Digital Media: Providing opportunities for language and literacy learning for youth from refugee backgrounds

Two secondary school students working together on laptops.
June 1, 2022

The world of digital media is providing new pedagogical opportunities for authentic and engaging language and digital literacy learning for culturally and linguistically diverse youth from refugee backgrounds.

Dr. Maureen Kendrick, Dr. Margaret Early, Amir Michalovich and Meena Mangat developed the Digital Storytelling Project in the hopes of enabling more autonomous English language learning and identity affirmation by drawing on the fuller context of the lives and literacies of youth from refugee backgrounds.

“The project was really a response to what’s happening here in the Lower Mainland with the influx of students with refugee backgrounds,” said Kendrick. “As researchers, we try to respond to what the current need is and what’s happening in the school systems, as well as the community.”

Students from refugee backgrounds have varying levels of literacy in their first language(s) and often have limited prior schooling, or significantly interrupted schooling. Early explained that the goal of educators working with students from refugee backgrounds is to use the most effective and responsive pedagogy to promote language learning, while ensuring students are engaged in the content to maximize learning outcomes.

“In order to really promote academic literacy expertise, we want students to have the maximum cognitive engagement,” said Early. “We’re pushing the idea of investing in learning where learners create products they are proud of and get positive affirmation in return.”

The project focused on having students work with digital-based texts, more so than print-based texts such as books and worksheets, as print-based texts can be very dense with language, making it less accessible. A benefit to working with digital-based texts is that the multimodal format can allow for learners to use additional cues that can help with language comprehension.

“It can be much more comprehensible when there are visuals such as images or videos, or music that accompanies text to set a mood or tone,” said Kendrick. “If you’re moving your understanding of information across multiple modes in a digital text, such as moving from the visual as your first access point, then to audio such as sound or music, it can amplify your understanding.”

With the instruction to create a two-minute media presentation combining a variety of digital elements to tell a story related to personal experience, students in the Digital Storytelling Project used photographs, video clips, voice-overs and music to tell their stories. Not only did this digital approach embolden creativity, but it also encouraged risk-taking and authenticity.

“The learners had a lot of autonomy which was brought about by the affordances of technology and the openness of the design,” said Early. “There was a kind of playfulness because students could create a film, but if they didn’t like the music, they could simply change it. There was a serious commitment to the work and the message, but it was significant that they could take risks and edit their projects.”

Kendrick explained that creating something authentic to one’s identity can promote positive outcomes for language learning and identity affirmation. By using a format such as digital media which youth already use on a daily basis, it allows for enhanced engagement and investment because it actually matters to them.

“It really begins with redefining or re-valuing what counts as writing in a classroom. If writing an essay is the only thing that counts as writing, when it comes to the identity affirmation piece, students aren’t going to see themselves as creators,” said Kendrick. “Bringing in that digital media element in an authentic way gives students a reason to speak back to a text, or create a brand-new text that is genuine to them.”

To learn more about the Digital Storytelling Project, click here.

Written by Kelsea Franzke

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We acknowledge that UBC’s campuses are situated within the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, and in the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation and their peoples.

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