< Citizenship Test Changes Might Require Better English Skills
By Dan Novak
19 September 2023

The United States admitted over 967,000 people as new citizens in 2022.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said that was the largest number of people naturalized since 2008.

To become a U.S. citizen, a candidate needs to live in the country as a permanent resident for at least five years and be over 18 years old. After applying, a candidate for citizenship needs to pass an interview with a USCIS officer.

FILE - A participant from Bangladesh takes the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America, on June 30, 2017, during a naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library in New York. (AP Photo/Michael Noble Jr.)
FILE - A participant from Bangladesh takes the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America, on June 30, 2017, during a naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library in New York. (AP Photo/Michael Noble Jr.)

In the interview, an official assesses the person for their English ability, knowledge of American history and government, and personal background. Over 96 percent of people pass the naturalization test. But changes are coming to the test that could make it more difficult for English learners.

Carolyn Quinn and John Schmelzer teach a free class in Montgomery County, Maryland, to help prepare people living in the area for the interview. They said it is most important that people are able to understand the questions the interviewer is asking. It is not as important to speak in grammatically correct sentences. The question the interview is trying to answer is: "Do these people understand enough English to be a functioning citizen?" Schmelzer said.

At the beginning of each class, Quinn and Schmelzer ask their students simple "small talk" questions they might hear in the interview, like "How did you get here today?" or "Why do you want to become a United States citizen?" Much of the interview is based on questions on the Application for Naturalization Form, called the N-400. Most are personal questions related to employment, family and personal history.

Rajbit Kahn took Quinn's class and passed the naturalization interview in August. She said the class gave her more confidence to speak English in the interview. Before the class, she rarely spoke English, she said. But now, "I talk to anyone."

However, Quinn stresses to her students that her class is not an English class. And she has students enter her class without enough English knowledge to pass the interview.

With the increase in Afghan immigrants into the United States, Quinn said she has had a few Afghan women come into her class. She said, "They never had any kind of schooling. So, they don't know how to write. They don't know how to read. They don't know letter sounds." Often, family members with better English skills will fill out the N-400 form for them. But they would be unable to answer the interview questions themselves.

Possible changes to the naturalization interview would make civics questions multiple choice to "reflect current best practices in test design," USCIS said in a document explaining the update to the test. Schmelzer said that would make the test harder for immigrants who may not have a great understanding of American history or English.

For now, students memorize 100 civics questions. Ten of the questions will be asked on the day of the interview and applicants must answer six correctly to pass. One question is "Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s." Currently, people just need to memorize one war fought during that 100-year period. But a multiple-choice test would require knowledge of four wars presented as answer choices and know which one was fought in the 1800s.

"You're forcing them to expand their memorization," Schmelzer said.

Another proposed change would add a speaking test to assess English ability. The officer would present three photos and the interviewee would have to describe what is happening in the pictures. Currently, English knowledge is assessed through questions from the N-400 and other small-talk questions.

The new interview changes are currently being tested in several locations around the country. USCIS will hear feedback about the tests before the end of the year.

Quinn and Schmelzer said the test should be updated. Just one civics question is related to a female American historical figure, Schmelzer said.

But Quinn questions what is to be gained by making changes to the test to make it harder.

People in her class "put their souls" into becoming citizens. "How much more do we need to ask them to do?" she said.

John Yepow is another of Quinn's students who along with his wife, recently became a U.S. citizen. Yepow came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He lived in Zambia for 10 years before moving to the United States.

Yepow, who works as a medication technician, said he follows American politics closely. He calls himself a lifelong learner and has even taken online classes about American history.

"I want to learn and make sure I'm integrated into American society," he said.

Yepow added: "This is the land of opportunity. We are dreaming big." He said he will make sure to take advantage of every opportunity."

I'm Anna Mateo

And I'm Dan Novak.

Dan Novak wrote this story for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

naturalize — v. to be permitted to become a citizen of a country that you were not born in or did not have citizenship in before

resident — n. to lawfully live in a place

assess v. to make a judgement about a person or a thing

functioning –adj. able to carry out the necessary requirements

confidence –n. a feeling that you can do something correctly

form –n. an official document that is used to get information about a person

civics –n. the study of the rights and duties of a citizen and how government is supposed to work

feedback — n. information that is given to a person about their performance

integrate v. to become a functioning part of a larger group

opportunity — n. a chance to succeed

take advantage of — v. to use something in a way that help you

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