In her American environment, Mohamed at first wouldn't leave her house unless she had a translator with her when she arrived five years ago. Even now, as a college student who is proficient at speaking and reading English, she still struggles with writing the language.
"When you're almost above high school, learning a language [is] going to be difficult," Mohamed said. "It's not gonna be like when you write your own language. It's not gonna be the same."
Refugees such as Mohamed are the reason that the English Skills Learning Center (ESLC) in Salt Lake City has joined with the University of Utah on a research project designed to uncover the best strategies of teaching students known as "adult emergent readers."
Many English learners who visit the ESLC are adult refugees sometimes in their 60s and 70s who come from cultures where literacy is not the norm. They've often never stepped foot in a classroom and are unfamiliar with the notion of what most Americans deem a "typical" education experience.
Some refugees come to the center having never held a pencil before, said Rachel Blackmer, research project manager at the ESLC.
"Just like a child in preschool,"said Blackmer.
The challenge, she said, is making the learners feel connected to the program and not like children learning the basics.
Language-learning materials are often focused on children, Blackmer said, and it can be tricky to find curriculum geared toward adults. In addition to materials challenges, there is little research available on how to teach adult language learners who are preliterate.
"There is no manual to teach emergent reader students who need to learn English and literacy at the same time, which is a really huge challenge," Blackmer said. "Throughout the country, based on the research, [there's] nothing concrete saying this is how you teach them."
The ESLC hopes to change that with help from the University of Utah.
With assistance from a $20,000 grant from the U., the center taught four different classes twice a week over a period of six months. Nearly 30 adult students from Somalia, Burundi, Bhutan, Burma, Central African Republic and Eritrea were taught English skills with two teaching methods.
Now, U. linguistics professor Rachel Hayes-Harb is compiling the research findings in a report. After that, the ESLC plans to develop curriculum for teaching adult emergent readers.
"I can't stress how important it is for us to do research on populations that have traditionally all but [been] ignored by the research community," Hayes-Harb said. "I'm especially motivated to do it when they're my neighbors [and] members of my community."
Because the ESLC is one of the first language centers to do this research, it hopes to expand and share its findings in the future, said Catharine Preston, research class instructor at the center.
"It's a research project that's just going to keep giving," she said.
Preston had the challenge of teaching the research classes with a language wall dividing her from her students.
"I really didn't speak to them very much," she said. "The more I spoke to them the more confused they got."
She set up the class with a simple structure, instead, where spoken language wasn't so essential. She held up flashcards with English words so students could learn bit by bit. Other times, students would practice the English words they knew with each other even if it was just a few words instead of listening only to a teacher lecture.
"Here's the funny thing: Even without speaking, I always knew how they felt [and] what they were thinking," Preston said. "I would say there was a barrier, but it really diminished over time."
For Mohamed, those who helped her learn English will not be forgotten.
"People in this country, they are so helpful," she said. "They will help you about your language, they will help you [with] whatever you need, whatever you try. ... They will try to help you to understand."
The research is needed, Hayes-Harb said, because it will make the transition to a new culture and a new home easier for Utah's refugees.
"These are incredibly brave people who have so many pressures in their lives," she said. "Shouldn't we give it our best shot? Shouldn't we know what we're doing?"
Refugees in Utah
About 25,000 refugees live in Utah, 99 percent of whom are in the Salt Lake Valley. Between 1,000 and 1,100 new refugees arrive in the state each year. The largest refugee communities are from Somalia, Sudan and Iraq. About 5,000 people from each of those countries have resettled in Utah.
The refugee groups arriving most rapidly in Utah now are from Iraq, Burma, Somalia and Bhutan.
Source: State of Utah Refugee Office, http://refugee.utah.gov/