Civics for All: Empowering English and Multilingual Learners

March 15, 2021

“For me, civic education is the key to inspiring kids to want to stay involved in making a difference,” says Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, U.S. Supreme Court, Board Member of iCivics, a nonprofit focused on civics education. 

Civics has been getting a lot of attention lately, with many adults scrambling to recall and apply basic concepts as history is made around us. Even with a rise in this civic awareness, many social studies teachers report discomfort with teaching civics in the current political climate.

Social studies teachers can create classrooms that are safe spaces for students to talk about current events and have discussions about issues that many deem controversial. Civic education prepares students with the skills and attitudes that are necessary in a democracy including a sense of civic responsibility, critical thinking, and agency. iCivics is committed to providing high-quality and effective civic learning materials that are accessible—and engaging—for all students, including English language learners. Confianza, a professional learning organization that collaborates with iCivics, is focused on ensuring equity for language learners.

English language learners, also known as ELLs, ELs, emergent bilinguals, multilingual learners, and MLs, represent a growing segment of the U.S. public school population where almost 1 in 10 students nationwide is identified as an English learner. While ELs all have learning English and content simultaneously in common, this group is extremely diverse, speaking more than 400 languages across all kinds of school districts—urban, suburban, exurban and rural—with Spanish being the most common language. Most English learners are students of color who may be facing systemic racism within and beyond the classroom door. How can we deliver civics instruction to this student population in a way that can make an impact? How can we help empower them with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in America?

Proficiency in English is linked to academic success and is a key role in preparing them to be knowledgeable and engaged. ELs/MLs score very low in civic knowledge: they fared the worst of any population measured, with only 1% demonstrating proficiency. In fact, four out of five ELs do not even have “basic” understanding in civics. (NAEP, 2014) Therefore, English learners, and all students, need access to high-quality civic education.

“We are not going to be able to prepare citizens of the world if they can’t debate or think critically. And the debate needs to be open and civil.” Dr. Socorro Herrera, professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education at Kansas State University and Executive Director of the Center for Intercultural and Multilingual Advocacy (CIMA). 

Teachers need materials to help foster civic engagement and skills in an engaging, culturally-relevant way that is tailored to the needs of all students—especially ELs/MLs. Game-based learning is a great way to fill this need. Experiential learning is a fun and engaging way for students to learn. With iCivics games, students have agency; they get to “be” a Supreme Court Justice, the president, a constitutional lawyer, and more. They learn about civic institutions and government while playing. They can also make mistakes and try again. All of this helps build the confidence and critical-thinking skills they need to then engage in class discussions.   

“If we do this right, we are opening spaces for our ELs/MLs not only to have access to learn the language, but also the critical space to analyze the ins and outs of how America works. As an immigrant coming in, in my own formation, that was exactly how it did.” says Dr. Katherine Barko-Alva, Assistant Professor and Director of the ESL/Bilingual Education program at William & Mary School of Education. She added: “To come here and have a class where they can explore differences and ramifications of those actions. How powerful is that? That’s why I love culturally, linguistically diverse biography-driven instruction.”

According to Larry Ferlazzo, author, blogger, and English and Social Studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in CA, “I think it's critical that civics education be an important part of classes we teach for English Language Learners (and, of course, for ALL students). Political participation has not always been a safe or effective option in their home countries.  Schools in the U.S. have traditionally viewed one of their responsibilities as developing responsible citizens, so we need to help equip our English Language Learners with the knowledge and tools to become "active citizens"—to know not only how our political process works, but to know how to use their power to make that process, and our communities, better.  Being able to pass a civics or citizenship test is one thing, but I think we teachers need to also equip our students with the skills to be able to apply that knowledge to create social change.”

So, where can educators go to find tips and strategies for teaching civics to English learners? Kristen Chapron from iCivics and Sarah Ottow from Confianza have pulled together some free resources to help you get started:

About Confianza:

Confianza is a professional learning organization that builds cultural understanding, communication, and collaboration between educators and multilingual learners. Our framework is based on fostering equity-based mindsets and language and literacy practices. Through tailored coaching, practical guidance, and world-class content, we positively change the lives of teachers and students. Check out our free blog at: www.ellconfianza.com.