language they face greater barriers to integration, diminishing their economic potential and creating additional costs for public services such as health and social care, education, crime, and local government.
To meet the demand for migrant language education there is a need for greater numbers of trained educators. However, the scale of need, and restrictions on national education budgets, means that it may be necessary to rethink our approach to the language education of adult migrants and look beyond the formal classroom. Volunteers can play a number of important roles in supporting or supplementing the formal language learning of adult migrants.
Through system-level actions and the active involvement of members of the local community, we can create a virtuous circle: migrants become more integrated through their use of the language of their new community, and at the same time their interaction with the host community is beneficial to their development of proficiency in the host language.
How can volunteers help meet this growing demand, and how can we assure the quality and efficiency of their work?
Volunteers are increasingly important in meeting the demand for adult migrant language trainers. They can provide a cost-effective solution that enhances the quality and effectiveness of provision. However, asking volunteers to lead the language and literacy education of this very complex group of learners is unlikely to lead to successful learning. Instead, volunteers should be trained to play a number of different roles within the language learning process in which they can add great value.
Collaboration between professional teachers and volunteers, and between the organisations they work with is crucial. However, the relationship between the two groups is often difficult, with a lack of clarity in the definition of their roles leading to mistrust on both sides and the creation of barriers to collaboration. Coordination of volunteer activities, aligning them with the work of professional teachers, can create coherent, stimulating and effective language learning pathways for adult migrants.
One response to the current situation has been an increase in the use of volunteers to support adult migrants in learning and using the host community language. Volunteers can make a valuable contribution to the language learning and social integration of adult migrants by providing opportunities for adult migrants to practise their language skills. For this to happen it is necessary to have clear descriptions of the roles, competences and modes of cooperation needed between professional teachers and volunteers working in such provision within migrant education organisations. In the absence of coherent policy in this area, the increase in the numbers of volunteers is likely to have a detrimental impact on the quality of provision of migrant language and literacy education.
What types of provision best support migrant language learning?
Through the work of the Erasmus+ VIME project we have identified three distinct domains in which adult migrant language learning can be facilitated.
- Social engagement activities such as cooking clubs, gardening groups, choirs, or sports, can provide important support to the language learning of adult migrants. These activities have no explicit language learning goal, but provide opportunities for language use, as well as social support, and cultural integration.
- Non-formal educational engagement can be classroom based, but is not part of the formal system and does not lead to qualifications. It provides greater flexibility of provision and is often run by small community organisations.
- In formal education engagement, a qualified classroom teacher leads group learning, leading to recognised qualifications as part of a formal education pathway. Engagement in activity in all three domains has a valuable contribution to migrants’ language learning. However, the data collected as part of the Erasmus + project VIME shows a lack of connection between the three domains. This results in many learners being active within only one domain, because they happen to have been ‘recruited’ by an organisation within that domain, not because the type of activity in that domain is best suited to their learning needs. Some learners are active in more than one domain, but with little connection between what they do in one domain and another.
A key message for education policymakers is the need for joined-up pathways that use activity in more than one domain of language learning to maximise the opportunities and support for adult migrants to learn the language of the host community.
What roles can volunteers play in migrant language education?
Within the VIME project we have described four distinct roles.
- Language Assistants work inside the classroom, providing extra help for individuals or small groups. Their work with learners is directed by the classroom teacher and is intended to reinforce and practice language presented in the classroom or to focus on particular areas of the learner’s language that the teacher has identified as in need of improvement.
- The Language Coach differs from the language assistant in that he or she has no direct connection to the classroom, working instead in the learner’s home, a public space or a community venue to support individuals or small groups.
- The focus of the Language Buddy / Befriender is social support. They act as a reference point, for example helping the adult migrant to understand official letters and complete forms, or explaining processes that they need to go through as part of their new daily life.
- The priority for the Language Champion is not work with adult migrants to directly improve their language. Instead, he or she works actively to engage adult migrants in language learning activities. This may involve outreach work, but may also involve campaigning and lobbying in order for more appropriate provision to be developed or for better resources to be made available. Language champions may also work with the host community to support them as part of a two-way process of integration.
The VIME project has developed a set of training modules for each role a volunteer can take; these can be adapted to your national context. Other resources include a practitioner guide and a framework describing the model in detail. To learn more about the VIME project and to download resources please visit the project website.
David Mallows has 30 years of experience in adult education as a teacher, teacher trainer, manager and researcher. He was previously Director of Research at the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy (NRDC) at the UCL Institute of Education, London and currently represents the European Basic Skills Network in EPALE as thematic coordinator for Life Skills.