Founder of ESL Reads
EAL Teacher and Curriculum Writer (Secondary)   

Strategies to Help EAL Students Navigate Our Education System

January 22, 2023 by Lauren Piovesan

This week, I sat down with Sophie Naw Nyo, an inspirational Multicultural Education Aide who is a Karen refugee from Thailand. Sophie works with upper secondary students in one of Victoria’s largest, low SES and culturally diverse public schools. When I asked her what her message was to the young people that she worked with, she spoke passionately about pathways for young people. She explained that despite immense family pressure which stems from parents and siblings own traumatic histories, young people need to choose the educational pathway that is right for them.

In speaking to Sophie, many conversations with students sprung to mind around pathways, learner levels and the Australian education system. I think there are 5 main reasons why our students may not end up pursuing meaningful and suitable career pathways such as:

  1. Community and family expectations
  2. Understanding the education system
  3. Understanding their learner level
  4. Anxieties
  5. Lack of exposure to different industries

Based on my experiences teaching senior secondary students over three years, I will seek to explain the 5 reasons listed above, whilst also providing a few strategies used to navigate these complex situations. This topic is enormous, so strap in and buckle up for the ride ahead!

1. Community & Family Expectations

Most students that I worked with would choose career pathways based on expectations from their community or family, most commonly parents or brothers. In some cultures, as is the same here in Australia, certain careers are seen as more desirable, noble or able to produce increased wealth, compared to others.

For my students, who were female, nursing and aged care were the top career choices. Sometimes this was an expectation from a male family member because this was considered to be a “good career for females.” For other students, their parents expected that they work in these fields for a range of reasons including status, traumatic past experiences or a lack of opportunity for themselves. These expectations put pressure on students which they rarely wish to go against for fear of disappointing or being ostracized by their community or family.

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  • Teach self-advocacy as part of a unit of work. I have taught units where students write persuasive letters to family members about something they would like to change or a choice they would like their blessing for. 
  • Involve certain parents in pathway conversations using an interpreter. This has been a good opportunity educate them on the variety of job types, courses the school can offer or the education system. Often, the family members of our students have had limited or interrupted schooling in their home countries, and it can be especially difficult for them to understand the education system in Australia. 

2. Understanding the Education System

A lot of the students I worked with didn’t understand their education choices, the different levels and what they mean (e.g. VCAL vs VCE, cert I, II, III etc), and the fact that they can take many pathways to achieve similar goals (e.g. VET as opposed to university). 

Many students would also get information about the education system from unreliable sources such as cousins, facebook or friends, who often had different circumstances to the students in my class. Students would get very confused by Centrelink or Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) approaching them about free course offerings. I spent a lot of time explaining the education system, levels and pathways to students but due to interrupted schooling, coupled with anxieties about the future, and a trauma impacting memory, it rarely stuck. I will say that I felt like a broken record player a lot of the time! 



  • Teach students about their course in detail (whether that was VCAL or an EAL class) and show them where this course/class sits in the scheme of the education system. E.g. what is VCAL? What is EAL? What is VET? Why do we do it? What do those courses/classes mean?
  • Use a simple flow chart showing the education system in goal setting sessions or interviews and refer to it when any pathway or learner level conversation arises.
  • Get to the bottom of the Centrelink or RTO message – or refer the student to the social worker/career counsellor to spend more time solving his. I used to dismiss these comments by students, but found that if they weren’t addressed, a student was likely to go for these often unsuitable offerings. Make sure these course myths get debunked ASAP!

3. Understanding their Learner Level

Some students that I worked with really struggled to understand their learner level and what that meant in terms of further education or work. As mentioned above, no, limited or interrupted schooling was a large factor in this because the students didn’t have prior experiences of learning processes to compare to. However, I also think there was a lot of shame in admitting that they had low literacy levels. And external pressure to complete further study or earn money only fuelled this sense of shame. 

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  • Using a student friendly rubric – both academic and learning skills based – can be a good visual tool to show students where they are and where they need to go to achieve a certain level. At my school, we used a learning skills rubric (e.g. organisational skills, time management, completion of tasks etc)  alongside an academic one to show students what is required for further study/work.
  •  Have frequent goal setting conversations with students. I felt they worked best when an interpreter was involved as this helped to clearly give students messages around their academic progress and skills, and gave them a chance to ask questions.
  • Use LLN tests such as BKSB so that students can see concrete, external evidence about their level that is not based on teacher judgement.
  • Refer the student to a career counsellor early (if you have one in your setting) to start the conversation about viable, appropriate options for further study and work. 
  •   Re-assure the student through concrete work samples e.g. writing samples over time, that they are, indeed, making progress.
  • Whatever you do, don’t shut a student’s career choice down as you risk losing trust. It is much better to work with them, rather than against them on this one!


4. Anxieties

Imagine moving to a new country with very little knowledge of the language there. You are 17 and all of a sudden, you are in a school where you need to decide your future, but you are still trying to work out how to live in this country, how to speak the language, and how on Earth to comprehend the academic work required! Or, imagine that you are 23 and you find yourself in a foreign place. All of the other 23 year olds in this country are getting on with work and study. Some of your cousins or friends have been working for 3 years already! This kind of situation can be incredibly anxiety inducing as students can see how long the learning process will take for them to catch up to their peers. They can sometimes get the sense that they are “running out of time” and will be anxious to get out of your program and onto the next thing before it has barely been a month!

The other huge anxiety inducing factor is a student’s financial situation; how many dependents or younger siblings they have, and how many people back home are relying on money being sent. This can be very stressful, and I have seen this dictate course and work choices massively… and for good reason!


  • Find ways for the student to get casual or part-time jobs, refer them on to a job seeking service, or make goals towards achieving this e.g. make a resume. In my experience, there are many community services which help young migrants with job seeking.
  • Have guest speakers or find stories of people from similar backgrounds to your students to tell their educational journey. Twists and turns in education and work choices may then become normalised. 

5. Lack of Exposure to Different Industries

This is a big one! I made it my mission to try to expose students to industries outside of the narrow ones they thought existed, or the ones their families were pushing them towards. This can become part of any EAL or secondary class (except maybe an exam driven course). I would usually ask students to explain what they thought a particular job or course would entail, and then work with them to research the truths. Many students had uninformed perceptions about certain careers – that they were easy, well paid, didn’t need literacy skills, or didn’t take long to get into. 

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  • Work with a career counsellor to schedule lots of excursions; career expos, Uni and TAFE tours, TAFE tasters and guest speakers for students.
  • Have students interview someone working in their chosen career path to find out their day to days and what is actually all about!

At the end of the day, it is our students’ free will to choose what they want to do with their learning and their career, and this does, as much as it pains me, need to be respected. Sometimes, a student will need to follow a journey to learn that it wasn’t (or maybe was) what they thought it would be. I believe that our job is to point them in the right direction towards becoming informed and equipped, so that they can make the best possible choice in order to live purposeful and meaningful lives.

If you have had these experiences with students or have found some helpful tips to use, please share it in the comments below!

*Please note: I am a teacher and am not in career counselling or social services. What I write about in this post comes only from my observations and my students’ experiences across the 5 years that I have worked with them, which I communicate broadly here. 

2 thoughts on “Strategies to Help EAL Students Navigate Our Education Systems”

  1. Interesting content and relevant to EAL learners and their experiences.
    I think that students don’t understand the Australian education system when they first start in our secondary schools but a huge barrier is their parents lack of understanding of our education system and the pathways to being successful.
    We need to be more proactive in introducing orientation programs to parents who have Newly arrived overseas born children in our schools .
    We need parents to understand our education system so that they can support their children through their education.
    We’ll done on sharing a great resource for dialogue and collaboration in schools .

    1. Hi Manitha,
      Thank you for your feedback on my blog! I am very glad you found it to be relevant to EAL learners. I love your suggestion about better providing an orientation program for parents. It can be a challenge for the school to engage these families, but I do think this is so needed, and would really help us in the long run with our conversations with students. Great idea!

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