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.
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 countries as well as Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
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.”
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.