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Practitioner Toolkit: Working With Adult English Language Learners book cover
Practitioner Toolkit: Working With Adult English Language Learners

This toolkit provides a variety of materials to help language and literacy instructors who are new to serving adults and families learning English. These materials include a first-day orientation guide, lesson plans, and research-to-practice papers on English language and literacy learning.

Promoting education and achievement of adults learning English


Civics Education for Adult English Language Learners

Lynda Terrill
National Center for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE)
November, 2000

Teaching about U.S. history and government and preparing immigrants to pass the U.S. citizenship test have been integral parts of curriculum and practice in adult immigrant education for more than a century. From classes sponsored by labor unions in the early 1900s to amnesty classes run by public schools, community-based organizations, and churches in the 1980s, English language and civics education have been paired (Silliman, 1997). Now, designated monies are being provided to states and individual programs for English Literacy/Civics Education. Because nearly 50% of all adults enrolled in federally funded education courses are English language learners, this program will have a significant national impact (U.S. Department of Education, 2000).

Some adult ESL teachers focus on the nuts and bolts of the naturalization process, teaching such topics as U.S. culture, holidays, and government. Others see it as a way for adults to learn English at the same time that they are learning to be comfortable and competent in a new environment (Terrill, 1994). Still others follow the participatory model of education and look to sociopolitical writings, such as those of Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), to guide learners to participate in making changes in social conditions (Auerbach, 1992, 1999; Peyton & Crandall, 1995). This Q & A defines key terms, discusses events that have shaped civics education, and offers suggestions, whatever the approach chosen, for integrating civics content with English as a second language (ESL) skills development.

What is civics education?

For adult English language learners, civics education is a broad term that includes
  • instruction on how to gain U.S. citizenship;
  • instruction about U.S. history and culture, including lessons on diversity and multiculturalism; and
  • instruction and guidance on becoming active participants in their new communities.
Citizenship education is a subset of civics education. The goal of citizenship education is to help adult immigrants learn enough procedural information, content, and language to complete the naturalization process, pass the citizenship exam, and become U.S. citizens.

Encouraging civic participation may also be a part of civics education. Civic participation can be defined as the way that members of a community interact with the social, political, and educational structures around them. Civic participation education, then, is instruction that has as its goal assisting learners to understand how and why to become informed participants in their communities.

A key element of civic participation education for adult English language learners is that learning needs to have real-life consequences. One of its purposes is for learners to become active in community life. For example, learners might collaborate to fight for a community improvement, learn about and participate in the American electoral system (if appropriate), or join the local Parent Teacher Association (PTA).

What events have shaped civics education in this country?

The following national laws and initiatives have influenced conceptions of the need for civics education and the ways it is delivered:
  • In 1906, a statute was enacted that required citizenship applicants to demonstrate ability in speaking English (Nixon & Keenan, 1997). This was during a period in U.S. history of unparalleled immigration (nearly 10% of the population was nonnative born). In response, community organizations such as settlement houses and labor unions organized classes in English and citizenship.
  • Until the mid 1900s, immigration officials themselves decided who spoke English well enough to gain U.S. citizenship. Often, the sole requirement for citizenship was proof of lawful U.S. residency for five years. In 1950, a federal law mandated reading and writing skill levels that made it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens (Becker, 1993).
  • In the late 1980s, adult ESL programs responded to the requirements of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. IRCA granted limited amnesty and permanent residence to undocumented immigrants (many of whom were displaced by unrest in Central America) who followed a specific application process and received at least 40 hours of instruction. Programs developed materials and curricula that included elements of both English and basic U.S. history and civics. See, for example, the Handbook for ESL/Civics Programming (Arlington Education and Employment Program [REEP], 1989) and ESL/Civics Integration: A Guide for Curriculum Development and Lesson Planning (Stiles, 1990).
  • In 1996, changes in federal law limited some rights that immigrants had previously held, such as access to food stamps and other government services (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, PL #104-193). These changes have renewed interest among immigrants in seeking citizenship, as they can protect their interests more fully by becoming citizens (Mitchell, 1998).
  • Although some of the 1996 measures have since been eliminated or amended (National Immigration Law Center, 1998), obtaining citizenship remains a goal for many adults learning English. Benefits that are available to U.S. citizens include the right to vote in elections, to hold a U.S. passport, to sponsor family members for immigration, and to receive full social security benefits when they retire. Citizenship status also allows easier access to public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and protects immigrants from being deported for committing a crime (Becker, 2000).
  • In 2000, the U.S. Department of Education's English Literacy/Civics Education initiative allocated money to 32 states and 12 demonstration grant recipients to help adults learn English while also learning about civil rights, civic participation and responsibility, and obtaining citizenship (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). It is anticipated that curricula and resource materials on civics education will be developed and made available by these projects.

What are some activities and approaches that integrate civics education with language learning?

Adult immigrants and refugees often express interest in American culture, government, and history. While the complexity of the language varies from level to level, significant content can be imparted at all levels at the same time learners are acquiring English.

Beginning levels

Practitioners can help literacy learners understand about community, government, and history while doing hands-on activities, pre-reading activities, and activities that help them develop fine motor skills needed for writing. Learners can make collages representing their community with pictures cut from magazines, alphabetize names of states or label maps, practice sight word recognition of high office holders or of community institutions such as library and INS, or match pictures of these institutions or people with their names or titles.

Beginning learners can participate in a language experience activity (LEA) where they express their opinions about an important social or political issue. For example, a literacy level class in Virginia talked about their ideas on the eve of Desert Storm in 1991. Many of these adults had emigrated from war-torn countries and had strong feelings that they wanted to share in English with their classmates. With some assistance with verbs (think, hope, feel, want, etc.) and some modeling from the teacher and stronger students, the class was able to produce a powerful written statement about war. Initially, class members spoke and listened. Later, the group writing was used for reading, fill-in-the-blank, and dictation activities.

Simple games such as bingo or concentration can be played to reinforce any set of words that learners have been working with in a content unit. Community place names or names of states, presidents, or important Americans can be used instead of the more usual health, housing, and job vocabulary.

Intermediate levels

Teachers can devise information-gap activities about American culture and history. For example, a teacher might write two paragraphs about the first Thanksgiving, controlling the level of vocabulary, structure, and content of each paragraph to address the English level of each individual. Partner A reads the first paragraph to Partner B. Partner B has the same text minus certain words or phrases. (The teacher would have deleted certain structural words such as conjunctions, adverbs, and auxiliary verbs, and content words such as pilgrims, Massasoit, and Plymouth.) Partner B listens, perhaps asking for clarification, and writes the missing words. Then Partner B reads the second paragraph to Partner A who must listen, understand, and write a different set of words or phrases. Learners absorb the civics content and practice language skills as they read silently and aloud, listen, write, and later compare notes.

For intermediate and advanced learners, the World Wide Web can provide access to real-life civics content and real-life use of English. For example, learners--alone, in pairs, or in small groups--can research different aspects of their local government, read the information, make notes, and conduct a debate or give a short oral presentation to the class. Topics on a local government Web site might include the fall leaf collection schedule, online access to the local library system, bicycle safety rules, or an explanation of the local government system and officials. Learners can choose issues that are important to them, access the information they need, hone technology skills, and be active participants in their community, while at the same time improving reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.

Advanced levels

Advanced English language learners are usually concerned about grammar, writing, and listening and speaking in complex or academic contexts. Attending and participating in local school board meetings, inviting local officials to speak to the class, and volunteering in community organizations are ways advanced learners can participate in the community while using and improving their communicative skills. Writing letters to the editor, e-mailing members of Congress or the president, and researching and writing an essay about an aspect of American history or culture are ways to expand literacy skills.

A recent approach to language education, project-based learning, appears to be particularly effective for civics education. A project generally integrates speaking, listening, reading, and writing; incorporates team work and problem-solving approaches; and encourages learners to engage in independent work that requires using English in authentic contexts. (Moss & Van Duzer, 1998; REEP, 1997; Weinstein, 1999). Projects can take place within one class meeting, over several weeks, or even become the focus of the entire class. Publishing learner writing in books or on the World Wide Web, running letter-writing campaigns, and researching and reporting on class-designated topics are all projects. The impetus to participate in the community can arise from a classroom discussion or brainstorming session, an issue in a class member's life or on the news, or an activity the teacher designs with learners to help them use English in a community context.

In the Family Literacy and Learning Program of the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP), learners and teachers created an activity-and-coloring book about their community. Learners with diverse language skills accessed information about their community and shared it with others through the publication of the book and a "meet the authors" day at the local library (Greniuk, 1998). The intermediate-level class researched community information and designed the community book. Learners developed reading skills, telephone communication skills, and language functions such as asking for clarification and negotiating with one another. The beginning-level class copied and alphabetized important community resources (e.g., the hospital and the library) that the intermediate class had investigated. The children and adults in both classes illustrated the book. The entire family literacy program was able to learn important neighborhood information, acquire and practice real-life language skills, and offer a resource to their community.

In Dover, New Hampshire, an ESL class wrote and published a survival guide for adult immigrants that discusses such topics as the difficulty of making friends in the United States, the fact that Americans will often go to work when they are sick, and the importance of keeping to a schedule in this country. The class shared the book with native English speakers in an Adult Basic Education (ABE) class (Hutton, 2000).

A North Carolina educator has developed a course outline for beginning-level learners in a civics education program that uses photography. Learners take pictures in their communities to reflect their identity, the communities they belong to, places in the community they feel are accessible or not, and places where they feel comfortable and accepted or not. They will use these photographs to tell stories about how they can protect or exercise their rights as community members or citizens. The learners may also interview a person in their community whom they believe to be active or a leader (L. McGrail, personal communication, September 2000). Learners will not only practice communicative skills, but will also learn how to express opinions about important community issues.

What resources are available for civics education?

Immigrants seeking citizenship face many challenges. These include frequently changing laws and procedures, bureaucratic and electronic delays, backlogs of applicants, and both the lack of English skills and the lack of time to learn. As a result, some adult ESL teachers, particularly those teaching in specially designated citizenship classes, may focus on developing the English skills and civics knowledge required to pass the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) citizenship test. INS maintains an informational Web site for the general public, (https://www.uscis.gov/); learners, however, may have difficulty understanding the English used on the site. Some resources, such as application forms, can be found on the site.

For suggestions for classroom activities and resources to prepare learners to take the citizenship test, see Citizenship Preparation for Adult Learners (Nixon & Keenan, 1997). In addition, the resources listed at the end of this paper will assist practitioners in offering civics instruction.

The National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) has recently funded an ESL and civics education special collection for the Web as part of its LINCS system. The site, which will be at http://literacynet.org/esl, will provide teacher resources.

What is needed for English language/civics education to be successful?

The large number of English language learners in adult education programs, as well as new funding initiatives from the U.S. Department of Education, have heightened interest in the integrating of language development with civics education. Materials and resources will be identified and created. For this initiative to be successful, however, training for teachers will be needed both on what to teach and how to teach it.


Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP). (1989). Handbook for ESL/civics programming: For phase II applicants for legalization. Arlington, VA: Author.

Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP). (1997). Project based learning and assessment: A resource manual for teachers. Arlington, VA: Author

Auerbach, E. (1992). Making meaning, making change: Participatory curriculum development for adult ESL literacy. McHenry, IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Auerbach, E. (1999). The power of writing, the writing of power. Focus on Basics, 3(D), 1, 3-6.

Becker, A. (1993). Building bridges: A resource guide on citizenship. (Available from Curriculum Publications Clearinghouse, Western Illinois University, HH46, Macomb, IL 61455; 1-800-322-3905) Chicago: Travelers and Immigration Aid. (ED No. 373 589)

Becker, A. (2000). Citizenship for refugee elders. Washington, DC: Catholic Legal Immigration Network.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. (M.B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: Seabury Press.

Greniuk, C. (1998, February). Family literacy: Creating a learning community. The Change Agent, 6, 17. (Available from World Education, 44 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210)

Hutton, C. (2000, September). One class's survival guide to life in America. The Change Agent, 11, 9. (Available from World Education, 44 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210)

Mitchell, E. (1998). Citizenship: A guide to good teaching. Tacoma, WA: Tacoma Community House Training Project.

Moss, D., & Van Duzer, C. (1998). Project-based learning for adult English language learners. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (ED No. 427 556)

National Immigration Law Center. (1998). Immigrants and public benefits: Food and nutrition programs. Supplemental security income. Los Angeles: Author. https://www.nilc.org/issues/economic-support/overview-immeligfedprograms/

Nixon, T., & Keenan, F. (1997). Citizenship preparation for adult ESL learners. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (ED No. 409 747)

Peyton, J.K., & Crandall, J.A. (1995). Philosophies and approaches in adult ESL literacy instruction. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (ED No. 386 960)

Silliman, A. (1997). Teaching for citizenship. Hands-on English, 6(6), 4-5. (ED No. 374 686)

Stites, R.L. (1990). ESL/civics integration: A guide for curriculum development and lesson planning. Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Education, Amnesty Education Office. (ED No. 320465).

Terrill, L. (1994). Self-access. In I. Mansoor & S. Grant (Eds.), The REEP curriculum: A learner-centered ESL curriculum for adults (3rd ed.). (p. 382). Arlington: VA: Arlington Education and Employment Program. (ED No. 397 695)

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. (2000). Adult education data and statistics. Washington, DC: Author.

Weinstein, G. (1999). Learners' lives as curriculum. McHenry, IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Civics Education Resources

Adult Learning Resource Center. Citizenship Educators Page. http://www.thecenterweb.org/alrc/citizenship.html

Becker, A. (1997). Immigrant rights: An ESOL workbook. Chicago: Travelers and Immigrants Aid.

Becker, A., & Edwards, L. (1995). Citizenship now: A guide for naturalization. Chicago: Contemporary Books.

Bliss, B., & Molinsky, S. (1994). Voices of freedom: English and civics for the U.S. citizenship exam. White Plains, NY: Pearson.

D.L. Hennessey's links http://www.mindspring.com/~citizenship/links.html

Dewey, J. (1899). The school and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Easton Language Education. (1999-2000). English online: Materials for teaching and learning English. http://eleaston.com/govmat.html

Immigration and Refugee Services of America Web site. INTELECOM. (1999). On common ground. A television and print series for teaching civics and citizenship education. Pasadena, CA: Author. http://www.intelecom.org/

Kimmel, B., & Lubiner, A. (1996). Citizenship made simple: An easy to read guide to the U.S. citizenship process. Chester, NJ: Next Decade.

Kissam, E., & Dorsey, H. (1997). Civic participation. Tierra de oportunidad module 15. LAES: Latino Adult Education Services Project. CA: California State University Institute. (ED No. 416 352)

Literacy South. (1999). Beyond the 100 questions: An annotated bibliography of citizenship and civic participation resources. Raleigh/Durham, NC: Author.

Magy, R. (1996). U.S. citizen yes: Interactive citizenship preparation. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

Martin, R. (with Domenzain, A.). (1999). Sabemos y podemos: Learning for social Action. Washington, DC: National Council of La Raza.

Metro-Boston Community Wide Education and Information Service. Civic and cultural center. http://www2.wgbh.org/mbcweis/esquare/meet.htm

Metro North Adult Education Program. Study for U.S. citizenship. http://www.uscitizenship.org/

Minnesota Literacy Council. (1998). Handbook for citizenship programs. St. Paul, MN: Author. (ED No. 419 435)

Minnesota Literacy Council Web site. http://www.themlc.org/citizen.htm Includes latest citizenship information.

Nash, A. (1999). Civic participation and community action sourcebook: A resource for adult educators. Boston: New England Literacy Resource Center. http://easternlincs.worlded.org/docs/vera/index1.htm

National Immigration Forum. Immigration policy handbook 2000. Washington, DC: Author. http://www.immigrationforum.org

Petherbridge-Hernandez, P., & O'Donnell, K.P. (1998, March). Citizenship instruction for older and challenged students Paper presented at the annual meeting of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), Seattle, WA. (ED No. 423 717)

Short, D., Seufert-Bosco, M., & Grognet, A. (1992). By the people, for the people: U.S. government and citizenship. McHenry, IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Ullman, C. (1999). Between discourse and practice: Immigrant rights, curriculum development, and ESL teacher education. TESOL Quarterly, 33(1), 513-528.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. (2000). EL/Civics Web site. http://www.ed.gov/offices/OVAE/ELCIVICS

Weintraub, L. (1998). Citizenship: Passing the test. Student book, teacher's guide, and audiotape. Syracuse, NY: New Readers Press

Weintraub, L. (2000). Preparing for the INS interview. Field Notes, 10(1), 14-15.

This document was produced at the Center for Applied Linguistics (4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0008. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

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