Country: United States of America


All About Literacy Volunteering

December 17, 2012

Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.—Frederick Douglass

According to UNESCO, global illiteracy hovers at approximately 1 billion people, two-thirds of which are women. While acknowledging the correlation between income and illiteracy, in 2012 this statistic has driven countless volunteers to promoting literacy both in the U.S. and abroad. Volunteers and development experts alike have agreed that the key to solving many of the world’s socioeconomic problems begins with addressing the need to build a more literate adult population.Students reading in a classroom - Literacy Volunteering - Volunteer Global

Literacy volunteering encompasses a variety of projects and students. Long-term service is generally required as it produces the best results. Most literacy service providers require their volunteers to undergo a series of trainings to prepare them for lesson planning, sensitivity, and classroom etiquette, as many volunteers do not have Education degrees.

Below are a few common types of literacy volunteering:

Tutoring Refugee Families

Many newly arrived refugee families—adults and children alike—need assistance in adapting to life in the U.S., including speaking English. Improving the English of a refugee family will not only help the children in school, but also the adults in finding work and adapting to their new environment. A friendly face in a new surrounding assists in the language acquisition process.

Leading Literacy Programs

Working in schools, libraries, literacy centers, and churches offering tutoring session for students that struggle inside the classroom are perhaps the most common ways of volunteering for literacy. Many public libraries and schools host after-school literacy sessions, especially in larger cities, and depend on a steady stream of volunteers to assist in their work. Sessions are typically less formal than in-school tutoring, and can involve games and activities aside from lessons.

Children’s Hospitals

Literacy volunteering in children’s hospitals is often overlooked; however, can be one of the most rewarding ways to volunteer. Teaching chronically or terminally ill children how to read not only allows the children to pass the time with a friendly face, but it also provides hope and comfort for both the children and their parents, empowering children and providing relief from their parents’ grief.

Adult Literacy

Adult literacy programs, whether in the U.S. or abroad, are some of the most successful programs that exist today. Providing literacy assistance to adults is one of the most fundamental elements to a more prosperous future for not only those being taught, but also their children and their community in return. As women have increasingly become the focus of development projects around the world, literacy and language training for women in developing countries has transformed into an immensely popular way to volunteer.


Aside from providing tutoring or teaching services, volunteers may also choose to serve as an advocate for shaping public policy and raising awareness about illiteracy in their community. Advocates take on projects such as writing letters to legislators and heading media campaigns.

If you’re interested in volunteering close to home, check out America’s Literacy Directory at to find a volunteer opportunity near you. If you seek an experience abroad, focus on organizations that have strong education and literacy programs. Many literacy programs, whether serving refugee families in the U.S. or students abroad, are similar to ESL programs—so be sure to check those out as well!

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.