Immigrant Literacy: Self-Assessment vs. Reality

Jason Richwine, CIS, June 2017

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”. Answers are highly 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.

Specifically:

  • 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.

Click below for the full study.

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