“If our hopes of building a better and safer world are to become more than wishful thinking, we will need the engagement of volunteers more than ever.”

Kofi Annan (1938 – 2018), former Secretary-General of the United Nations
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This free ESL lesson plan on volunteering has been designed for adults and young adults at an intermediate (B1/B2) to advanced (C1/C2) level and should last around 45 to 60 minutes for one student.

Volunteering can be an incredibly rewarding experience and can provide much valuable assistance to those that need it. On the other hand, volunteering is often little more than a business venture selling experiences to boost a person’s CV or resume. In this ESL lesson plan on volunteering, students will have the opportunity discuss and express their opinions on issues such as their own experiences volunteering, how volunteering can help and the ways in which volunteering can have a damaging effect.

This lesson plan could also be used with your students to debate these issues for International Volunteer Day, which takes place in December. For more lesson plans on international days and important holidays, see the calendar of world days to plan your classes for these special occasions.

For advice on how to use this English lesson plan and other lesson plans on this site, see the guide for ESL teachers.


Reading activity
Before the English class, send the following article to the students and ask them to read it while making a list of any new vocabulary or phrases they find (explain any the students don’t understand in the class):

BBC | “Barbie challenges the ‘white saviour complex'”

The article talks about the “white saviour complex” which describes white people (usually from Western countries) who volunteer in places like Africa in a self-serving manner. At the start of the class, hold a brief discussion about what the students thought about the article. What do they think about the issues raised in the article? Do they agree with what was written? Can they think of any ways they might disagree with the content of the article?

Video activity
To save time in class for the conversation activities, the English teacher can ask the students to watch the video below and answer the listening questions in Section 3 of the lesson plan at home. There are intermediate listening questions and advanced listening questions so teachers can decide which would be more appropriate for their students. Check the answers in the class.

The video for this class is a TEDx Talk by Charlotte Baker Maher called “Gap Year Volunteering – Who Gains More”. Charlotte talks about her own experience volunteering in Namibia in Africa as part of her school’s volunteering project and how it wasn’t perhaps as useful for the locals as it was for the volunteers.


The focus in the class is on conversation in order to help improve students’ fluency and confidence when speaking in English as well as boosting their vocabulary.

This lesson opens with a short discussion about the article the students read before the class. Next, the students can give their opinion on the quote at the beginning of the lesson plan – what they think the quote means and if they agree with it. This is followed by an initial discussion on the topic including their own experiences volunteering and what the benefits of volunteering are.

After this, students will learn some vocabulary connected with volunteering such as the third sector, gap year and give back to the community. This vocabulary has been chosen to boost the students’ knowledge of less common vocabulary that could be useful for preparing for English exams like IELTS or TOEFL. The vocabulary is accompanied by a cloze activity and a speaking activity to test the students’ comprehension of these words.

If the students didn’t watch the video before the class, they can watch it after the vocabulary section and answer the listening questions. Before checking the answers, ask the students to give a brief summary of the video and what they thought about the content.

Finally, there is a more in-depth conversation about volunteering. In this speaking activity, students will talk about issues such as whether volunteering could be a career, some of the negative aspects of volunteering and whether it’s right to rely on volunteers to tackle problems in society.


After the class, students will write about their opinion of volunteering. This could be a short paragraph or a longer piece of writing depending on what level the student is at. The writing activity is designed to allow students to practise and improve their grammar with the feedback from their teacher. For students who intend to take an international English exam such as IELTS or TOEFL, there is an alternative essay question to practise their essay-writing skills.


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