Integrating Civic Participation and Adult ESOL

This brief promotes developing active citizenship through English Language (EL)/Civics classes.

A. Nash
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
New England Literacy Resource Center/World Education
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages

This brief promotes developing active citizenship through English Language (EL)/Civics classes. The author draws on ESL practitioner experience, the Equipped for the Future (EFF) citizen/community member role map, and a typology of types of citizen involvement. The brief offers a concrete process that can guide educators in teaching different levels of citizen involvement, introspection, and examination of policies and their impact on individuals and communities. The author maintains that this process can be present at all levels of English language instruction. The brief contains practical steps, activities, and examples for this type of content teaching.

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What the experts say

Since the inception of the U.S. Department of Education’s EL/Civics education program in 1990, adult educators have contemplated how to effectively integrate civics education with English language instruction. Traditionally, civics education has focused on increasing learners’ awareness of political institutions and procedures and on giving learners the knowledge of U.S. history and government to pass the citizenship exam. However, the author argues, this narrow interpretation has resulted in curricula that “devote valuable attention to learning how to access information and services, but little to why so many are in need of services.”

The author presents a compelling rationale for incorporating a broader view of civics education—one that draws on immigrant learners’ prior experience and aims to foster participation in their new community and in the civic decisions that affect them. 

To function effectively as members of a democracy, the author argues, learners must go beyond problem-solving and create connections to others and share the experience of collaborating for meaningful change. Project-based learning affords this opportunity and provides the structure for a 10-step process to incorporate civic involvement into ESL classes, developed by the New England Literacy Resource Center (NELRC).

It is this clearly-articulated process, illustrated with civic participation project examples, that makes this resource so valuable. The examples draw on adult learning theory and on the National Institute for Literacy’s EFF citizen/community member role map to show how to prepare ESL learners at all levels to function at different levels of civic involvement. The resource’s step-by-step outline of a project that illustrates this process may serve as an impetus for practitioners to try similar projects.

In their discussion of research needs, the authors call for research that can prove the effectiveness of the EL/Civics approach in creating more engaged citizens, on student learning, and on student achievement of personal goals. Until such research is accomplished, instructors should be aware that the approach is unproven in these areas and that the model presented here is based solely on experience “gleaned from the trial and error of dozens of classes.”  This is not an overly strong base, but considering the evolving nature of the field of EL/Civics, this resource may offer some of the best information currently available to anyone wanting to develop such a course. 

In sum, the most useful features of this resource are:

  • The model of a 10-step process for conducting classroom projects that develops learners’ capacities to participate in civic life at three different levels—as a “personally responsible,” “participant,” or “justice-oriented” citizen.
  • The description of classroom activities and project examples to illustrate how to use the 10-step process with an adult ESL class.
  • Concrete suggestions for dealing with potential challenges to using this approach, such as ways to enable learners to see the value in civic education projects and understand how they are related to language acquisition and development.
  • The suggested questions for future research, such as the impact of civics education on the development of language and communication skills and future civic involvement.
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