ERIC Identifier: ED409747
Publication Date: 1997-06-00
Author: Nixon, Thomas - Keenan, Fran
Source: Adjunct ERIC
Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC., National Clearinghouse
for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Citizenship Preparation for Adult ESL Learners. ERIC Digest.
Learning to become good citizens has been part of immigrant education
throughout US history. Early in this century, for example, settlement houses
established programs to help newcomers assimilate. Classes to assist immigrants
through a naturalization process that includes passing the U.S. Immigrant and
Naturalization Service (INS) exam are a newer phenomenon. Such classes have seen
dramatic enrollment gains as record numbers of people--five million in the last
five years--have become citizens (Constable, 1997). This trend is due to recent
high levels of immigration, new federal laws regarding immigrants and public
benefits, and immigrants' fears about anti-immigrant sentiment and where it
This digest will describe the educational requirements of the naturalization
process and give ESL teachers a variety of activities to use when preparing
learners for the citizenship exam.
THE INS EXAM
Speaking English has been a requirement for
citizenship since the turn of the last century, however, it was not until 1950
that strict mandates about reading and writing English became part of the
naturalization requirements (Becker, 1993). Today, most applicants must meet
English literacy and civics requirements, although there are some exemptions for
elderly or disabled applicants.
An INS examiner evaluates the applicants' knowledge of US history and
government by asking selected questions from the N-400 application and from a
list of 100 questions. A short written dictation is also given. Each INS
district has individual discretion over assessment of the history and civics
information and some districts accept standardized tests results. However, the
ability to speak and understand English must still be demonstrated in an oral
Citizenship preparation classes are
usually offered within publicly funded education programs or at community or
social service organizations. These classes can be distinct courses or a series
of lessons within a general ESL class. They vary in duration and emphasis and
are sometimes taught bilingually. They do not always include ESL instruction.
Service providers indicate that the number of low- literate learners--some of
whom have been in the United States for many years without taking language
classes--is rising in citizenship classes (Becker, 1997). Many of these
low-literate learners became residents in the early 1990s as part of the 1986
Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) which allowed undocumented immigrants
to gain residency. (See Terdy & Spener, 1990.) Older and disabled
immigrants, who face a possible cutoff of social services, are also attending
classes in greater numbers (Rimer, 1996).
THE TEACHER'S ROLE
Aliza Becker, a citizenship education
consultant, stresses that teachers must distinguish between the educational and
the legal aspects of citizenship preparation. It may be detrimental, for
example, to encourage learners to seek citizenship before their papers are in
order. Becker and Lindt (1996), describe the following elements of the
citizenship teacher's role: teaching the benefits of citizenship; education
about the naturalization process; preparation for the oral and written exams
including teaching language skills, culture, content, test-taking strategies,
and instilling confidence; empowerment; and "referrals" for legal advice. It is
important that the teacher not assume the role of legal advisor, especially for
applicants who have had legal problems or a lengthy absence from the United
States. The teacher should be familiar with local organizations that offer free
or low-cost legal assistance.
APPROACHES TO TEACHING CITIZENSHIP
Teachers use two basic
approaches in teaching citizenship. The first is to teach the course as a social
science or civic education course in which learners are taught historical and
cultural information that may or may not be on the citizenship test. (See
Pereira, 1993). General ESL instruction can be part of this approach. The other
approach is to teach only those items that will be on the test. Sometimes this
is done bilingually. Although learners receive a solid introduction to U.S.
history and government in the first approach, it may not prepare them for the
INS interview. As one teacher says, "...I agree with the notion of teaching
civic participation and not the test, but... [learners are] telling me, "Look,
we have the rest of our lives to learn about the system. I really need to pass
this test." (Fredella, 1997, pp. 4-5). In contrast, while the other approach may
prepare learners for the test, it does not necessarily prepare them to be good
citizens. Therefore, instructors need to take from both approaches to teach
learners both what they need to know to pass the test and what they need to know
to be active citizens.
Learners often enroll in classes shortly before their INS interviews, not
allowing sufficient time to prepare. This is problematic, especially if the
applicant has low English literacy skills. To increase mastery of the language
and literacy needed to pass the exam, teachers can encourage the formation of
study teams for practice outside of class.
ACTIVITIES FOR TEACHING CITIZENSHIP
Using a variety of
materials in the citizenship class provides context for learners, especially
those with minimal English literacy skills (Holt, 1995). Materials should be as
authentic as possible. An American flag, patriotic posters, and images of the
White House, Lincoln, Washington, and Martin Luther King are examples of visual
aids that can help low-literate learners better understand the content.
Regardless of the learner's English proficiency and literacy level, classroom
instruction must not be limited to textbook work. Following are some activities,
most of which are based on the INS list of 100 questions, from which the
majority of INS interview questions are drawn. (Example: What do we call a
change to the Constitution?)
"Question Division"--Arrange the 100 INS questions according to theme. Most
of the questions fit neatly into such themes as the presidency, the Congress, or
the Constitution. There will be overlap because questions will fit into more
than one theme. By breaking up the questions in this manner, the teacher will be
able to present neat, concise thematic units.
"Contests"--Many learners enjoy competition. This is particularly true for
those whose home country's educational systems emphasize memorization, speed,
and individual achievement. To run a contest, divide the class into teams and
have the teacher ask the questions, have a learner ask the questions, or have
the teams choose and ask the questions. Start with one individual and ask
questions until a mistake is made, then go on to the next individual. The winner
is the one who answers the most questions before making a mistake.
"Information Gap Activities"--information gap activities provide learners
with the opportunity to think critically. An example of an activity is to divide
learners into pairs with a list of ten questions and ten answers. Have the
questions numbered and the answers lettered. Using only English, have the
learners match the numbers with the letters.
"Tape-recording"--Since it is unlikely that the INS interviewer will sound
exactly the same as the teacher, learners must have opportunities to hear the
questions from other native speakers of English, for example, the teacher's
friends or family members. Try for a variety of accents and intonations.
Alternately, have the learners collect their own samples. This will give them
the opportunity to speak to a native speaker of English. A third option is to
let the learners themselves read and record the questions. Although this will
take a great deal of time, it will foster test familiarity.
"Flash Cards"--Have the learners make themselves a set of 100 question
flashcards and write the answers on the back. Although this will take a lot of
class time, it will allow learners to study the questions outside of class.
"Dictation"--Since the test requires that learners to listen to and write
down one or two sentences, practicing dictation is vital. Many learners are more
afraid of this particular part of the test than of any other part of the
interview. Possible practice formats are: Dictate questions to the learners.
Dictate answers. Dictate the questions, and then have the learners write down
the answer to the question. Dictate the answers and then have the learners write
down the corresponding question.
"Role-play"--Pretend that the teacher is the INS examiner. Create an
environment in the classroom that is similar to the testing situation. Include
such props as the American flag and photographs of the president.
"Drill Patterns"--Drill and practice can be a valuable technique for
memorizing answers for the exam. Some possible drills are: a) The teacher
recites a question and learners repeat the question; b) The teacher recites a
question and the learners give the answer; c) The teacher recites the answer and
the learners recite the question. If necessary, the teacher can break down the
sentences into meaningful chunks that can be used for further practice.
Pronunciation drills can be added as well. A drill that provides practice with
rephrasing the question is also useful as the INS examiner may do so during the
"Cloze Exercises"--Hand out worksheets with some text deleted. Possible
high-level texts are the "Star-spangled Banner," the "Pledge of Allegiance," or
the "Preamble to the Constitution." The teacher can also have learners read
aloud a passage from a history book or recite one from memory. Write it on the
chalkboard. Erase every fifth word. Have the class read it filling in the
"Testing Practice"--Teach learners how to sign up for and take the written
test. (This could include a field trip to the local INS office.) Make sure that
learners know how to take multiple choice tests and provide opportunities for
practice (Silliman 1997). Practice versions of the standardized tests are
available from several publishers.
Most citizenship texts on the market are not of a
level that will be accessible to low-level learners (Silliman, 1997). In fact,
according to Aliza Becker (personal communication, June, 1997), available texts
often "require a much higher level of literacy than is needed for the test and
totally leave out the English language skills needed for the interview." Teachers will need to adapt materials for these learners. The following are some
Teachers can visit the INS World Wide Web site at http://www.ins.usdoj.gov to
download or order forms, receive updates about the citizenship tests, and read
the answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ's).
The 100 test questions on US history and government are included in many
textbooks and are available through many INS district offices.
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (1663 Mission St., Suite 602, San
Francisco, CA 94103) publishes citizenship materials focussed on the legal
A video resource for teachers and learners, "The INS Interview: Will They
Pass?" (Available from Miller Educational Materials, 1-800-6360-4375) shows
dramatized citizenship interviews and asks viewers to discuss and decide whether
selected people will pass.
It is becoming increasingly evident that, to
succeed in the United States and to have access to the full range of government
sponsored services, immigrants need to become citizens. The ESL/Citizenship
teacher can play an important role by helping learners achieve the English
language skills and content knowledge they need to take and pass the citizenship
Becker, A. (1993). "Building bridges: A resource guide on citizenship."
Chicago: Travelers and Immigrant Aid. (ED 373 589) (Available from Curriculum
Publications Clearinghouse at (800) 322-3905). Becker, A. (1997). "Summary of
findings: Survey of naturalization programs in Illinois, May 1997." (Available
from Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Protection, Chicago.) Becker,
A., & Lindt, M. (1996). U.S. citizenship and ESL: The pivotal role of ESL
instructors. "Tesol Matters," 7, (1), p. 16. Constable, P. (1997, July 3). In
Senate room, messages of gratitude from some new U.S. citizens. "Washington
Post," p. D3. Fredella, L. (1997, Spring/Summer). Untitled article. "NCLE
Notes." pp 4-5. Holt, G.M. (1995). "Teaching low-level adult ESL learners. ERIC
Digest." Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education.
Pereira, C. (1993). "Educating ESL students for citizenship in a democratic
society. ERIC Digest." Bloomington, Indiana: Clearinghouse for Social
Studies/Social Science Education. (ED 377 138) Rimer, S. (1996, December 23). A
crucial test for immigrants to retain aid. "New York Times," p. A1. Silliman, A.
(1997). Teaching for citizenship. "Hands-on English, 6," (6), pp. 4-5. Terdy,
D., & Spener, D. (1990). "English language literacy and other requirements
of the amnesty program. ERIC Digest." Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for
ESL Literacy Education.