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HomeFeaturesRadical Re-Thinking Required

Radical Re-Thinking Required

Katie Nielson believes that structural change is needed to bridge adult language gaps

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According to the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. meets the educational needs of less than 4% of its adult immigrant population—more than 20 million of whom have limited proficiency in English. It’s an especially troubling fact, as communicating in English remains a prerequisite for most careers in this country.

Those who are not fluent in English often face barriers not only in the workplace but within their broader communities. Working-age adults with limited English proficiency, most of whom are immigrants, earn 25-40% less than their English proficient counterparts.
The ways we currently address this issue—offering ESL instruction at community centers, welcoming programs, refugee training centers, and local schools—is not nearly enough. An effective solution requires a much more comprehensive approach. It will require greatly extending the reach of these existing programs. We must start offering English training to immigrants seeking other services, such as legal aid or housing assistance. And it is crucial that we provide learners with programs that are accessible, flexible, and that operate outside of the typical college classroom hours.

Unfortunately, serious conversations about redesigning education for adult learners are often limited to institutions of higher education. They tend to ignore the unique challenges of adult students with limited English proficiency for whom access takes on a very different meaning. Even the most affordable, flexible educational options are often beyond reach. A growing number of school districts, businesses, and other organizations are starting to change the conversation, however, helping to bridge the language gap through innovative local programs that marry technology and local outreach.

New Jersey’s Passaic Public Schools is launching an initiative to offer personalized English lessons to the parents of students who cannot participate face-to-face. It will include lessons specifically designed to help parents understand English words and phrases that they encounter in the forms and notices their children bring home from school. The district hopes to expand the project to other parents through parent liaisons who work in the Passaic public schools, offering several kinds of assistance, from completing school forms to registering for standardized tests.

In Maine, the Greater Portland Welcome Center is also exploring ways in which technology can expand its reach. A resource hub serving the needs of immigrants across the state, the welcome center is designed to strengthen the immigrant community through language acquisition, economic integration, and civic engagement. With its iEnglish project, the center works directly with employers to offer workplace-specific language training to workers whose lack of English is a barrier to career advancement. The project includes a digital language lab to offer personalized, technology-mediated language training to employees in various sectors. The center trains lab staff to help learners better navigate the technology so that they can ultimately access materials on their own at any time or place.

Miami-Dade County public schools launched a Parent Academy to offer training to families in their district. Outreach is an important part of the program. Rather than wait until a child starts school, the academy begins connecting with parents as soon as a child is born. Each parent of a newborn at the county hospital receives a welcome pack that includes a letter from the Parent Academy encouraging them to get involved.

These, and other similar initiatives, reflect the potential for innovative, local programs to ensure that adult English learners can access the education they need to be successful employees, involved parents, and thriving members of their communities. And they reflect the potential for emerging technology to introduce a degree of flexibility and accessibility that traditional learning cannot.

We are never going to meet the needs of the millions of underserved adult English learners without radically changing the conversations we’re having about technology and access. Local partnerships have paved the way for a larger-scale national program to increase outcomes and accessibility. Research6 suggests that the outcomes are there. How we implement them at scale remains an open and important question.


Dr. Katie Nielson is the chief education officer at Voxy (, a personalized language-learning platform for corporations, universities, and governments. Previously, she researched the efficacy of technology-mediated language-training products at the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language and also taught second-language acquisition at Hunter College, City University of New York.

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