Immigrants’ Top 10 Language Learning Needs: One Size Does Not Fit All

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There are over 43 million immigrants in the U.S., and more than 20 million are adults who are what’s called “Limited English Proficient,” or LEP.  This means that on top of all the struggles they face to provide for themselves and their families, they have a huge and staggering additional barrier–not understanding English.

There is no national system to teach English to adults; classes are offered in church basements, community centers, and public libraries by a hodge-podge of organizations that mean well, but often have untrained, volunteer teachers using a one-size-fits-all curriculum–something that we know is inefficient and unlikely to yield effective results.  There are waiting lists for these classes, and when learners get to them, we aren’t teaching them what they need to know in order to survive in the U.S, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Here’s a clear example: several years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a group of researchers to conduct a needs analysis for an ESL program offered by CASA de Maryland (CASA), a community organization working to “to create a more just society by building power and improving the quality of life in working class and immigrant communities.”  Our task was to ensure that their ESL program offered instruction that would help solve the real problems faced by their learner population.

We began this needs analysis by conducting in-depth, focused interviews in students’ native languages, and we uncovered thirty-five different reasons why they needed to learn English, from being able to talk to the police to understanding the directions on medicine bottles.  We then created surveys and distributed them over two semesters to 360 different students, asking them to rank-order the tasks identified by the focus groups in terms of their importance.

While all thirty-five tasks were important to some of the survey respondents, the top ten were rated by nearly the entire population as extremely important:

  1. Read official letters in English (from my bank, companies where I have accounts, from my doctors, from my children’s schools)
  2. Fill out job applications
  3. Communicate with the police during a vehicle stop
  4. Communicate with my boss
  5. Understand a doctor’s diagnosis
  6. Read legal documents
  7. Read the instructions on medicines and vaccines
  8. Get a driver’s license
  9. Attend job interviews
  10. Talk to representatives from my bank when there’s a problem with my account

Parents were worried about not understanding how to give medicine to their children or how to help them with their homework.  People were desperate to be able to explain things to their bosses and understand why they were being stopped by the police. They wanted to understand the dozens of letters, handouts, bills, and contracts that are part of life in the United States.  These students came to classes at night, after having worked all day in physically demanding jobs, because they wanted to learn the English that would help them solve real problems.

Unfortunately, though, most ESL programs aren’t designed to do that.  Instead of relying on one-size-fits all textbooks that teach the days of the week, colors, and how to order coffee, ESL programs need to be using authentic materials to teach people how to understand a court summons or a doctor’s diagnosis.  Giving practical, needs-based instruction is important for all language students, but it’s absolutely critical for adult immigrants. It’s scary enough to get six pages of discharge instructions after a visit to the ER; imagine what it would be like if you didn’t understand the language in which they were written.  

These students have told us what they need to learn, and we know how to do it.  The list of top ten needs would be the perfect way to organize a task-based syllabus for adult ESL instruction.  If we had a national initiative to offer accessible, relevant instruction to these LEP immigrants, we would be able to help them with many of their problems.  Isn’t it time to help newly-arrived Americans and their families succeed?

Katie is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, which means she leads the teams ensuring that learners are getting the most efficient and effective educational experience possible.  She has a PhD in Second Language Acquisition and years of experience teaching languages, building language courses, and evaluating the effectiveness of language training as a research scientist.  She lectures and writes about all things related to language learning and educational technology.