Learning English Especially Hard For Immigrants Who Can't Read Or Write

Tuesday, December 18th 2007, 7:20 am
By: News On 6

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Before Bob Jansen can teach English to the adult immigrants in his lowest-level class, he has to show about a quarter of them how to hold a pencil.

Adult education teachers like Jansen are finding themselves starting from scratch as uneducated immigrants and refugees from conflict regions of Africa and rural areas of Mexico and Central America flock to the United States.

An estimated 400,000 legal and 350,000 illegal immigrants are unable to read or write even in their native language, according to a July 2007 report from the Migration Policy Institute, an independent Washington think tank.

``It takes a lot of patience to teach this class,'' said Jansen, an instructor at the Don Bosco Community Center.

During one recent session, Jansen drew male and female stick figures on the dry erase board and taped pictures of different modes of transportation alongside the sketches. Students crafted sentences like, ``He is on the orange airplane.''

His students, including five Somali women clad in long head scarves, also recite the alphabet and practice vowel sounds. Others in the class come from other African counties as well as Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

One of the students, Rebeka Goup, did not attend any school in her native Sudan before she come to the U.S. in 2000.

``I need to learn English to talk to people,'' said Goup, who is one of the most fluent students in the class but speaks in broken English. Asked in English where they are from, many of her classmates respond with their names or addresses.

The immigrants, some of whom attended school for the first time in refugee camps, tend to flounder alongside classmates who attended school in their native countries.

More states are looking at student performance as they decide how to distribute federal dollars to programs that provide English classes for adult immigrants.

Those who teach the students say they are penalized for their slow progress, and are discouraged from offering them separate classes.

``One hand of the government is letting preliterate people come here as refugees,'' said David Holsclaw, director of Don Bosco Community Center's English as a Second Language Program, which serves about 2,500 students a year. ``And another hand of the government is making it hard to serve them because they want to tie our funding to testing.''

It's easy to understand why immigrants struggle if they aren't literate in their native languages, said Barbara Van Horn, co-director of the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy at Pennsylvania State University.

``They haven't made the connection between their oral language and the fact that what is printed, those letters represent sounds that are used to make up words,'' she said. ``They don't have that basic understanding of what literacy is about.''

Cheryl Keenan, director of adult education and literacy with the U.S. Department of Education, said the completion rate for adult immigrants in the lowest-level classes was greater than for the highest-level classes.

But she acknowledged that service providers are ``quite challenged in how to address the instructional needs of these beginning literacy students.''

Service providers first began noticing large numbers of unschooled immigrants after the Vietnam War, when throngs of Laotian Hmong war refugees arrived with no traditional written language.

But most programs were slow to respond to their needs, said Heide Spruck Wrigley, a nonresident fellow with the Washington-based Center for Immigrant Integration Policy.

She said the latest immigration influx has refocused attention on non-literate immigrants.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, the number of foreign-born adults with less than a fifth-grade education increased 25 percent from 1.74 million immigrants in 1990 to 2.18 million in 2000. It then dipped 2 percent to 2.12 million immigrants in 2006.

Wrigley said programs seeking to serve the lowest-level students know more about what works and what doesn't than they did after the Vietnam War. But programs continue to struggle.

Service providers face pressure to maintain large classes, and often lack enough non-literate students for a separate class. But the non-literate students are lost as soon as the teacher writes a sentence on the board.