The real challenge is immigrant literacy

A new study from the Center for Immigration Studies found an alarming number of second generation of immigrants are failing to grasp the English language. “To measure the English ability of immigrants in the United States, researchers often rely on the opinion of the immigrants themselves. For example, the Census Bureau asks foreign-language speakers, ‘How well [do you] speak English?’ and gives them four choices: ‘very well, well, not well, or not at all.”

The study found that the answers are subjective, “as speaking English ‘well’ might mean anything from basic comprehension to near fluency. For objective data, this report turns to a direct test of English literacy administered by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The results raise concerns about the magnitude and persistence of low English ability among immigrants.”


  • 41 percent of immigrants score at or below the lowest level of English literacy — a level variously described as “below basic” or “functional illiteracy”.
  • The average immigrant scores at the 21st percentile of the native score distribution.
  • Hispanic immigrants struggle the most with English literacy. Their average score falls at the 8th percentile, and 63 percent are below basic.
  • For Hispanic immigrants, self-reported English-speaking ability overstates actual literacy. The average literacy score of Hispanic immigrants who self-report that they speak English “very well” or “well” falls at the 18th percentile, and 44 percent are below basic.
  • Even long-time residents struggle with English literacy. Immigrants who first arrived in the United States more than 15 years ago score at the 20th percentile, and 43 percent are below basic.
  • Literacy difficulties brought by low-skill immigrants persist beyond the immigrant generation. The children of Hispanic immigrants score at the 34th percentile, and 22 percent are below basic. In addition, just 5 percent of second generation Hispanics have “elite” literacy skills, compared to 14 percent of natives overall.
  • Consistent with prior analysis of the PIAAC English literacy test, immigrants score substantially lower than native speakers. Specifically, immigrants perform at the 21st percentile of the native score distribution, and 41 percent of immigrants score low enough to be described as below basic or functionally illiterate. With a 63 percent rate of below basic literacy, Hispanic immigrants struggle with English more than non-Hispanic immigrants, who have a below basic rate of 23 percent.
  • This report reveals that Hispanic immigrants’ self-assessed English-speaking ability overestimates their English literacy. Hispanic immigrants who speak English “very well” score 0.42 SDs below the native average, placing them at the 33rd percentile. Therefore, researchers should be wary of citing self-assessments as an indication of English ability among Hispanic immigrants. By contrast, non-Hispanic immigrants who say they speak English “very well” perform much closer to natives on the literacy test.

This report also demonstrated that immigrant literacy skills really make a difference matter for future generations. While the literacy test scores of the second generation usually rises to keep pace with American students, US-born Hispanics are lagging well behind American children.

As a result, the expansion of  low-skill immigrant workers into the US will only exacerbate the multi-generational skills deficit, including the socioeconomic challenges that face a highly technological economy.

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