5 Tips for Volunteer English Language Teachers

Volunteer teacher

Many people are interested in becoming volunteer English language teachers; some are retirees who are interested in finding fulfilling and helpful ways to support their local community, while others work full time or part time, but would like to commit a few hours a week to a worthy cause. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of people who need help with their English, and volunteer teachers play an essential role.

A great number of people find themselves in the UK as a result of war, violence, discrimination, natural disasters or poverty in their own countries, and it can be incredibly daunting having to start a new life in an unknown place. In order to adapt and integrate, learning the language is essential, but can feel like an overwhelming challenge.

On top of this, displaced learners are not likely to have the funds to study privately or intensively, so they may rely on classes that they find through national charities such as RefuAid, local charities (examples near our school include CLEAR and Southampton & Winchester Visitors Group), or with volunteer teachers directly. This type of teaching is referred to as TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) or ESL (English as a Second Language).

Volunteer English language teachers may have no prior teaching experience, or experience teaching in different contexts. We often welcome such teachers onto our CertTESOL course here at Lewis School of English. The course leads to an initial qualification and prepares you step-by-step for this role.

If you are new to TESOL or ESL, we’ve selected a few tips to share with you here.




1. Focus on relevant situations

It will be important to find out about your learners’ contexts and how they need to use English on a day-to-day basis.

For example, if they are looking for work in the UK, teaching vocabulary and skills related to writing CVs and cover letters may be a priority, as well as focusing on language for interviews. However, if they are a carer for a family member, they may be trying to navigate the health care system and dealing with hospital appointments.

Prioritising their immediate, functional needs (rather than sticking to a pre-determined curriculum) will quickly allow your learners to have important and meaningful interactions, which will help with both their well-being and self-esteem.

Cheerful adult students having fun in classroom

2. Introduce functional language

For many ESOL or ESL learners, accuracy is not a top concern, as they are driven by the need to understand and be understood. Therefore, working through grammar rules may not be the best use of time.

However, introducing functional chunks of language can be a quick way to enable effective communication. For example, consider the learner who is working as a carer; functional phrases like ‘His back hurts’, or ‘When he takes the medication, he feels drowsy’ might be useful, but teaching all of the rules surrounding these grammatical structures could take some time.

Instead, learners can be taught that the whole sentences can be used over and over again, simply substituting individual words, like ‘back’ for ‘head’, and ‘drowsy’ for ‘sick’. This limits the amount of learning they have to do to communicate meaning, and it’s an approach which means that quite complex sentences can be taught, but without focusing explicitly on grammar.

Often learners find this approach motivating, as it feels as though they are covering more ground more quickly. Other functional phrases that learners will always find useful are those for dealing with misunderstandings. For example, ‘Sorry, I’m not sure I understand’, ‘Can you speak a little slower?’, ‘Can you explain what that means?’.

An English course is more than just an opportunity to learn the language; it’s also an opportunity for learners to connect, make friends, express themselves and learn about the culture of the country they are living in.

3. Raise cultural awareness

Learning the language is just one part of being able to integrate into a community; cultural knowledge is also incredibly important.

Going back to the theme of healthcare, to somebody who has lived in the UK their whole life it may seem obvious when you would go to a pharmacy for help, when you might make a GPs appointment, when you would call 111 and when you would go to A&E at the hospital. However, healthcare services differ hugely from country to country. While in some places it might be entirely appropriate to go to hospital for a migraine, in the UK, that could be frowned upon.

It’s also worth remembering that our learners ‘don’t know what they don’t know’. There may be an assumption that things work in much the same way as in their home country, so the classroom is a good opportunity to highlight some of these differences. Again, this comes back to understanding your learners’ contexts and functional needs.

4. Maximise exposure to the language

For many learners, the amount of time they are able to study English is limited, and quite often they will be living or socialising in communities with people who speak the same first language as them.

This can mean that their exposure to English is fairly minimal. Much like when acquiring our first language, the more exposure to it, the quicker it is likely to be learnt, so encouraging your learners to regularly read and listen to English outside of the classroom should help to accelerate the process.

What they read and listen to should depend on their interests, as they are more likely to engage with something in a second language if they would engage with it in their first. However, it’s also useful to provide your learners with authentic materials that relate to their needs, for example, health care podcasts, school websites, transport timetables, recruitment advertisements etc.

Woman In Hijab During Lesson

5. Learn strategies for dealing with sensitive topics

Trauma effects people in different ways, and there is a good chance that displaced learners have experienced some kind of trauma, whether that’s as a result of separation, grief, violence, or a host of other reasons.

This can make some topics difficult to navigate conversationally, and you may find that your learners don’t want to talk about family or their home countries as it is too upsetting.

However, it is also possible that this is exactly what they do want to talk about, as these are the most important issues to them.

The classroom should be a safe space where students feel comfortable opening up about these topics, or explaining that they’d rather not talk about them, and so it could be a good idea to address this early on and introduce some functional phrases to help students ask questions and express their feelings, for example:

‘You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to.’
‘Feel free to talk about this if you want to.’
‘If you would rather not say, that’s fine.’

Being able to empathise with your learners is incredibly important, as a course of English lessons is more than just an opportunity to learn the language; it’s also an opportunity for learners to connect, make friends, express themselves and learn about the culture of the country they are living in. This is what makes it such a rewarding process to be a part of as a volunteer teacher.

Want to learn more and gain a teaching qualification?

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer teacher and first would like to gain a teaching qualification, have a look at our CertTESOL course, which you can take either online or in person at our school in Southampton city centre.

Feel free to contact Abby Croucher, our course leader, at abby@lewis-school.co.uk if you have any questions or would like an informal chat. She’ll be very happy to help you.

CertTESOL course >



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