English can be a tough language to learn, but the federal government hopes to make it easier with a free website intended to improve access to language instruction for immigrants.
The website, usalearns.org, is a free and easily accessible resource available to anyone seeking basic English language instruction. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, it meets one of President George W. Bush’s immigration reform pledges from 2007.
The website is simple and straightforward. Users can choose to view initial directions in English or Spanish and can select from beginner and intermediate teaching modules. The instructional parts of the website are almost exclusively in English.
“America’s limited-English adults will now have readily available materials to improve their literacy and help them become more productive workers, better parents, engaged community members and active citizens,” said Troy Justesen, assistant secretary for the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, in a written statement.
The site is intended to help address a larger problem in the U.S. – nearly 11 million adults who are not literate in English, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy. The local demand for English language instruction is substantial.
“Sometimes we have to turn away students because we just can’t accommodate them,” said Sandy Kawamura, chair of the ESL department at Sacramento City College.
Each semester, Sacramento City College offers close to 100 sections that have up to 27 students each. Classroom space is limited, and waiting lists often grow large with a diverse group of people seeking ESL classes, Kawamura said.
Nationwide, the problem with class availability is even greater.
“There really aren’t sufficient resources for learning English, especially for low-cost services,” said Jennifer Chang Newell, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants‘ Rights Project. “We know that in some cities there are tens of thousands of people waiting for these classes. … There’s certainly a recognition in immigrant communities of the importance of learning English.“
The new website may be able to address some problems that immigrants who don’t speak English currently face, immigrant advocates say.
“It’s very tough for monolingual speakers,” said Robert Uy, an attorney with Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach. “Because they’re working most of the time trying to survive, they’re unable to take the classes they need to learn the language and pass the test.“
Uy said the availability and cost of current classes is often prohibitive for these workers, many of whom live below the poverty line.
“A lot of people who are seeking to naturalize make roughly $800 a month,” he said. “Fifty dollars to pay for school is quite a big chunk of change.“
The new site will help address the problems of cost and when classes are offered, but an online resource may not be useful to certain segments of the population, Uy said.
“Elderly immigrants will pretty much not use that service at all because there’s a big tech divide,” he said. “A lot of them aren’t savvy enough to know that they can go to the library and use that resource [if they don’t have Internet access at home].“
The website was developed in consultation with the Sacramento County Office of Education and the University of Michigan, said Department of Education spokesperson Jim Bradshaw.
JEREMY OGUL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.