Activism & Advocacy

Change a life. Volunteer.

Want to make a difference in someone’s life while meeting new people and having fun? Try volunteering to teach English to non-English-speaking adults.  Volunteers stay connected with changing communities –  even with their changing selves.  Plus,  helping people improve their English increases their civic and social engagement—and yours.   Depending on community resources and your qualifications, your classes might take place in a public school, community college, community center, church or library. 

The joys of stepping up

One couple, Donna and Eduardo Campos, started tutoring English as a Second Language (ESL) about 13 years ago. Newly retired, they stepped in on short notice to take over ESL classes at their local library in Englewood, New Jersey.

Donna had been a teacher, and Eduardo had emigrated from Cuba when he was nine and was fluent in Spanish and English. Donna shadowed the process before saying yes. (Usually some training is involved but both were grandfathered in without training due to the short notice.) Luckily, a literacy program director was available to offer guidance. Later, they took a 15-hour training program that was given in three-hour sessions over a few weeks. Individuals from many countries have cycled through Donna and Eduardo’s classes: China, Cuba, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Poland, South America, Taiwan—you name it.

Eduardo gave up teaching after six years, but Donna still finds her Monday morning classes a pleasure. 

“Adults with very full work schedules come to the program committed to learning enough English to take better charge of their lives,” Donna says. “They are in their 40s and 50s so mastery isn’t a realistic goal, but improvement is,” she adds. Many already have basic skills, and Donna makes it a point to respect their time and relate to learners’ day-to-day lives. “Seeing people progress is very satisfying,” she says.

Success is an individual thing, and Donna and Eduardo have helped students prepare for citizenship tests and job interviews. Donna role-played going on a job interview with one woman who got the job and never came back. Among Eduardo’s students were two Mexican students whose goal was to learn enough English that they could go back to Mexico and open a store to sell trinkets to American tourists—which they did.

Resources for senior volunteers 

Anyone with basic reading and writing skills can volunteer to teach English, and happily there are ample resources to help you and your students, among them: 

  • offers free strategies, tips and exercises to use in lesson plans. 
  • is maintained under contract with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. 
  • Literacy Volunteers of America has chapters by state and county that provide free resources for lesson plans.  
  • has free and fee-based resources such as workbooks.
  • Easy English News is a tabloid-size 12-page monthly written in simple English by expert ESL writers for adult and young adult immigrants. Cost: $4.50/month. 

Donna’s techniques are fairly simple. She finds a lesson (links below), copies it and distributes it as a mini lesson (a “bite-size piece” she calls it), using it to focus on a skill or a vocabulary word or different verb tenses. Often she makes her own vocabulary flash cards to show spelling and pronunciation relationships and differences, for example: stripe, strip, rip, and ripe. Other tips Donna recommends:

  • Limiting student work groups to three students so everyone gets a chance to talk.
  • Asking a student to read lesson instructions rather than doing it yourself.
  • Having students underline words that they don’t know.
  • Periodically throughout lessons asking, “Is that clear?” And if an explanation is needed, getting another student to explain. 

If you’d like to try volunteering to teach ESL, check with your local library, religious institution or social services center in your city.  You might even try Google, a quick search, for instance revealed Literacy Partners in New York City.



3 responses to “Change a life. Volunteer.

  1. Volunteering can be the key to navigating the transition to less work or full retirement, teaching English is a great opportunity to interact with others and provide a needed service.

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