Preparing Limited English Proficient Persons for
the Workplace. ERIC Digest.
by Wonacott, Michael E.
Many individuals in today's workplace or preparing to enter it are limited
English proficient (LEP). According to the 1998 Perkins Vocational and
Technical Education Act, an "individual with limited English proficiency"
is a secondary school student, adult, or out-of-school youth with limited
ability to speak, read, write, or understand English and whose native language
is not English or who lives in a family or community environment where
a language other than English is dominant. LEP individuals come from a
variety of social, economic, and educational backgrounds (Friedenberg 1995;
Willette, Haub, and Tordella 1988). The literacy levels of LEP persons
are equally diverse. Many claims of illiteracy among the LEP population
refer only to literacy in English and ignore literacy in other languages.
Likewise, an LEP person's oral proficiency in English should not be confused
with English- or native-language literacy--that is, the ability to read
and write (Wiley 1997). This Digest describes cultural considerations and
effective approaches for LEP individuals' work force development, including
the impact of recent training legislation.
CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR EFFECTIVE TRAINING
LEP persons--especially immigrants--often come not only from a different
language background but also from a very different cultural background;
so English-language instruction must often provide cultural as well as
linguistic orientation. Immigrants in particular may experience profound
adjustment or transformation in their social identity--all those aspects
of the self (family role, life skills, sense of community, and so on) that
define how people understand themselves in relation to others (Ullman 1997).
Four specific cultural factors may influence learner and teacher in the
classroom (McGroarty 1993):
* Roles of learners and teachers--Learners may expect more traditional,
formal, authoritarian, ordered, structured instructional style and activities
and be put off by informal practices such as using first names and moving
freely around the room. Likewise, teachers may expect learners, especially
adult learners, to be self-reliant, expressive, and assertive-a potential
conflict with learners who are carefully deferential and reserved.
* Gender-related issues--Learners may expect different behavior from
male and female teachers and may not even have experienced mixed-gender
classes. Likewise, male-female issues might affect group configurations
or activities. Finally, different definitions of appropriate gender roles
can prevent or discourage LEP women from pursuing training.
* Appropriate topics for instruction--Topics that are innocuous to one
person may violate social, dietary, or religious prohibitions for another.
In addition, recent immigrants may have great difficulty describing the
homes they fled in fear or answering personal questions that might have
a bearing on their unresolved immigration status.
* Appropriate behavior at school--Different cultures define "appropriate"
differently. Some learners may balk at moving classroom furniture or may
expect a quiet, orderly classroom at all times. On the other hand, learners
may expect to be able to eat, drink, smoke, or litter freely in the classroom.
One set of instructional approaches is used to provide English-language
* English as a Second Language (ESL) covers all aspects of English grammar,
vocabulary, and pronunciation; survival or prevocational ESL tends to focus
on English skills needed by immigrants to find housing, read want ads,
use public transportation, and write (Platt et al. 1992).
* Vocational English as a Second Language (VESL), on the other hand,
focuses on the English skills specific to a particular occupation or vocational
area. For maximum effectiveness, VESL instruction relies on collaboration
between vocational and VESL instructors who work together to identify the
specific oral and written English skills appropriate for the VESL course
* Workplace literacy programs upgrade current workers' English-language
reading and writing skills. Workplace literacy programs can also serve
LEP workers by providing workplace ESL instruction. A needs analysis first
carefully identifies language skills needed to perform successfully in
the employer's workplace; those language skills are then provided through
classroom instruction (Grognet 1996).
Friedenberg (1995) identifies five approaches to content-area instruction:
* Bilingual/bicultural education provides content-area instruction to
LEP students (usually all with the same native language) in their native
language; ESL instruction is also provided at the same time. Over time,
use of the native language for instruction is decreased and the use of
English is increased.
* Multilingual/multicultural approaches provides limited content-area
instruction in native languages when there are LEP students with different
native languages in a class or when bilingual or multilingual teachers
or aides are not available. The instructor becomes more a facilitator than
a provider of instruction. ESL instruction is also provided at the same
* "Sheltered" content instruction uses English to provide content-area
instruction but begins by first developing appropriate vocabulary by extensive
use of visual aids, gestures, graphic organizers, and cooperative hands-on
student activities. It is often used for classes with multiple language
groups or multiple English proficiency levels or when bilingual teachers
or aides are unavailable.
* Immersion is an approach used frequently but inconsistently, ranging
from "carefully structured sheltered techniques with bilingual assistance
to nothing more than submersion" (ibid, p. 44). In immersion, LEP students'
native language is not used (National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education
* Submersion provides no special services at all to LEP students--it's
either sink or swim.
THE LEP POPULATION AND THE 1998 PERKINS ACT
How does the LEP population fare under the latest amendments to the
Perkins Act? Some differences between the 1990 and 1998 acts related to
the LEP population are superficial. In the 1990 act, for example, "individuals
of limited English language proficiency" were one of five specifically
identified special populations; the 1998 act includes "individuals with
limited English proficiency" among a general "individuals with other barriers
to educational achievement" (American Vocational Association 1998). The
definition of an individual with limited English proficiency remains the
On the other hand, the new act continues a significant change in the
emphasis given to serving special populations. The 1990 Perkins Act had
strengthened provisions for providing education services to special populations
(ibid.), in part by specifying a 10.5% set-aside for sex equity and programs
serving single parents, single pregnant women, and displaced homemakers,
as well as requiring each state to have a full-time sex equity coordinator
(Hettinger 1999). At the same time, however, it eliminated some earlier
funding set-asides for specific special populations, including the limited
English proficient (Kochhar 1998). The 1998 act eliminated the 10.5% set-aside
and the sex equity requirements.
Probably the most significant changes in the 1998 act are provisions
balancing greater state flexibility in administering and allocating federal
funds with greater accountability for results. The 1998 act allows state
and local agencies and programs increased flexibility (e.g., in how they
deliver services, whom they target, how they measure participation and
progress of members of special populations) and changes in requirements
(e.g., in the assurances for access and criteria for services to special
populations) (Hettinger 1999; Kochhar 1998). States must now establish
systems to monitor four core indicators (Hoachlander and Klein 1999) of
student performance: (1) attainment of state-established academic and technical
skill proficiencies; (2) acquisition of secondary or postsecondary diplomas,
degrees, or credentials; (3) placement, retention, and completion of postsecondary
education or advanced training or placement in the military or employment;
and (4) participation in and completion of training leading to nontraditional
Furthermore, states must individually define the specific indicators
and performance levels for which they are accountable; so state success
will depend on four factors (ibid.): (1) defining workable indicators and
performance levels; (2) identifying relevant populations of students who
participate significantly in career and technical education; (3) developing
strategies for local implementation and local accountability; and (4) involving
local personnel in state system design and helping local providers learn
how to use performance measures.
THE WORKFORCE INVESTMENT ACT OF 1998
Among the key elements of a work force development system, the Workforce
Investment Act (WIA) recognizes the need for "basic literacy as a key element
of participation in the labor force and national life, especially in view
of the large number of non-English-speaking adults in the workforce" (Kaufmann
and Wills 1999, p. 9). And with an emphasis similar to that of the 1998
Perkins Act, the WIA gives the states new responsibility for sorting out
how best to fulfill the targeting task. In line with this recognition of
the need for basic literacy, the training provided under the WIA must be
related to labor market needs but can combine literacy education with occupational
Given the WIA's recognition of the need for basic literacy, recurring
aspects of the WIA system could be of benefit to LEP individuals, even
though they are not specifically targeted as a special population (Employment
and Training Administration 1998a,b). For example, Core Services, available
to all at one-stop centers with no eligibility requirements, include career
counseling, information on skills needed for in-demand jobs, skill and
needs assessment, and information about available services. The second
level, Intensive Services, includes comprehensive and specialized assessments
of skill levels (i.e., diagnostic testing); development of an individual
training plan; group counseling; individual counseling and career planning;
case management; and short-term prevocational services, which specifically
include development of learning skills, communication skills, and interviewing
skills to prepare individuals for unsubsidized employment or training.
At the highest level are Training Services directly linked to job opportunities
in the local area and may include adult education and literacy activities
in conjunction with other training. All in all, the WIA appears to offer
a range of services designed specifically for work force development that
would coincidentally meet the English-language instruction and literacy
needs of the LEP population.
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