The Literacy Gap of Immigrants in the US

By Center for Immigration Studies, Special for  USDR

A new study published by the Center for Immigration Studies analyzes the English literacy level of immigrants living in the U.S. and raises concerns about the magnitude and persistence of low English ability. Not only do 41 percent of immigrants score at or below the lowest level of English literacy, but the U.S.-born children of low-skill immigrants also  struggle.

Jason Richwine, PhD, an independent public policy analyst and author of the report, commented, “The importance of English literacy cannot be overstated. Without language proficiency, immigrant families will find it difficult to succeed in the mainstream of American society, and high rates of English illiteracy may be a sign of poor immigrant assimilation. Policymakers should take  note.”

For objective data, this report employed a direct test of English literacy administered by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), rather than the Census Bureau data on English-language ability, which is widely used by researchers but is based solely on the respondents’ subjective assessment of their own language  proficiency.

View the full report at:

Among the  findings:

  • 41 percent of immigrants score at or below the lowest level of English literacy in the PIAAC test – a level variously described as “below basic” or “functional illiteracy.”
  • The average immigrant scores at the 21st percentile of the score distribution for the native-born.
  • Hispanic immigrants struggle the most with English literacy. Their average score falls at the 8th percentile of the native distribution, and 63 percent are below basic. The average score for all other immigrants falls at the 40thpercentile and 23 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 to the Census Bureau 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 U.S. 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.

SOURCE Center for Immigration  Studies

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