Decoding Citizenship in USCIS Naturalization Test Materials

A Critical Social Semiotic Analysis


  • Jenna Ann Altherr Flores University of Arizona


The US naturalization test and its accompanying multimodal study cards are intended to help potential citizens learn about US history and government as they prepare for the (2007 revised) naturalization test. While the test claims to be a test of civic and cultural literacy (USCIS 2007a, 2007b), the official US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Civics Flash Cards for the Naturalization Test, and the naturalization test itself, rely on multiple literacies (content schemata, test literacy, multimodal literacies) which not all test-takers possess. Through an analysis of the semiotic design of the cards, I consider the efficacy of these study materials for fostering a civic disposition in adult refugee-background English language learners with emerging English literacy who have had little-to-no formal schooling and who have had limited exposure to literacy in the contexts in which they previously lived. I argue that although the test aims to be a test of civic and cultural literacy, it is in actuality a test of (multi)literacy that relies foremost on English literacy, including culturally-specific visual designs and test schemata. Drawing attention to the implicit, dominant ideologies expressed in the naturalization test documents, I question the universality of Western content knowledge and referential knowledge, bring to light the implied and institutionally imagined community of immigrant test-takers for whom these multimodal flash cards were created, and investigate phenomena of (dis)citizenship (Pothier & Devlin 2006; Ramanathan 2013) that may arise within refugee-background populations striving to secure US naturalization.

Author Biography

Jenna Ann Altherr Flores, University of Arizona

Altherr Flores is a doctoral candidate in the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching program at the University of Arizona. Her research is centered on English language and literacy, and the integration of refugee-background adults into both American society and their local communities. Taking a critical approach to language and literacy testing and teaching, she investigates 1) how this population makes meaning from printed texts, and 2) issues of power and ideology. Jenna is Past Chair of the Refugee Concerns Interest Section of TESOL International, Co-Chair and Co-Founder of the Teachers of Refugees Interest Section of Arizona TESOL, Secretary of the Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults (LESLLA) organization, and was a member of the Arizona Refugee Strategic Planning Committee for Language and Literacy. She teaches English as a Second Language and English literacy to adults from refugee backgrounds in the Refugee Education Program at Pima Community College Adult Basic Education for College and Career, as well as both introductory linguistics and first-year writing courses in the English Department at the University of Arizona. She has also co-developed a professional development series for community volunteers who work with refugee-background LESLLA learners. Prior to moving to Arizona, Jenna served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Belize as an ESL and literacy teacher trainer and instructor. She has received awards which include the P.E.O. Scholar Award, the Russell J. and Dorothy S. Bilinski Fellowship, the Confluencenter Fellowship, the Peace Corps Paul D. Coverdell Fellowship, and a TIRF Doctoral Dissertation Grant.






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