Building Your Vocabulary for U.S. Citizenship

Living in the U.S., you'll find opportunities to practice English everywhere — you'll encounter native English speakers in your job or daily activities, and wherever you look you'll see signs in English.

Every chance you get to speak or read English is an opportunity to improve your skills and add to your vocabulary (the group of words you know well enough to use in everyday conversations). Speak and read English whenever possible and you can't help but improve your speaking, reading, and writing abilities. Use some or all the following hints to speed up the process:

  • Take an English as a Second Language (ESL) course. Check local adult-education centers and community colleges. Some ESL courses are even geared toward people taking the naturalization test.
  • Read and watch materials geared toward children. Books, magazines, and even television shows produced for kids are great ways for non-native English speakers to pick up new words. The same programming that teaches kids how to read, write, and pronounce words can also help you. You may even find it handy to get a children's dictionary when you start out; dictionaries geared toward children explain definitions in terms that are easy to understand. As your language skills improve, start reading books or newspapers or watching TV shows that are aimed at older kids, until you're fully up to speed.
  • Buy a good dictionary. A good dictionary is essential. Try to find one that's small enough to carry with you wherever you go, so you'll always be able to look up unfamiliar words. A good dictionary can help you master English, and you'll probably find yourself reaching for yours constantly. In addition to having on hand a good English dictionary, you'll probably also want one that gives words in your native language. Although stopping and looking up every unfamiliar word you encounter may seem time consuming, the more you do it now, the less you'll need to do it in the future, because more and more words will become familiar to you. You can use the frequency of your need to consult your dictionary as a good barometer of your progress — the less you need your dictionary, the more fluent you are in English.
  • Buy a good thesaurus. A thesaurus gives you synonyms (words with similar meanings), and can help expand your vocabulary. When you become confident with a new vocabulary word, look it up in the thesaurus to find new ways to communicate your precise meaning.
  • Read BCIS forms. Reading BCIS forms may be a tough assignment, but if you read and understand every important immigration document, you'll not only understand English very well, you'll be a step ahead in preparing for immigration and/or naturalization, because you'll know a lot about the requirements and restrictions. Of course, immigration is a complex process, so regardless of how much you read, you should still consult qualified people to help with your unique circumstances.
  • Enlist help from friends and co-workers. Tell friends, co-workers, and anyone else who will listen that you're trying to improve your English. Tell them you would appreciate their honest critiques and help. In other words, ask them to tell you about your mistakes so you can benefit from them.
  • Each and every day, pick an unfamiliar word (any word you don't understand in a newspaper, book, or magazine will do), look up the word in the dictionary, and find out its meaning. Play a game with yourself and see how many times that day you can use the word in conversation. If you can handle it, make a conscious effort to practice two, three, or even more words this way every day.
  • Use flashcards. A good way to master new words and reinforce their meanings over time is to make your own flashcards. Small index cards work well. Print the vocabulary word on one side, and on the reverse side print the word's meaning, as well as clues to help you pronounce and use the word properly in conversation. You may even want to go so far as to list a few synonyms from your thesaurus. Try making flashcards for your words of the day. Studying with your flashcards is easy — keep them with you and run through a few flashcards every time you have an extra minute or two.
  • Find a friend to practice with. Find a friend who is also trying to improve his or her English so you can study and practice together. Share new words and flashcards with your friend, and you'll double the speed of building your vocabulary.
  • Take classes. Improve your language skills and discover something new by taking a class. Don't limit yourself to English classes — anything you study will require reading and writing (and possibly even speaking English).
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