Published on 14 March 2023
Following the war in Ukraine many people have been forced to flee their home to the UK. Few of these people never expected to have to learn to speak English just to survive everyday life.
Now, young student teachers at the University of Sunderland have taken the first steps to help Ukrainian refugees living in the city, with free English language classes.
Academics at the University had the idea of getting students studying MA TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) involved in helping out refugees and asylum seekers in the city with their language skills. Dr Michael Hepworth, Senior Lecturer in TESOL, approached the University with his idea for English language classes, and was award £5,000 worth of funding to launch the scheme.
He says: “This project has allowed the University to play its part in meeting the urgent language needs of asylum seekers and refugees in the city. Some may go on to study at the University and, more broadly, all will benefit from learning the dominant language of the communities they live in. These communities will also benefit, as our provision will help promote government agendas around employability, citizenship, and social cohesion.
“Our MA TESOL students have the opportunity to support expert language teachers in real language classes, gaining valuable practical experience within a supportive environment. This ‘hands on’ experience is something our students have been requesting and is also something that doesn’t happen much on other MA TESOL programmes.”
The University’s Chief Operating Officer Steve Knight added: “The University is proud to be part of the City of Sunderland and we strive to support our local communities where we can. We were greatly saddened by the war in Ukraine so were very keen to do what we could to help.
“We are uniquely placed to offer English language support to Ukrainian families in the city and it is testimony to our staff and students that they give their time to develop and deliver an important piece of work which we know has greatly helped our new residents settle in Sunderland.”
The MA TESOL team successfully piloted two on-campus language classes for asylum seekers and refugees. One was a beginner’s class, Working with Everyday English, the other an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) class, which prepares people for further study. The team also organised social events, bringing together Ukrainian refugees and those who support them.
Gabrielle Turner, 27, graduated from MA TESOL last year, and is now working at the University. She has been supporting refugee provision this year.
She says: “I was brought up in and out of foster care and left home aged 15. With my background I know that it can be hard coming to a new place by yourself. I’ve found the support from University of Sunderland has enabled me to overcome the barriers in my life, and I want to help others to overcome theirs.
“I understand how hard it can be leaving everything behind and starting afresh. I think walking into a classroom can be quite intimidating, especially if you’ve had a whole life and then you have to try to learn a language you never thought you’d need to learn. So, we try to break down the walls of that a bit, get the students out of the classroom and into the community.
“A lot of what we do is about building confidence. We want to embed a sense of community, of family and friendship with the Ukrainian refugees.”
Professor Lynne McKenna, Dean of the Faculty of Education and Society at the University of Sunderland, said: “I am delighted that the TESOL team were able to respond proactively with the provision of free English language classes for Ukrainian refugees in the City of Sunderland. The Faculty of Education and Society have a long tradition of providing language support for our incoming students and for our students once enrolled onto their University programmes.
“This initiative clearly had a different and important focus and I am immensely proud of the team and especially Michael for taking the initiative to progress this ‘society shaping’ idea.”
The University has worked closely with the Connecting Communities team at Sunderland City Council and the charity Action Foundation to develop a network in Sunderland. The team have created a citywide database of language learning providers, a draft research report and a Twitter account @ESOLSunderland.
Michael adds: “Our overall aim is to contribute to the University’s community-facing and society shaping agenda by helping to lead, support and co-ordinate, high quality language provision in the city.”