Literacy profiles: challenges in the migrant language education

Adult migrants are a heterogeneous group in which different literacy profiles can be identified. Among these profiles, various categories can be distinguished by taking account of migrants’ educational background. Each category is defined by a combination of features that are usually found together, though individuals are likely to vary within a particular category. Four main groups of migrant learners are proposed – A, B, C, D – with the aim of helping institutions and teachers to provide tailor-made and learner-oriented courses.

Members of all four groups are often easily able to participate fully in social life. The definitions that follow are, however, intended to facilitate their access to education and reduce the risk of exclusion, according to the needs highlighted by UNESCO for these “special target groups” as defined in the “Paper commissioned for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2006, Literacy for Life”.

Group A

Adults who did not receive an adequate education in their country of origin, whose mother tongue is generally not written down or is not the medium of instruction in their country of origin.

Some individuals in this group may not have developed any notion of writing as a semiotic system, so it may be difficult for them to understand how a written text, or a word, carries meaning. Members of this group can be referred to pre literate learners; they are the most vulnerable people, as defined by the Parliamemntary Assembly of the Council of Europe according to human rights (Recommendation 2034: 2014).

Group B

Adults who have never learned to read or write in their mother tongue can be described as ‘illiterate’, especially if they have had little or no formal education.

Language programmes provided for them should have the following interconnected goals: ‘technical’ goals regarding instrumental literacy; communicative language goals, relating to functional literacy; and “learning-to-learn” goals that develop study skills and awareness of the learning process.

In this group, further distinctions should be made on the basis of the writing system of the migrants’ L1 – which they can recognize but not read -, and the typological distance between L1 and the language of the host community. It is thus useful distinguish between:

  • migrants who speak a language with a logographic writing system (e.g. Chinese);
  • migrants who speak a language with an alphabetic script unrelated to the main language of the host community (e.g. Arabic in Western Europe);
  • migrants who speak a language with a script related to the main language of the host community (e.g. Vietnamese in Western Europe).

The kind of contacts migrants have with the host country’s language (only mediated; rare; frequent; daily) and the domains in which these contacts occur (private; public; occupational; educational) are other important variables to consider.

Group C

Adult migrants who have had limited schooling in their mother tongue (in general, less than 5 years) can be described as ‘semi-literate’.

These are learners who are no longer able to read or write in most everyday situations, although they may be able to read or write certain things; for this reason they can also be considered ‘functionally illiterate’.

It is also possible to include another category in this group: adult migrants who have partially lost their literacy skills through lack of use and further training and are thus in a state of ‘secondary illiteracy’.

‘Semi-literate’ includes both the second and the third types described in Literacy and covers a very large range of cases, in terms of level of mother tongue literacy, domains of reading and writing, and the writing system in which individuals may have acquired partial literacy.

Thus the needs of semi-literate migrants will also vary according to whether their L1 has

  • a logographic writing system;
  • an alphabetic writing system unrelated to that of the host community’s language;
  • a writing system related to that of the host community’s language.

Other variables to consider are the kind of contact migrants have with the host country’s language (only mediated; rare; frequent; daily) and the domains in which that contact occurs (private; public; occupational; educational). For this group, as for Group B, educational goals are of an instrumental nature: the reinforcement of fundamental reading and writing skills, communicative language learning, and ‘learning how to learn’.

Group D

Literate migrants also differ in terms of their level of education, mother tongue, age, motivation and other personal and sociolinguistic factors.

With such learners the learning process can focus on communicative language learning from the beginning and can include writing and reading. As regards study skills, programmes designed for them can make use of assessment and test formats that prepare learners for formal language exams. The objectives are mainly those established on the basis of the levels of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

Considering all four groups, and with particular regard to more vulnerable migrants, policymakers should take into account their duty to provide specific programmes to teach literacy, as a fundamental part of the integration pathway. Everyone has the right to achieve literacy, the more so if a compulsory test is required. All existing standardized tests are designed for literate candidates, so it is inappropriate and unfair to administer them to migrants in categories A, B and C. It is also a waste of time and money to write test specifications for adults who have not received an adequate education that equips them to take every kind of test.

In order to have concrete information in relation to the specific programmes needed to teach literacy, see section  Related resources.

Syllabus and descriptors for illiterate, semi-literate and literate users. From illiteracy to A1 level, where strategies for teaching the four different groups, as well as considerations concerning the time required, are provided. It is an instrument that supports the design of flexible and inclusive language education related to literacy profiles, which focuses on Italy as a context and Italian as a second language. However, the underlying principles and criteria are valid for any language and any other European context. The migrant is considered a social agent and the syllabus and its descriptors cover language performance on specific themes and specific tasks in specific domains.

The users of the Syllabus are primarily those who work in different sectors of education in Italy: authorities and directors of education institutes for curriculum development; authors of textbooks and teachers for materials development; teachers and directors of studies for course and class planning; the organizers of placement tests and diagnostic exams for matters related to language assessment; and the designers of certifications schemes provided only in cases where literacy has been achieved.


Related resources

Italian Language for adult migrants. Syllabus and descriptors for illiterate, semi-literate and literate users. From illiteracy to A1 level, 2014, Alessandro Borri, Fernanda Minuz, Lorenzo Rocca, Chiara Sola. Loescher Editore, Italy.
EN   FR   IT (orig.)

Case study: Language learning in the context of migration and integration - Challenges and options for adult learners, 2008, Verena Plutzar, Monika Ritter.

The role of literacy in the acculturation process of migrants, 2008, Hervé Adami

Tailoring language provision and requirements to the needs and capacities of adult migrants, 2008 Hans-Jürgen Krumm, Verena Plutzar.

2014 - Integration tests: helping or hindering integration? :

  • Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE): Recommendation 2034 (2014) to the Committee of Ministers
    EN   FR
  • and Explanatory Report
    EN   FR

UNESCO: Literacy for Life, EFA Global Monitoring Report, 2006