An ESL Civics Lesson: Democracy in Action

An ESL Civics Lesson: Democracy in Action
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Teaching Beyond the Language

When introducing an ESL civics lesson, don’t assume that students understand or have knowledge of all the intricacies of a democratic society. English speakers have a great deal of acquired knowledge by the time they enter school simply through living day-to-day in their communities. This is knowledge that students of English as a second language may not have regardless of how old they are. Therefore, it is important to begin with some fundamentals in civics.

Civics Objectives

The objectives for teaching civics to English language learners are:

  • to introduce civics to students.
  • to familiarize students with the language of civics.
  • to examine rights of the individual in a democratic society.
  • to prepare students to be active members of society.

We the People

In order to introduce civics to students studying English as a second language, it important that they understand what the word civics means. According to the dictionary, civics “is the study or science of the privileges and obligations of the citizens.”

  1. Brainstorm with students their ideas of what might be a privilege and/or obligation a citizen might have in two columns on the board. If needed, prepare to discuss synonyms for “privilege” and “obligation.” Give examples such as rights and duties. Remember, students might not have a clear idea of what a citizen in a democratic society views as privilege/right and obligation/duty. Explaining that being able to have a fair trial with a lawyer to defend you is a right and that volunteering to help others is a duty of citizens in a democratic society.
  2. Explain that in the United States, there is a Bill of Rights, which is a list of amendments to the Constitution that guarantees various rights. For an example, give the First Amendment, which is the freedom of religion, speech, the press and assembly.
  3. Citizens in a democratic society have numerous civic duties. They include obeying all laws, voting, serving on a jury, protesting injustice, volunteering and paying taxes. Discuss the items listed on the board. Do they include these duties? Are there others?
  4. Break students up into small groups. Ask each group to create one rule for the class based on the rights they have discussed.
  5. Have students present their rules. Allow for duplication by starring a rule that has already been presented.
  6. Have students vote on which rules they agree should become class rules. Discuss why they feel these rules are important.
  7. Once discussion is complete, explain that what the class just participated in was a simplistic example of what lawmakers in a democratic society do.
  8. Provide students with an introductory civics vocabulary list for further study and scaffolding.


Assessment for this lesson would be informal:

  • Participation in discussions
  • Participation in group work
  • Ability to grasp concepts discussed
  • Ability to communicate ideas clearly to peers

Continued Study

Once students have an introduction to civics, they will be able to further their studies either through classroom work or on their own. Offer age/competency level appropriate resources for students to use such as books, videos and websites.

An ESL civics lesson can open the door for English language learners to understanding the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic society.