Latin American countries have increasingly similar English proficiency levels, with only 10 points separating Argentina, the highest proficiency country, from El Salvador, the lowest.
People across Latin America have enjoyed convenient access to primary education for more than 20 years, with fewer students repeating a grade or dropping out of primary school over the past decade. Adult literacy is also above 90% in almost every country in the region. Public spending on education has risen and is currently in line with Europe as a percentage of GDP. Despite these successes, and extensive economic and social ties to the United States and Canada, English proficiency levels in Latin America are still slightly below the global average.
Although some rural areas still suffer from a lack of access to education, the primary challenge in Latin America is poor educational outcomes. UNESCO test results indicate that 50% of third-grade pupils in Latin America have not achieved a basic level of competency in mathematics and 30% have not achieved basic competency in literacy. The latest PISA results found a similar pattern among secondary students. This deficit reflects broader problems within the education system that impact English language instruction as well.
Across the region, teachers earn small salaries, receive inadequate initial training and support, and enjoy few professional development opportunities. In Brazil, teachers from other subject areas who do not have full course loads are often assigned to teach English classes, despite typically having no relevant training. Overcrowded schools teach children in shifts, shortening the school day and leaving little spare time for the review and practice necessary to learn English.
In order to improve the English proficiency of their students, Latin American countries must first improve the English proficiency of their teachers. Testing teachers’ English proficiency and retraining those who do not meet expected proficiency levels would be a good start. Hiring more qualified English teachers, improving English teachers’ pre-service training, and standardizing the English curriculum would also hugely benefit the region.
Merit-based promotions, regular opportunities for professional development, and special rewards for high performance will help build more effective education systems as well. More robust student assessment would help educators identify deficiencies and implement effective reforms.
Some countries have attempted to attract volunteer English teachers from the U.S. and Canada. These programs are only stopgaps, though, and are neither scalable nor sustainable. A more productive alternative, which several countries are already exploring, is to send teachers and students to North America to improve their English and learn better teaching practices. Although these exchange programs would be significantly more expensive than designing effective English teacher training systems at home, they are straightforward to implement and highly motivational for the teachers who are selected to participate.
Most programs to improve English proficiency in Latin America focus on funding either teacher training or student exchange to North America. This emphasis on training is well placed given the insufficient number of teachers in the region who are proficient in English. Additional innovative initiatives are also underway, including one program that uses technology to deliver high-quality English lessons taught remotely by teachers in other countries. This initiative offers a more scalable alternative to costly foreign teacher exchange programs.
Profiles of English learning initiativesView Initiatives
Latin American men and women both score below global averages. In contrast to most other regions, the gender gap in Latin America is statistically insignificant, with men and women roughly on par in terms of English ability.
Most age cohorts in Latin America saw insignificant changes in English proficiency this year, and all remain below global averages. Young adults in Latin America have improved relative to their global peers, but this small bump may not be enough to serve the region’s future English needs.