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Using Volunteers as Aides in the Adult ESL Classroom

Celia Wiehe Arnade
Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP), VA November 1997

Volunteers are getting involved in adult English as a second language (ESL) programs throughout the United States in increasing numbers as auxiliary or primary providers of instruction (Becker & Larson, 1995). This increase can be attributed in part to an improvement in the administration of volunteer programs (Becker & Larson, 1995) and to the large numbers of adult immigrants seeking ESL instruction (Florez, 1997).

Schlusberg and Mueller (1995) wrote about volunteer-based programs, where tutors are the primary providers of instruction either in tutorial or classroom settings. This digest focuses on using volunteers as teacher aides. It explains the rationale for involving volunteers and discusses issues of volunteer management.

The Rationale for Using Volunteers

People volunteer in adult ESL programs for many reasons: for example, to meet new people, to learn about different cultures, to acquire training or work experience, to become involved in the community, and to welcome newcomers to the community (Bentson & Mitchell, 1995). They may also volunteer because they want to give something back to society, to fulfill school or university requirements, and because they or a family member grew up in a household where English was not the primary language.

Volunteers working as teacher aides in adult ESL programs can enable teachers to better meet the specific needs of their learners. How volunteers do this in individual programs varies depending on the level of the learners, needs of the learners, teaching style of the classroom teacher, and the interest of the volunteer. Volunteers can provide individualized instruction, or work with the larger group while the teacher provides this instruction; they can model language for learners, provide feedback to them when they speak, assist learners in the computer labs, videotape learners in role-played job interviews, or serve as role models and mentors. In some programs, especially where there are many learners who share the same native language if not culture, bilingual aides can serve as a bridge between English and the U.S. culture and the native languages and cultures. Having another native or fluent speaker of English in the classroom increases the amount of English learners will hear, gives them more opportunity to practice the language, and may expose them to another accent.

Further, involving volunteers in ESL instruction is a way to educate members of the local community who may not otherwise have direct contact with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. As volunteers are enriched by their involvement in the adult ESL classroom, this experience may help them become advocates for adult immigrants both locally and nationally.

Volunteer Management

While the benefits of involving volunteers are many, program administrators must be aware of potential limitations: instruction is not intensive, some volunteers participate irregularly or drop out, some are unwilling to learn new methodologies and change old habits, and some may not adhere to program philosophy or policies (Becker & Larson, 1995). These limitations can be minimized through effective volunteer management. Volunteers must know from the beginning what is expected of them and how they fit in to the organization. This information can be summarized in a volunteer position description that contains qualifications, responsibilities, time commitment and supervisor information. A volunteer agreement or contract can serve as a reminder to the volunteer of the commitment made to the program. Position descriptions and volunteer agreements can be distributed as part of an outreach effort.

Because of the amount of work involved in volunteer management, some large programs have full-time volunteer coordinators. In other programs, volunteer coordination is added to teaching positions or may be done by other program administrators. Volunteer management includes recruitment and screening; orientation, training, and placement; ongoing communication and support; and volunteer recognition.

Recruitment and screening
Recruitment of volunteers for adult ESL programs should target people who are interested in working with adult learners, have teaching experience, have an interest in other cultures or have traveled, and are able to make a regular commitment to volunteering (Wrigley & Guth, 1992). Former or current advanced level ESL learners can also be recruited as volunteers. Possible sources of volunteers include high schools, colleges and universities, libraries, volunteer bureaus, churches, civic associations and service organizations (McCurley & Lynch, 1996). Fliers or brochures can be posted or distributed in libraries, supermarkets, local agencies, government offices, local colleges and universities, or any other place where prospective volunteers are likely to go. Announcements can be placed in newspapers or made on the radio. Many states and local governments have volunteer offices that serve as clearinghouses for information on volunteerism and volunteer programs in the area.

Volunteers must be screened to determine whether their interests are compatible with the goals of the program. Although a familiarity with adult learners and ESL teaching methodology is useful, personal qualities also count. As Colvin (1986, p.10) states: "Learning the skills and techniques of teaching English as a second language... [is] essential... but of equal importance are patience, enthusiasm, creativity and adaptability as well as respect for your student." Interview questions that will screen applicants can include the following:

  • Why are you interested in becoming a volunteer?
  • What attracted you to our organization?
  • What do you hope to gain from your volunteer experience?
  • Our program philosophy is _____________. How you feel about this statement?
    (Bentson & Mitchell, 1995, p. 35).
Orientation, training, and placement
Volunteers should be familiar with the program's mission and the services it provides. An orientation can include the history, mission, and philosophy of the program, description of program offerings and learners, an explanation of the role of volunteers in the program, and the expectations for volunteers once they join the program. If possible, a classroom visit should be part of orientation. At Tacoma Community House, a community-based organization in Washington state, a language immersion lesson is presented at orientation to sensitize new volunteers to the language learning process (Bentson & Mitchell, 1995). A volunteer coordinator or other program administrator can give the orientation or this information can be presented in the form of a volunteer manual or information packet.

After a volunteer has gotten information about the program and has made a commitment, the volunteer can be placed with a teacher. Volunteer assignments should be made based on teacher requests and program needs. At the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP) in Virginia-a large ESL program that involves volunteers as classroom aides and as language lab assistants-teachers request volunteers by filling out a form indicating the level they will be teaching and what they would like the volunteer to do (e.g., work with a small group of learners on writing, or assist on the day the class is scheduled in the computer lab.)

After the volunteer has been placed, an orientation to the class should follow. This can be done by the classroom teacher or the volunteer coordinator and should include information on the level of the class, number of learners, goals of the class, materials used, and ideas for ways the volunteer can assist the learners. It can include tips for error correction in oral and written language and address the appropriateness of using other languages in the classroom.

Ongoing Support for Volunteers
Because volunteers come to the classroom with varying levels of experience, it is important to provide opportunities for training on topics related to teaching ESL to adults. Volunteers can be included in regular staff development activities or separate training can be provided for them (Wrigley & Guth, 1992). Information related to teaching ESL can also be provided through volunteer manuals, newsletters, and individual consultation with the classroom teacher, volunteer coordinator or other volunteers. Veteran volunteers can share information they have gained about working with adult ESL learners.

Several factors contribute to positive relationships between classroom teachers and volunteers: teachers must recognize and accept the need for volunteer assistance; be comfortable with another pair of eyes, ears, and hands in the classroom; be open to other people's suggestions or ideas; help learners to understand the role of the volunteer; and encourage them to be receptive to the volunteer's assistance (Minicz & Diamond, 1994). Teachers must be aware that fostering a positive relationship with volunteers takes time: time to welcome volunteers into the classroom; to introduce them to the learners and explain their role in the class; to explain to volunteers how they can most effectively help the learners; and to give the volunteers ongoing feedback on their interactions with learners. Teachers must also be willing to make time to answer questions the volunteers may have, either before or after class or during a break. Finally, teachers must recognize that some volunteers will naturally feel more comfortable with some learners than others and that it may take a few weeks for a volunteer to understand what learners are able to do at their level of proficiency.

Even with good volunteer orientation, training, and support, some initial placements will not be successful. Sometimes a teacher and volunteer do not get along or the volunteer is not suited to the level of the learners. Teachers should bring these mismatches to the attention of the person who coordinates the volunteer program. The volunteer can then be placed with another teacher or at a different level. Often the second match is more successful.

Retention and recognition
Because volunteers must feel as if they belong, and that their assistance is needed, recognition of their time and effort is critical to their continued commitment to the program (McCurley & Lynch, 1996). Volunteer recognition can take many forms including simply thanking the volunteer at the end of the class period; presenting certificates of appreciation at the end of the class cycle; nominating volunteers for awards; or sending birthday cards. Asking volunteers for their opinions, featuring them in a newsletter or newspaper article, and inviting them to present at a training session are other ways to ensure that volunteers feel they are a valued part of the organization.


Using volunteers as aides in adult ESL instruction can enable teachers to better meet learners' needs. However, it takes time, effort, and planning to manage volunteers. To be successful in this task, programs should carefully recruit, screen, orient, train, support, and recognize their volunteers.


Becker, A. & Larson, K. (1995). ESL volunteerism: A study of ESL volunteer programs in the state of Illinois. Chicago, IL: Travelers & Immigrants Aid of Chicago. (ERIC No. ED 385 174)

Bentson, M. & Mitchell, E. (1995). Talk time handbook. Tacoma, WA: Tacoma Community House.

Colvin, R. (1986). I speak English. Syracuse, NY: Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc.

Florez, M.C. (1997). The adult ESL teaching profession. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

McCurley, S. & Lynch, R. (1996). Mobilizing all resources in the community. Downers Grove, IL: Heritage Arts/VMS Systems.

Minicz, E. & Diamond, J. (1994). Volunteers and teachers in the classroom. Training packet for a two-session workshop. Study of ABE/ESL instructor training approaches. Washington, DC: Pelavin Associates, Inc. (ERIC No. ED 368 949)

Schlusberg, P. & Mueller, T. (1995). English as a second language in volunteer-based programs. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.

Wrigley, H.S. & Guth, G.J.A. (1992). Bringing literacy to life: Issues and options in adult ESL literacy. San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International. (ERIC No. ED 348 896)


This document was produced at the Center for Applied Linguistics (4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Library of Education, under contract no. RR 93002010, The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.