Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 2007 Issue »

    Editor's Review of Adult English Language Instruction in the United States and Securing the Future

    Sarah Dryden-Peterson
    Adult English Language Instruction in the United States: Determining Need and Investing Wisely
    by Margie McHugh, Julia Gelatt, and Michael Fix.
    Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2007. 24 pp.

    Securing the Future: U.S. Immigrant Integration Policy, A Reader
    edited by Michael Fix.
    Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2007. 192 pp. $24.95.

    Full Text:

    Most immigrants in the United States want to learn English. The essays in Securing the Future: U.S. Immigrant Integration Policy, A Reader, edited by Michael Fix, report that immigrants consider English proficiency a central part of their pathway to “making it” in this country. The authors of these essays skillfully demonstrate that immigrants who can speak English are more often employed, and more lucratively so (Beeler & Murray). The authors also demonstrate that with English, immigrants can also access the health-care system more effectively (Ku & Papademetriou), talk more easily to their children’s teachers (Murray, Batalova, & Fix), succeed on the U.S. citizenship test, become naturalized citizens, and obtain the right to vote (Johnson, Fix, & Murray). The Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.–based research think tank, has seized 2007 as a critical political moment — with immigrant integration high on agendas across the political spectrum — to publish both Securing the Future and the report, “Adult English Language Instruction in the United States: Determining Need and Investing Wisely,” by Margie McHugh, Julia Gelatt, and Michael Fix. This new research describes and analyzes the great unmet need for English-language instruction among immigrants. As policymakers take advantage of this groundbreaking research, they would do well to consider that formal English instruction may be only part of the process of learning English for immigrants. Economic integration, as suggested in Securing the Future, and social inclusion may also be important factors in English-language acquisition.

    Although many immigrants want to maintain their native languages while learning English, the popular concern that sustained or increased immigration will lead the United States to become a country fragmented by language is likely to prove unfounded. In 2000, only 18 percent of the U.S. population over the age of five spoke a language other than English at home, and the majority of people in this category also spoke English “very well” (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). The model of a three-generation transition to English monolingualism, first proposed by sociolinguists Joshua Fishman (1972) and Calvin Veltman (1983) to describe the experiences of early European immigrants, continues to be relevant for contemporary immigrants (Alba & Nee, 2003). Under this model, some first-generation immigrants learn English, although they generally prefer their native language, especially at home. In the second generation, children are usually bilingual but prefer English, and by the third generation, children typically grow up in a monolingual, English-speaking household and have only fragmentary knowledge of their family’s language of origin. Alba and Nee point out that even in the largest immigrant enclaves — Cubans in Miami, Koreans in Los Angeles, and Chinese in San Francisco — U.S.-born individuals are, “to an overwhelming degree” (p. 220), fluent in English. They write that “all of the studies of the new immigration indicate that linguistic assimilation in the form of English acquisition is a quasi-universal pattern” (p. 221).

    So great is the desire to learn English, however, that many immigrants do not want to wait until the second or third generation to achieve fluency. One of the essays in Securing the Future highlights this point by describing the unmet need for English-language instruction for immigrants. In “From Immigrant to Citizen,” Janet Murguia and Cecilia Muñoz of La Raza write that “a large part of the national effort to provide English-language instruction for immigrant adults is being carried out with the educational equivalent of duct tape and string” (p. 12). Murguia and Muñoz cite a report by the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition, which documented that almost half of the 1.2 million adults in federally funded adult education programs are there to learn English, even if the focus of the class is something else; furthermore, they report that studies by the National Center for Education Statistics suggested that more than three million adults were interested in English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classes, but were not enrolled for a variety of reasons, including oversubscribed classes. Waiting lists for English-language classes can be so long that some immigrants wait months or even years before getting a space. In 2007, there were 93,840 adults on waiting lists nationwide for adult education and literacy classes, including ESL (National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium, 2007). The current possibilities to increase access are few, given that most ESL programs are run by community colleges, faith-based organizations, and community organizations that rely on limited federal grants and their own private fundraising.

    That ESL needs are unmet is not new. However, the extent of these needs and cost estimates for meeting them has, until now, been unavailable to policymakers. In “Adult English Language Instruction in the United States,” the authors quantify the instructional hours and costs of the needed English-language instruction. They use the proficiency level required to pass the U.S. citizenship test as the target level and argue that this level of proficiency also allows “full participation in the country’s civic and patriotic life” (p. 6). Drawing from U.S. Census microdata and population estimates from the Urban Institute, the authors demonstrate that there are approximately 5.8 million legal permanent residents (LPRs) and 6.4 million undocumented immigrants who currently require instruction to attain this level of English proficiency.

    For this number of people to achieve English proficiency, the authors estimate, would require 596 million hours of instruction. In their cost calculations, however, they realistically assume that only half of LPRs would in fact participate in classroom instruction, and that a further 10 percent might participate in forms of distance learning and technology-based learning. Based on these numbers, the cost of meeting LPRs’ English instruction needs would be approximately $200 million a year for six years, in addition to the approximately $1 billion in current federal and state allocations. In the event of a broad legalization program for currently unauthorized immigrants in the United States, the authors project new costs of $2.9 billion a year for six years would be needed in order to provide English instruction for this population. The availability of McHugh, Gelatt, and Fix’s thorough analysis is a boon to policymakers interested in drafting legislation and creating programs to address the large demand for ESL among immigrants.

    Yet formal English instruction along the lines suggested by this report may be only a part of the process of learning English for immigrants. Indeed, there is a surprising lack of data to support the commonsense claim that ESL for adults promotes language acquisition. The academic literature on determinants of English-language acquisition among immigrants often either assumes that English instruction is positively related to proficiency without empirical basis for this claim, or does not examine it as a determinant. Funding agencies and the staff of the language programs they support have produced many reports on their work, but there is little that could be classified as research or even evaluation. One of the noted problems in this domain is that there is “little consensus in the field on the characteristics of effective instruction or on the outcomes that are appropriate for evaluating adult ESL” (Condelli, 1996, p. 1). This lack of agreement on how to judge ESL programs seems to have led to a reluctance to evaluate programs on a large scale, as any standardized instruments are much debated (p. 10). Despite the lack of empirical data, common sense does tell us that ESL must certainly have a role to play in immigrant English-language acquisition; however, policymakers would do well to keep in mind that it may be only one among multiple elements of successful language learning.

    The literature is clear that there are numerous determinants other than ESL classes of immigrant English-language proficiency. There is a host of premigration characteristics that are positively related to English proficiency, such as migrating at a young age (Carliner, 2000; Espenshade & Fu, 1997; Fennelly & Palasz, 2003; Grenier, 1984; Veltman, 1983); migrating from countries where English is the dominant or official language (Espenshade & Fu, 1997); individual attainment of a higher level of education in the country of origin (Espenshade & Fu, 1997; McManus, Gould, & Walch, 1983); working as a business owner, a skilled professional, or a service worker in the country of origin (Espinosa & Massey, 1997); and migrating from a community with high migration rates (Espinosa & Massey, 1997). Obviously, policy cannot change the premigration characteristics of immigrants already in the United States, but policy and programming can influence postmigration experiences. As documented in the literature, the postmigration experiences that are positively related to English proficiency include living outside of immigrant enclaves (Espenshade & Fu, 1997; Grenier, 1984; Jasso & Rosenzweig, 1986); longer periods of continual residence in the United States (Carliner, 2000; Espenshade & Fu, 1997; Espinosa & Massey, 1997; Stevens, 1992); a long-term commitment to life in the United States, such as home ownership and naturalization (Espenshade & Fu, 1997); higher levels of education in the United States (Carliner, 2000; Espenshade & Fu, 1997; Fennelly & Palasz, 2003; McManus et al., 1983; Stevens, 1992); smaller households (Espenshade & Fu, 1997); marriage to someone from an English-dominant background (Chiswick, Lee, & Miller, 2005; Espenshade & Fu, 1997); having a broad array of social connections (Espinosa & Massey, 1997); and working in professional or technical jobs (Espenshade & Fu, 1997; Espinosa & Massey, 1997).

    Although each of these determinants is associated with English-language proficiency, in most of these relationships the direction of causality is in question: Does living outside an enclave lead to English proficiency among immigrants, or do immigrants who are proficient in English choose to live outside of enclaves? Does having a broad array of social connections lead to English proficiency, or do immigrants proficient in English develop these connections? While research has yet to untangle the direction of these effects, the existence of the relationships suggests that policies aimed at promoting English-language learning among immigrants might be most effective if they simultaneously considered these other elements of integration.

    The essays in Securing the Future suggest that English-language learning is inextricably linked with other aspects of integration, particularly economic integration. In his introductory essay, “Immigrant Integration and Comprehensive Immigration Reform: An Overview,” Michael Fix defines integration as “the process of economic mobility and the social inclusion of newcomers” (p. vii) and states that “access to the labor market remains the nation’s most potent integrating mechanism” (p. xix). Amy Beeler and Julie Murray dwell on just how important English is to economic integration in their essay, “Improving Immigrant Workers’ Economic Prospects: A Review of the Literature.” They report the results of a 2000 study showing that regardless of their qualifications, immigrants and refugees who are fluent in oral and written English earn 24 percent more than immigrants who lack this fluency. They further quote a 2003 report that states, “As much as half of the relative wage growth experienced by immigrants in the first 20 years after arrival may be attributed to gains from learning the English language” (p. 110). They caution, however, that the impact of learning English varies considerably by education level and that job training remains equally critical. Many ESL programs funded through the Workforce Investment Act — through which most federal funding for workforce development and adult education comes — teach only “survival English,” which provides immigrants with language basics such as how to greet their neighbors and shop for food but which does not prepare them for the workforce. For this reason, Beeler and Murray suggest that a more effective model might be Vocational English as a Second Language (VESL) programs that teach about job searches and interviews, workplace culture, and communication with coworkers.

    The relationship between English proficiency and social inclusion, the second half of Fix’s definition of integration, is not explored in this volume. However, a 1997 study concluded that, controlling for other factors, migrants from Mexico to the United States who had a greater array of social connections had a greater likelihood of speaking English well, particularly if they belonged to a U.S. sports or social club, if they had Anglo friends, or if they had Chicano/Latino friends (Espinosa & Massey, 1997, pp. 41, 43). While the role of these social connections in English-language learning — and in immigrant integration more broadly — is difficult to assess, several recent reports out of Canadian foundations and policy institutes suggest they may be a critical and undervalued element of integration strategies (Brouwer, 1999; Omidvar & Richmond, 2003; Wayland, 2006). Recommendations for English-language programs for immigrants that incorporate building social connections could strengthen the policy proposals implicit in the Securing the Future essays and explicit in “Adult English Language Instruction in the United States.”

    A small, government-funded initiative in Canada — The Host Program — might serve as a model for these recommendations. The Host Program synthesizes English-language learning, building social connections, and labor market networking. It is a 20-year-old program through which immigrants and longtime resident Canadians participate in six-month partnerships in which they meet at least once per week, with a focus on cultural exchange, assistance with settling in Canada, English-language conversation, support with contacts in their field of work, and friendship (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2004). This focus means that partners often meet for coffee, share meals at each other’s homes, and explore the cultural offerings of their cities or towns. The most recent Host Program evaluation documented that the program provides social support and friendship to immigrants, expands their social networks, makes available guidance in employment and financial matters, and reduces feelings of stress and isolation (RealWorld Systems, 2004). This evaluation also revealed that a major motivation to participate in the Host Program is the opportunity to practice English (or French), and that a principal outcome is increased confidence in oral language skills (RealWorld Systems, 2004). Religious and community organizations have long played the same role as the Host Program for many immigrants in both Canada and the United States; in order to make the benefits of these social connections more widely available, however, the Host Program might productively be seen as an example of the possibilities for more innovative and comprehensive ESL instruction in the United States.

    The time is right to redesign English-language instruction for immigrants to the United States. Despite the recent faltering of broad-based reforms to the U.S. immigration system, the issue of how immigrants learn English in the United States will likely arise again as single immigration measures are proposed and as Congress considers reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act in 2007. “Adult English Language Instruction in the United States” provides timely guidance to policymakers in estimating the size of the target population and the cost of instructional programs. In its groundbreaking analysis of immigrant integration policy, Securing the Future challenges policymakers not to see any one element of integration in a vacuum; the literature on English proficiency among adult immigrants further illuminates these interconnections related to language learning. In concert, the two recent publications of the Migration Policy Institute suggest the potential power of making workforce development and social networking central parts of adult English-language instruction. Policymakers now have the opportunity not only to increase the number of class spaces available to adult immigrants wanting to learn English, but also to make the instruction more effective for immigrants’ larger goals of integration into the U.S. labor market and society.


    Alba, R., & Nee, V. (2003). Remaking the American mainstream: Assimilation and contemporary immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Brouwer, A. (1999). Immigrants need not apply. Ottawa, Canada: Caledon Institute of Social Policy.

    Carliner, G. (2000). The language ability of U.S. immigrants: Assimilation and cohort effects. International Migration Review, 34, 158–182.

    Chiswick, B., Lee, Y., & Miller, P. (2005). Family matters: The role of the family in immigrants’ destination language acquisition. Journal of Population Economics, 18, 631–647.

    Citizenship and Immigration Canada. (2004). Evaluation of host. Ottawa, Canada: Author. Retrieved September 5, 2007, from http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/research/evaluation/host/index.html

    Condelli, L. (1996). National “What Works” evaluation for adult ESL students: Current research and theory on effective adult ESL instruction [Meeting Summary]. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

    Espenshade, T., & Fu, H. (1997). An analysis of English-language proficiency among U.S. immigrants. American Sociological Review, 62, 288–305.

    Espinosa, K., & Massey, D. (1997). Determinants of English proficiency among Mexican migrants to the United States. International Migration Review, 31, 28–50.

    Fennelly, K., & Palasz, N. (2003). English language proficiency of immigrants and refugees in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. International Migration, 41, 93–125.

    Fishman, J. A. (1972). The sociology of language. Rowley, MA: Newbury.

    Grenier, G. (1984). Shifts to English as usual language by Americans of Spanish mother tongue. Social Science Quarterly, 65, 537–550.

    Jasso, G., & Rosenzweig, M. R. (1986). What’s in a name? Country of origin influences on the earnings of immigrants in the United States. In O. Stark (Ed.), Research in human capital and development (Vol. 4). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

    McManus, W. S., Gould, W., & Walch, F. (1983). Earnings of Hispanic men: The role of English language proficiency. Journal of Labor Economics, 1, 101–130.

    National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium. (2007). NAEPDC adult student waiting list survey results for program year 2005–2006. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved September 5, 2007, from www.naepdc.org/news_views_clues/Part%20II%202005-2006%20WAITING%20LIST%20PUBLISH.xls

    Omidvar, R., & Richmond, T. (2003). Immigrant settlement and social inclusion in Canada. Toronto, Canada: Laidlaw Foundation.

    RealWorld Systems. (2004). Evaluation framework for Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s settlement programs. Toronto, Canada: Author.

    Stevens, G. (1992). English language proficiency among immigrants in the U.S. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana.

    U.S. Census Bureau. (2003). Language use and English-speaking ability: 2000. Washington, DC: Author.

    Veltman, C. (1983). Language shift in the United States. New York: Mouton.

    Wayland, S. V. (2006). Unsettled: Legal and policy barriers for newcomers to Canada. Ottawa, Canada: Community Foundations of Canada and the Law Commission of Canada.
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    Winter 2007 Issue


    Equity and Access in Higher Education
    The Editors
    Community Colleges as Gateways and Gatekeepers
    Moving beyond the Access “Saga” toward Outcome Equity
    Alicia C. Dowd
    College Admissions in Twenty-First-Century America
    The Role of Grades, Tests, and Games of Chance
    Rebecca Zwick
    Test-Optional Admission at a Liberal Arts College
    A Founding Mission Affirmed
    Brian J. Shanley
    Expanding Equal Opportunity
    The Princeton Experience with Financial Aid
    Shirley M. Tilghman
    Is Teaching for Social Justice Undemocratic?
    Eric B. Freedman
    From Visibility to Autonomy
    Latinos and Higher Education in the U.S., 1965–2005
    Victoria-María MacDonald, John M. Botti, and Lisa Hoffman Clark

    Book Notes

    The Knowledge Deficit
    By E.D. Hirsch Jr.

    Case Studies of Minority Student Placement in Special Education
    By Beth Harry, Janette K. Klingner, Elizabeth P. Cramer, with Keith M. Sturges and Robert F. Moore.

    Qualities of Effective Teachers, Second Edition
    By James H. Stronge

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.