ESL and Adult Literacy Go Hand in Hand

Three decades ago, one of my first jobs after college involved testing people with low literacy to see how they interpreted medicine labels. I had led a sheltered life up to then, it seems, because I was shocked to discover that there were adults in America who could not read. Now, of course, I know many people who have limited literacy or limited English or both. And I understand much better than I did then why adult education and English language instruction are critical to our society.

September 12–18 is Adult Education and Family Literacy Week. LETC program director Ashley Lipps reminds us why adult literacy education and English instruction are essential in preparing people for the workforce.

By Ashley Lipps

Every week is adult education week at Language ETC! In a typical term, about a fifth of our adult students don’t have formal education past elementary school. They didn’t have the opportunity to continue their schooling in their home countries. At LETC, they face extra challenges in the classroom: learning to read and write a second language is even more difficult when you don’t have a solid foundation of literacy in your native language. We offer these students various types of support, including one-on-one tutoring and, for Spanish speakers, basic literacy education and computer training in Spanish.

For our students with little formal education, learning basic English is a lifeline. It can make the difference between having a job and not having one, or between remaining stuck in a dreary low-wage job and getting a better one. Learning English allows them to enroll in job training programs or GED classes, gain new skills, find better jobs, and communicate with their co-workers and supervisors in the workplace.

Hard-working students in a Level 2 class. The great majority of our students, when asked why they want to learn English, say "to get a job" or "to get a better job." Photo © Elsie Hull.

At the other end of the spectrum, about a fifth of our students have university degrees. But some of them, too, are working in low-skilled jobs. Part of the problem is that their professional credentials aren’t always accepted in this country, but an even bigger barrier is lack of English. I can think of one student at LETC who has an advanced degree and wants to teach physics and chemistry here, as he did in his home county. But for now, he’s working in food service as he improves his English.

According to a Migration Policy Institute report, more than 1.3 million college-educated immigrants are either unemployed or working in low-skilled jobs — a waste of human capital that our society could use. No matter how much formal education immigrants have had in their home countries, English remains the key to getting a better job.

At Language ETC, students from different countries and different educational backgrounds study together and help each other learn. Photo © Elsie Hull.

September 12–18 is Adult Education and Family Literacy Week. Literacy advocates are calling on lawmakers to step up investment in adult education, including ESL. Over 1 million adults took English classes as part of adult ed programs funded by the federal and state governments in 2007. But the need is even greater. According to the National Coalition for Literacy, 93 million adults in the United States read and write at only a basic level, or not at all, but funding for adult literacy programs serves only 3 million of them. In cities around the country, there are waiting lists for adult literacy and ESL programs.

So let’s mark Adult Education and Family Literacy Week by telling our elected officials what we at LETC already know: investment in ESL and adult education pays off. Basic English and basic literacy enable people to enter the workforce, support their families, and contribute to society. Hard-working adults across the country, like our students, are learning to speak English, learning to read, studying to get their GED. They deserve all the help we can give them.

Learning skills for the workforce in the LETC computer lab. Photo © Elsie Hull.

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