Teaching to the Test: Thoughts on preparing learners for the U.S. Citizenship Test

United States FlagI’ve never taught a preparation course for the U.S. Citizenship Test. As an English language teacher, I’ve only been asked once to help a learner study for the naturalization interview — and that was just last month. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve become more familiar with the English test and especially the civics test. I even looked at the translation of all the questions and answers in Russian to remind myself of the challenge of taking such a test in a foreign language.

My particular challenge as a teacher is rooted in the fact that the vocabulary and grammar of the civics test is high for my student. Nevertheless, it hasn’t been an impossible task. Perhaps if anyone else is ever faced with a similar situation and the pressure of an approaching interview date, these ideas might be of some help:

1. Look for repetitive words and learn them. There are 100 questions on the civics test. Often the applicant must only provide one or two short answers, but there could be a dozen possible answers. For example, Question 6 asks the applicant to name one of the freedoms given by the First Amendment. Among the five possible answers is religion. This is a longer word compared to speech, but it may be worth learning religion since the word is used again later. Question 10 asks the applicant to explain freedom of religion, and the expected answer is: “You can practice any religion, or not practice a religion.” (Provided by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.)

2. Look for cognates and take advantage of them. The logic here is clear. There are many new words to learn for this test, from declare to amendment. I tried to select the easiest answers to learn in terms of pronunciation and the ease of recalling word forms. Question 36 asks the applicant to name two Cabinet-level positions. One of those answers can be Secretary of Transportation. Although “transportation” is a 4-syllable word, “transport” is easily understood in many other languages. Compared to Transportation, other alternatives like Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs are a mouthful. Based on the ideas I’ve listed so far, I went through the list of 100 questions and highlighted the answer choices I felt were easiest to learn.

3. Practice the pronunciation that matters most. What counts during the interview is being understood. For that reason, I’m not correcting  slightly inaccurate vowel sounds right now. I’m focusing on problematic consonants for my student, like the /n/ in defines. We laugh when I remind her of the meaning of the words her pronunciation might cause the interviewer to perceive — defies, defiles!  After all, we don’t want to say that the constitution does anything other than define the government. Also, we work on word stress (as in DemoCRATic and RePUBlican) and proper rhythm (as in WE the PEOple).

4. Choose the resources that fit your schedule and budget. If I had had more time to prepare lessons and work with this learner, I might have suggested the purchase of a textbook with an audio component. However, the USCIS does provide a number of free resources online for learners and teachers. There are even free training seminars for adult educators. For those who plan to run a program or course on U.S. Civics and Citizenship, there is also a free toolkit. In recent days, I poked around on YouTube and found a number of training videos for the naturalization interview. I sent links to my student so that she could hear other speakers ask the same questions with different accents and at different speaking rates.

Has anyone else taught for the U.S. Citizenship Test or any other citizenship test? Please feel free to share your ideas.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you for sharing your teaching experiences for the citizenship interview. I love the example of “define” as “defies” or “defile”! Sometimes a single sound does matter.

    As the former director of a citizenship center in Los Angeles, I also appreciate your practical reminders that the focus should be on being understood and the many links to free citizenship resources. The satisfaction that comes from helping refugees and immigrants realize their dream of becoming naturalized American citizens is considerable. The United States also becomes stronger as we bring in more immigrants and allow them to share their intelligence, ambition, and creativity

    Having said that, I also have wish the American standard were higher and include a more realistic standard for English language proficiency. While Canada and Australia use the IELTS exam and expect naturalized citizens to know enough English to hold a country in that language, the United States has continually and systematically reduced the interpretation of the legal requirement that citizens “read, write, and speak English.” Under the Obama administration, the English portion of the U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Test is based on three scores in reading, writing, and speaking. Applicants must successfully read 1 out of 3 sentences, and write 1 out of 3 sentences, and are scored for the speaking portion based on their answers to questions asked. Many times a single word response is considered sufficient. How many employers would accept this low standard?

    Adding a more meaningful standard of English language proficiency would help this generation of new citizens to actually realize their American dreams as citizens, workers, parents, and consumers.

    Your student is lucky to have such a dedicated teacher, and her determination to use the citizenship process as an authentic motivation to improve her English admirable.

    1. Thank you for adding an important perspective to the discussion. You’re right that passing the citizenship test is one thing, and gaining employment is another. I don’t know if the test standards will change, but I am glad that resources for those wishing to improve their language skills are free online. I hope to keep making videos and other materials towards this end.


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