Amplifying Impact: Why policies that combine investments in English language and digital literacy are vital

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, June 25, 2020

While strong public policy investments are important at any time, they are even more so as policymakers and skills advocates hurry to identify the best ways to build economic resiliency in a post-pandemic world. NSC’s new report, Amplifying Impact, explores how combining investments in digital skills and English language learning can pay off for workers and businesses alike.


English is essential – especially for essential workers

The Covid-19 pandemic has vividly illustrated the centrality of frontline workers to the everyday functioning of American life. Many frontline workers are immigrants and/or English language learners – not unlike the US workforce overall, in which more than one in 10 workers has limited English skills.

The proportion of English learners is much higher in certain frontline jobs, such as meatpacking and home health care. Even in ordinary times, these workers often lack opportunities for skill-building because they have irregular hours, limited time or money, or are working for a company that does not offer upskilling opportunities. Many English learners are also people of color, who face additional barriers due to longstanding structural racism and related inequities in the United States.

Yet acquiring better English skills is one of the most powerful steps a worker can take to improve their economic prospects. Data confirms that the US has a tighter connection between better foundational skills and higher earnings than many other industrialized countries.

In other words: For each bit of English that a worker acquires, their earnings are likely to increase. Research also suggests that supporting foundational skill gains among adults who start off with lower skill levels (in this case, literacy) has a more powerful effect on per-capita Gross Domestic Product and labor productivity, compared to skill gains among adults who were already at a higher level to begin with.

As policymakers determine potential avenues for workforce investment as part of an inclusive economic recovery, these findings should be front and center in decisionmaking.


What does the current landscape of adult English learning look like?

Public policies support English learning primarily through the latter two options, through federal legislation such as the Higher Education Act (HEA) and Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Before the pandemic, the most common delivery mechanism for publicly funded English classes was a traditional in-person classroom format, though some adult and higher education providers had launched online learning options.

Since the pandemic began, an enormous percentage of adult English classes have moved to some form of distance learning. Federal agencies have provided preliminary guidance to support this transition, while several national organizations have worked to support program administrators’ and instructors’ professional development needs.

During this time, it has become vividly clear that English and digital literacy skills are more closely intertwined than many had previously grasped. Workers who lack English skills are hampered in finding their way to the online learning opportunities that are their best (and often only) option for upskilling during the pandemic, many of which require at least some fluency in written English. Meanwhile, those who lack digital skills are prevented from accessing timely and even life-saving training opportunities that can prepare them for working in a Covid-transformed world.

Conversely, workers who have the opportunity to develop both their English and technology-related skills can see a double win: improving their employability and earning power now, while also building skills to access future online upskilling opportunities.

To this end, policymakers and advocates alike can learn from “early adopter” organizations that have been already providing technology-enabled English language learning programs, and can use that information to respond to the unprecedented re-employment and re-skilling challenge the US now faces.


What can innovative English learning look like?

National Skills Coalition spoke with leaders in the education and educational technology fields to better understand emerging models for effective English language learning, especially those that feature digital learning components and well-developed connections to local businesses’ talent development needs.

The examples highlighted in the Amplifying Impact report are a few of the models that reflect promising practices in this rapidly evolving corner of the adult education field. Importantly, each of them reflect blended models that incorporate online elements (and in some cases can be transformed into fully online models).

In addition to helping learners build digital skills, this approach also makes English skill-building opportunities accessible to a wider range of learners, such as those who work extended or irregular schedules, by decreasing the amount of in-person hours that are required compared to traditional classes.

Programs profiled in Amplifying Impact include:

  • Washington State’s I-DEA program (Washington)
  • Mobile Up! (California)
  • New American Workforce (Various)
  • Destination Workforce (Virginia)
  • English Readiness (Various)

In addition, while logistical factors precluded its inclusion in the report, the English Innovations program also bears mentioning. This robust program was developed by the nonprofit One America in 2011. The model incorporates three key components: English language acquisition, digital literacy and community engagement. Outcome data show that nearly 60 percent of participants gain at least one language level in the 12-week class period, compared to 41 percent of participants in a traditional ESL model. The program has recently expanded to several other states as part of the National Partnership for New Americans’ English as a Gateway program.


How can policymakers best support expansion of effective English learning models?

As state and federal officials seek to identify effective tools to help their constituents navigate a tumultuous post-pandemic economy, English language learning models that include strong digital literacy components will be an important part of the solution.

Among the principles to keep in mind:

  • Businesses are central partners in designing English programs that can effectively meet their talent needs and reliably result in career advancement for their incumbent workers.
  • Digital tools are a crucial component, but cannot be the only component, of English language learning.
  • Public agencies should allow providers flexibility in performance measures used to demonstrate learning outcomes.
  • Models that have been successful as individual or boutique examples need deeper study to aid in future replication.
  • Existing racial inequities faced by English learners of color in the US labor market have been magnified by the impact of Covid-19.
  • English and digital skill-building should be supported not only by the traditional education and workforce policies such as WIOA and HEA, but also by other significant public investments.

Get more detail on each of these recommendations, plus additional recommendations for policymakers and practitioners, in the full Amplifying Impact report.