The Challenge

Low literacy and limited English proficiency among parents is the strongest predictor of children’s inability to thrive academically.

About 18 percent of New York City residents (1.6 million adults) do not speak English proficiently, meaning that they lack the skills required for daily living and employment tasks beyond the most basic level. This largely hidden epidemic takes a profound toll on both adults and their children.

For many immigrants in particular, parent illiteracy means that children are placed in an inappropriate adult role, whether translating at the doctor’s office, reading important documents, or having to help their parent navigate the world.

The need is greatest in the boroughs of Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, where 24 to 28 percent of the population could not speak English proficiently in 2009–13.1 Of those who need literacy education in New York City, only 40,000, or 3 percent, are receiving it.

Educational attainment and English proficiency are key drivers of long-term family well-being. One study showed that for every dollar spent on adult illiteracy, society reaps $7.14 in returns—through increased individual earnings and decreased societal expenditures. Benefits of increasing education levels and English skills of adults include:

Higher Income

English-proficient immigrants in New York City have higher average incomes than limited-English-proficient immigrants at all levels of educational attainment:

  • 90% higher among college graduates ($66,067 vs. $34,984)
  • 37% higher among those with some college ($31,650 vs. $23,106)
  • 30% higher among those with just a high school diploma ($22,254 vs. $17,053)
  • 32% higher among those without a high school diploma ($14,450 vs. $10,923)

Immigrants who have high school degrees in New York City have average incomes 64% higher than immigrants without high school degrees ($19,050 vs $11,604).

Early Childhood Development and School Readiness

  • The primary parent’s level of educational attainment is the strongest predictor of children’s cognitive and linguistic development as early as 18 months.
  • Maternal education levels are the most important factor in the “30 million word gap.”
  • An achievement gap among children with parents of differing education levels is found in every measure of academic achievement tracked by the federal government.
  • The achievement gap among school children with parents of differing educational attainment is bigger than the gap measured by either race or family income.

Better Health Indicators

Adults who are proficient in English have:

  • Higher rates of health insurance.
  • Better access to care, and are more likely to have a regular doctor.
  • More knowledge of prevention and nutrition.

Voting and Civic Engagement

  • Better educated adults vote in higher numbers than less educated adults.
  • Educational attainment and English proficiency are correlated with higher levels of civic engagement.

Literary Partners Approach

Literacy Partners takes a unique dual-generation approach to addressing parents’ literacy needs with the goal of boosting achievement in the next generation as well.

In addition to emphasizing family conversation and reading, our classes convey the literacy and language skills and confidence that students need to navigate New York City’s subways, schools, banks, and health care system. Teachers coach parents through the process of obtaining library cards, email accounts, government identification, health insurance, and using the internet so that they can have access to the full range of information needed to succeed as parents, workers, and members of the community.

1Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova (2015), “The Limited English Proficient Population in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute.