Jon Cajigas: Civics for ELL Educators

For many new immigrants, the challenges of moving to a new country have to do with more than just learning the language; they also need to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to function successfully in American society.  In order to provide these students with this knowledge, English literacy programs would do well to incorporate civics education into their curriculum.  Civics education programs seek to provide learners with not only information about the history, role and function of government, but also encourage them to become informed and involved members of their community. The Center for Adult English Language Acquisition recommends the following activities, appropriate for English-language learners at the beginning, intermediate and advanced levels of English-language proficiency.

Beginning Level

To teach beginning-level English-language learners in EL Civics classes about the different branches of government, teachers may want to focus on each branch separately. For example, the teacher can show the class a picture of the U.S. Supreme Court Justice and ask questions such as, “Who are these people?” “What are they doing?” “Why are they wearing robes?” With some vocabulary assistance (lists of relevant words like law, robe, benchjudge, rule, decide) and some role-play by the teacher and more proficient students, the class discusses the members and activities of the Supreme Court, possibly comparing them with the practices of courts in their own countries. Later, the class or small groups might work together on reading, fill-in-the-blank, or dictation activities. Finally, students can produce a brief written statement about the work of the Supreme Court.

Intermediate Level

For Intermediate-level English-language learners, teachers can create cloze activities about the executive and legislative branches and include additional information about American culture and history. For example, a teacher writes two paragraphs about the presidential election process, controlling the level of vocabulary, structure, and content of each paragraph to address the English level of the students. Partner A reads the first paragraph to Partner B. Partner B has the same text, but with certain words and phrases omitted. Partner B listens, perhaps asking some questions 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 that are missing from his or her text.

Advanced Level

Advanced English language learners are usually concerned about writing, listening, speaking, and grammatical accuracy. With advanced learners, a teacher can invite guest speakers, such as representatives of the local government, to speak to the class about local decision-making, or students can debate issues facing the county and the state. To help students gain knowledge about the federal government, teachers can have them research and write reports on different sections of the U.S. Constitution, on landmark cases tried in the Supreme Court, or on events and individuals in U.S. history.


Center for Adult English Language AcquisitionIncludes links to publications helpful to practitioners working in civics education with adult English-language learners. Also includes an exhaustive bibliography of articles, reports, reference books, textbooks, and newsletters pertaining to EL Civics.

EL Civics “How-to” Manual (PDF) –This manual prepared by the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York includes information about setting up and running an EL Civics program based on the experience of one urban literacy program.

EL Civics for ESL Students Includes lessons, activities and worksheets on EL Civics.


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