Survival Literacy Training for Non-Native-English-Speaking Workers

L. Bruno
Y. Jin
D. Norris
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
American Institutes for Research
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This resource provides an overview of levels of literacy and language proficiency of non-native speakers of English and the challenges they might encounter in the labor market. In particular, the researchers discuss what this might mean for workforce literacy training programs and meeting Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. They detail the Prose and Quantitative literacy scores associated with particular professions, and examine data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) as it relates to participants that did not speak English when they started school. The study was guided by the following questions:

  1. What characteristics of non-native-English (NNE) workers will influence literacy and English as a second language (ESL) training?
  2. What levels of English and literacy skills are needed to master the requirements of industries where NNE speakers are concentrated?
  3. What training methods address both literacy and ESL training at these levels?
  4. What are the Employment and Training workforce investment system’s strategic options for implementing a systemic response to literacy and ESL training?

Some of the findings are:

  • Roughly 46% of NNE workers have a working command of English;
  • Nearly 50% of NNE speakers scored Below Basic in Prose and Quantitative categories;
  • Low literacy impacts high school or GED completion for NNE speakers; however, low literacy did not impact postsecondary completion;
  • NNE speakers are less likely to benefit from computer-based education;
  • Based on literacy requirements for particular occupations, NNE speakers do not have the level of literacy necessary to operate safely in those jobs;

The authors conclude with suggestions for teaching NNE workers, including three teaching models that may best meet the needs of immigrant workers:

  1. Vocational English as a Second Language (VESL): ESL class combined with a vocational training program;
  2. Immersion Method: immersion ESL classes while working on the job:
  3. Integrated Work-Based: tailored industry- or employer-specific work-based ESL literacy and language class.
What the experts say

The resource, written by researchers at American Institutes for Research (AIR), uses national statistics to document what probably most ESL teachers, administrators, and researchers already know—that the best full-time jobs go to those who are the most literate and speak English most fluently. However, the documentation is important, providing evidence of a need for ESL and literacy training.

Scores on literacy measures from the NAAL database allow the researchers to study the literacy proficiency required for various jobs in the O*NET database. Although workers seem to value ESL training over literacy training, both are important in obtaining good employment.

The authors also make a point that OSHA requires that workers be trained in safety measures at appropriate literacy and language levels. Since it would be difficult for employers to adapt training manuals to various levels, ESL and literacy training at the workplace becomes important.

Statistics for native English speakers are included only for comparison to show that their outcomes are generally better than non-native speakers of English. The resource does not deal with discrimination that might occur for other reasons, such as racial or ethnic prejudice. The assumption is that literacy and English language proficiency will lead to the best employment outcomes.

Useful Features

  • The findings shown in the data tables are immediately interpreted in the following text in easy-to-understand “doses.”
  • The data demonstrate the relationship between literacy levels and type of employment, length of employment, computer use, and wages.
  • The appendix “Methodology and Technical Notes” further explains the research strategies in the paper and describes background variables.
  • Information on OSHA rulings and the effect it might have on workers and employers is important.
  • The study raises further questions: How is the “new model” really different from the old one? How does this information translate for ESL instructors who now do most of the ESL training? Should safety be more of a focus in “regular” classes? What literacy skills should be taught and how?

Missing Elements

  • A section on classroom application would strengthen this resource for practitioners.
Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research: This quantitative study was informed by the findings from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). The authors ran additional statistical analyses (e.g., multivariate, multiple regressions) for particular items.