Last updated on May 15th, 2019
The naturalization process, which is the method by which foreigners can become United States citizens, is a multi-step endeavor intended to test one’s commitment to the United States.
One important step in the naturalization process is taking the English vocabulary exam. This exam is designed to test your ability to read and write the English language, and it’s important that you’re prepared for, and do well on, the exam.
You cannot receive citizenship through naturalization without first passing the English exam, as well as an exam on United States civics and history.
For a more in-depth discussion of the naturalization process as a whole, please view The Naturalization Process: Becoming a United States Citizen.
Becoming a United States citizen is a momentous moment in every individual’s life. Therefore, it is important to have a good understanding of what will be expected of you as you go through the process.
This article will discuss the English exam portion of the process, and give you an idea of the type of English vocabulary you’ll be expected to know.
What is the Format of the Exam?
The English exam will be administered to you when you come to interview with United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). The interview is part of the naturalization process.
After you’ve completed the interview with the USCIS officer, he or she will give you the exam while you’re still in the office.
The English exam is designed to test your ability to read and write the English language. Your ability to understand English will be evaluated by the USCIS officer while he or she is interviewing you about your Application for Naturalization (your Form N-400).
This means that it’s important that you know and understand the contents of what you’ve put in your application and that you’re comfortable discussing those items in English.
Also, your answers to these questions should correspond to what you’ve said in your Form N-400 application, and you should be prepared to explain any discrepancies.
In order to demonstrate that you can adequately read English, the USCIS officer will give you three sentences written in English. You’ll need to be able to read at least one of these three sentences aloud to the officer’s satisfaction.
To show that you can write English, the USCIS officer will give you three sentences, and you’ll be asked to write at least one of these in English.
It is worth noting that certain people may be exempt from the English exam requirement, and can skip this step in the naturalization process.
If you’re over 50 years of age and have been residing in the United States continuously for the past 20 years, you may be exempt.
You may also be exempt if you’re over 55, and have resided continuously in the United States for the past 15 years.[i]
What words will be on the exam?
Whether you pass or fail the exam will largely depend on your grasp of English vocabulary. Thus, it’s essential to know what words will be on the exam, and to understand what these words mean so that you can use them in sentences.
For the reading portion of the English exam, the vocabulary that you’ll need to know is divided into several categories. The categories and the words tend to parallel topics that you’ll also need to know for the American civics and history exam.
These topics are:
- Question words
- A miscellaneous category
An example of a word that will be in the people category is Abraham Lincoln. A word from the place category is America. From the civics category comes President and Senators.
Holidays that you’ll need to know include Thanksgiving and Memorial Day.
The important question words are:
In order to make sure that you can use all the required verbs, you’ll need a grasp of:
- Other common verbs
Examples of the miscellaneous words that you’ll need to know are:
- Dollar bill
What words are on the writing portion of the exam?
The writing portion of the exam will test your mastery of a different set of vocabulary words. The categories of words are the same as those for the reading portion, though the words in each category will be slightly different and more extensive.
For example, the People category includes the addition of Adams.
The Places category is more extensive, as additions are California, Washington, Canada, Mexico, Delaware, and New York City.
A new word that the writing portion may test is the word Taxes.
Additionally, the writing portion adds a new category that tests your ability to use the twelve months of the year. However, only seven of the months may be tested: February, May, June, July, September, October, and November.
How Can I Prepare for the Exam?
Your performance on the English exam will be one of the determining factors in deciding whether you are granted U.S. citizenship through the naturalization process.
As such, it’s important that you take the time to thoroughly prepare for the exam to the best of your abilities. English can be a challenging language to master.
Fortunately, USCIS has made your job a little easier by preparing and releasing study materials that you may use to prepare for your exam. These materials include vocabulary flash cards and lists of the potentially tested vocabulary words.
These materials are released on USCIS’s website, and can be found here.
The flash cards are especially useful. You can print them out, and test yourself, or have a friend or family member quiz you.
This learning process will also allow you to determine which vocabulary words you know, and which words you’re having difficulty with. You can then devote more time and focus to working with the more challenging words in order to maximize your chance at passing the exam.
What if I don’t pass the exam the first time?
If you don’t pass the English exam at your first attempt, don’t despair. You’ll have one more opportunity to retake the exam. This will give you time to go back to the drawing board, and be better prepared the next time around.
However, if do not pass on your second attempt at the exam, your naturalization application will be dismissed and denied.
For this reason, it’s vitally important to take the time to learn from your earlier mistakes, and be better prepared, if you hope to keep your dream of United States citizenship alive.
Taking and passing the English exam is just one step in the larger naturalization process through which you may gain United States citizenship. However, it is one step where many non-English speaking applicants are tripped up.
In order to maximize your chances of passing on your first attempt, it’s important that you devote adequate time and effort to reviewing and studying the testable vocabulary. The work required is minimal, but the potential reward is great.
[i] 8 C.F.R. § 321.1(b)(1)–(2).