04/13/2013 02:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2013

Literacy Means Business, English Language Literacy and Workforce Development

The issues of employment, education and immigration have an underlying thread that connects them: the importance of English language literacy skills. In terms of the workforce of today, how do employees work together in teams, increase their knowledge that will help them to advance in their field, or even ask questions regarding safety in the workplace, if their English language skills are weak?

In terms of the workforce of the future, the importance of English language literacy continues to increase. Recently, Tom Friedman posited in the New York Times that the younger generation will have to invent their jobs, citing the importance of innovation and creativity. This requires such higher level thinking that language literacy must be highly developed. With 50 percent of Fairfax County Public Schools K-12 students going home to households where languages other than English are spoken, those ESOL students are at a disadvantage if their parents can't help them.

We have been inundated recently with talk about the importance of pre-K education, and we know that the funding for that will probably never appear. How about increasing funding for English language literacy education for adults? Students and parents in many school districts have technological help for accessing homework assignments, future test dates and finding out what happened in class if the student is absent. In Fairfax County, VA, that help is Blackboard. But how can parents access this information if they are not language literate or computer literate?

A recent article in the Washington Post illustrated the confusing edu-speak teachers tend to use. It's even more difficult to understand if you do not understand English. The all important communication with teachers is also out of reach if parents don't speak English. The email communication with teachers that so many take for granted is not a skill that parents of many struggling second language learners have.

The reality of the situation is that we as a country educate every child; we made that commitment decades ago. To not help the parents of the children in our classrooms is short-sighted. Helping the parents speak English positively impacts the whole family, and society as a whole. With the call for increased STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), we need to look at some practical solutions to narrowing the minority achievement gap in schools, in order for the workforce needs of the future to be met. Could something so simple as improving English language skills have a major impact on education, employment and immigration integration? It's a powerful idea and one worth exploring.

The Literacy Council of Northern Virginia is hosting Literacy Means Business, a panel with experts in education, labor, immigration integration; and the all important employer's perspective at Gannett Headquarters in Tysons, VA, on April 18th.