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Introductory English Centres give migrant, refugee children head start before school

Amon and Ayual at the Tuggeranong Introductory English Centre.
Twins Amon and Ayual were born in South Sudan.

ABC Radio Canberra: Louise Maher

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Amon, 9, and her twin brother Ayual could only speak a few words of English when they arrived in Australia from Africa.

But after several weeks at the Tuggeranong Introductory English Centre (IEC), their language skills are improving and they are starting to feel more at home in their new country.

The twins are among the more than 270 children from Canberra's migrant, refugee and diplomat families who are getting a head start in language and culture at one of the ACT's six IECs.

Children at the Tuggeranong Introductory English Centre.
Julie, 7, from Cambodia, Allen, 10, from Iraq and Athaya, 6, from Indonesia.

ABC Radio Canberra: Louise Maher

The Tuggeranong IEC at Wanniassa Hills Primary School has 47 students from 17 different countries including South Sudan, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Iraq, Ukraine and Papua New Guinea.

"We have children that come in with some social English," Tuggeranong IEC leader Maria D'Souza said.

"They've learned to say 'hello, how are you' — they can respond to simple phrases.

"Then we have children who have absolutely no social English at all.

"And of course most of them don't have the academic English that's required to access the curriculum in the Australian school system."

The pupils spend 20 weeks studying English and learning about Australia, with the option of staying longer if necessary, before transitioning to mainstream schools.

"We try to address their needs in terms of keeping up with the curriculum of their peers," Ms D'Souza said.

"The focus is on the language of that aspect of the curriculum, then ... we look at the skills that they need to have."

Previous trauma can make learning more difficult

Teacher Melissa Aniversario takes a class at the Tuggeranong IEC.
Melissa Aniversario with her students at the Tuggeranong IEC.

666 ABC Canberra: Louise Maher

Melissa Aniversario teaches children from years one to four, including those from families seeking asylum in Australia.

"We do have some refugee families here who have been through a lot of trauma and that sometimes can make that process for learning English a bit more of a challenge," she said.

In her classroom, Ms Aniversario uses a variety of learning tools like picture cards to help the children express simple questions they may not have the language to ask.

"Often a really big concern for families is how will they ask how to go to the toilet.

"So we use visual cards ... so that children, just in those very first few weeks, can feel comfortable that they can communicate even if it isn't through talking."

Ms Aniversario said she had a passion for working with the children.

"It's such an amazing opportunity to be part of really helping them to settle into life in Australia."

Students part of school community

Wanniassa Hills Primary principal John Manders said the IEC students were an integral part of the school community.

"Our mainstream children benefit by having a very global perspective," he said.

"Our guys play with them on the playground ... it's often a teary goodbye from some of our kids when they go."