Teacher's Corner: Service Learning in the Language Classroom
In this month’s Teacher’s Corner, we’ll examine ways that you can incorporate Service Learning strategies to get your students involved with experiential learning! During week 1, students will brainstorm community issues that they can help solve.
What comes to mind when you hear the term service learning? Perhaps you think of taking your students to a location outside of your classroom and completing a hands-on project. Maybe you think of having your students volunteer with a local organization. You likely think about how the work that your students do will serve the community. Undoubtedly, you also think about the impact the time spent serving will have on your students.
In his article “Using Service-Learning as Part of an ESL Program,” James Minor describes service learning as “a union of community service and formal learning.” This description notes that service learning has two main components: some type of community service and related classroom instruction. Though service learning can take many different shapes, these two components are essential to a true service-learning experience.
Service learning is an excellent way to engage students who are studying English because it provides a meaningful context for language practice. Students have an opportunity to use English to read and speak about topics, to write reflections, and to participate in discussions about relevant issues in their own communities. Service learning also gives students hands-on experience and a chance to address issues or needs that are important to them. In doing this type of work, students reflect on their values and develop new perspectives. Students can then use English to communicate their ideas, thoughts, and feelings about the experience and what it means to them.
This month’s Teacher’s Corner will present a four-step process for implementing service learning with students who are studying English. The first week will address how to choose a community issue or need as a class. Subsequent weeks will explain how to design classroom instruction, implement the service component, reflect on the experience, and share what was learned with others.
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Generating Ideas for a Service Learning ProjectExpand
Every community has its own set of successes and challenges. Where you live, the needs of your local community, and the interests of your students will determine the focus of your service-learning project.
In her article “Service Learning and Community Engagement for English Classes” in English Teaching Forum, Aida Koci McLeod notes that there are two ways to design service-learning projects. Curriculum-based design examines the content of the curriculum to see how the material that students are learning could benefit the community. Need-based design has students observing issues in the community and brainstorming possible projects.
This week, we will take a need-based approach to lead students through an activity to generate ideas about possible service-learning projects.


  • Part One: 15 minutes
  • Approximately 1 week for students to observe and gather information outside of class
  • Part Two: 45-60 minutes


  • To define service learning for students.
  • To gather information about issues in the local community.
  • To observe community needs and brainstorm possible areas for service-learning projects.

To determine one area of focus for the service-learning project by voting.

Materials: notebooks or paper (if possible, students can designate a notebook to use throughout the service-learning project for a journal and for all of the activities), pencils, whiteboard or chalkboard with markers or chalk, timer


  1. Write the phrase service learning on the board. Ask students if they know what service learning is or if they have ideas about what the term means. If you wish, write their ideas on the board.
  2. After students have shared what they know about service learning, provide them with a definition (perhaps the one from this month’s Introduction) and write it on the board.
  3. Allow students time to reflect on the definition and to share their thoughts about it in small groups or as a whole class.
  4. Explain to the class that they will be participating in a service-learning project and their next step is to gather information about the needs in the local community. You can give examples of specific issues or ask students to share ideas.
  5. Write the table below on the board and have students copy it into their notebooks to use when gathering information outside of class. If you plan to have students use a single notebook for the service-learning project, this can be the first entry. 
    Community Issue/Problem Who is affected by the issue? What is being done to help or to address the problem?
  6. Tell students that they can gather information by talking to friends or family members, by reading local newspapers or publications, by interviewing community leaders, by watching news reports, etc.
  7. Determine how much time students should spend on collecting information outside of class; one week was suggested in the preparation section. Alternatively, if students do not have access to the internet or news publications outside of class, you can choose to schedule several class periods for them to do research at school.
  8. Set a date for students to come to class with information about at least three issues filled in on the information-gathering table. Answer any questions students may have about the assignment.


  1. On the day that students come to class with their completed information-gathering tables, split the class into groups of about five students. If helpful, have each group assign roles such as recorder, timekeeper, and presenter.
  2. Explain that each group member will share the community issues he or she recorded. The rest of the group should listen for any common themes, such as housing, hunger, literacy, etc. Provide students with 15-20 minutes for the discussion. Set a timer if desired.
  3. After each group member has shared his or her observations about issues in the community, the group should discuss common issues or problems. Each group should create a list of the top three issues that they identified after sharing and discussion. If there are any particularly unique or interesting community problems that someone shared, those can also be noted in addition to the top three.
  4. Once all the groups have had sufficient time to share and discuss ideas, each group will report their top three issues or community problems to the whole class. Depending on the size of your class, this should take 10-20 minutes. As each group names their top issues, write the issues in a list on the board. If issues are repeated, note this by making a tally mark next to the issue on the board. Any unique or interesting issues that were observed by the group can be noted on a separate list.
  5. Because students have been observing and collecting information about issues in their community, some common themes should naturally emerge. Ask students to look at the list on the board and determine which issues came up the most. (Do not include the separate list of the unique/interesting issues in this part.)
  6. Create a new list of the top three community problems that the class observed during information gathering. Write it next to the list of the unique or interesting issues, if any.
  7. Tell students that they will vote on the community issues on this final list to determine the focus issue of the class service-learning project. Explain that after choosing the focus issue, the class will be involved in some type of community service and classroom learning related to that issue.
  8. Although the class has yet to design the actual project, it may be helpful to give students some examples of what the community service component could be, such as volunteering time to tutor younger students in reading, cleaning up the environment in a part of your community, writing letters to government officials, etc. Answer any questions students may have.
  9. Allow students to vote for the issue(s) that interest them the most. You can ask students to vote for only one, or you can have them rank each issue from the list according to their level of interest (1 - top choice, 2 - second choice, 3 - third choice, etc.). Students can use a small piece of paper torn from their notebooks to vote.
  10. Collect all votes before the end of the class period. Count them to determine which issue your class has chosen to focus on for their service-learning project.

The activity presented this week allows students to observe the issues in their community and vote on one area of focus for the service-learning project. The next installment of the Teacher’s Corner will explain how to engage students in classroom learning related to the topic they have chosen. Next week’s activities will allow students to engage in meaningful use of English as they learn more about an issue facing their community.

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Learning More About a Community IssueExpand

Last week, students observed issues in the local community and brainstormed possible areas of focus for a service-learning project. Now that students have chosen the area of focus, the next step is to learn more about the chosen issue.

In the Introduction to this month’s Teacher’s Corner, we mentioned that James Minor’s definition of a true service-learning project includes both community service and formal learning. This week will present a Guided Seminar activity that will help students fulfill the “formal learning” portion of the definition. By participating in the Guided Seminar, students will learn more about the community issue they have chosen while practicing meaningful use of English.



  • One class period for pre-reading and for answering key questions (This can also be assigned outside of class.)
  • One class period for the seminar
  • About 20 minutes of time outside of class for the post-seminar reflection


  • To have students read information about the community issue in English.
  • To participate in meaningful discussion about the issue with classmates in English.
  • To write a reflection in English.

Materials: article(s), videos or news clips, radio clips, or social media posts about the chosen issue; key questions (see examples in Preparation Step 2); discussion stems (see examples in Procedure Step 2); service-learning project notebooks and pencils


  1. Choose one or two articles or news clips for students to read or watch before the seminar. All students will consume the same material beforehand in order to promote thoughtful discussion.
  2. Write a few open-ended questions based on the material students are using. Give students a chance to copy these questions into their notebooks. Examples of the type of questions include:
    1. Was any information that you found in the material surprising? What information made an impression on you as you were reading/watching?
    2. Have you noticed the effects of this issue in our community? Where, and what have you experienced or observed?
    3. How would you feel if this issue was a problem for you and your family? Or, if it has been a problem for your family, how has it affected you?
    4. What do you think are some possible solutions for this problem? Who should be responsible for taking action to start solving this problem?
  3. Give students time in class to read or watch the information, or assign the material for homework. Have students reflect and answer these questions in their service-learning notebooks after they read or watch the material you have chosen.
  4. Talk to students about the seminar and your expectations for the discussion. Note that during a seminar, the students really lead the discussion and the teacher acts as more of a facilitator. Students usually do not raise their hands; instead, they simply begin talking, one at a time, while others listen and respond. Depending on your students, you can practice this ahead of time if it will be helpful.


  1. If you are able to do so, arrange chairs or the students themselves in a large circle on the day of your seminar.  Sitting in a circle will encourage discussion amongst students. If not, you can still conduct the seminar in your normal classroom setting.
  2. Write the discussion stems below, as well as any others you can think of, on the board. If needed, provide students with examples of how to use these.
  • I agree/disagree with __________ because…
  • I would like to add that…
  • I want to know more about…
  • This made me think of __________ because…
  • I would like to ask __________ about…
  • I was surprised to learn…
  • I felt __________ when I read…
  • I would like to ask <student’s name> what he/she thinks about…
  1. Before starting the discussion, review procedures and expectations for the seminar with your students. Remind them about the guidelines for taking turns, listening, and responding to classmates. Answer any questions that students may have.
  2. Ask students to take out the article(s) they read and the reflection questions they answered in their notebooks. Give them a few minutes to review their responses. If students watched news clips, you can replay the clips or have students chat in pairs about what they remember from the clips. While students review, you can write the reflection questions on the board.
  3. Tell students that they will participate in a guided discussion about the community issue they have been learning about. Explain that you will ask one of the reflection questions and anyone can start the discussion by sharing their thoughts or ideas. Tell students that they can refer to the article/news clips or their notes but should not read directly from their notebooks.
  4. Read the first reflection question from the board and allow students to respond. Remind students of expectations throughout the seminar if needed. Let students know that they can ask each other questions directly using each other’s names. This can be helpful for encouraging all students to participate.
  5. Continue until all of the key questions have been addressed. Based on the discussion and level of interest of the students, you can pose follow-up questions during the seminar to further engage students with the topic.
  6. To wrap up the seminar, you may choose to pose a closing question and give students time to respond with a short answer. It is helpful to share some possible answers with students before asking them to respond. Here are some examples:
  • What is one word that comes to mind when you think about this community issue? (Example answers: tragic, opportunity, hope, help, etc.)
  • Respond with one word that describes how this issue makes you feel. (Example answers: inspired, hopeless, worried, motivated, etc.)
  • What is one word or phrase that you can use to describe what is needed to improve this issue in our community? (Example answers: caring, generosity, time, money, hope, etc.)
  1. Once students have had a chance to answer the final question, explain that the last step will be to reflect on the seminar in their notebooks. Because this activity is preparing learners to participate in meaningful service learning, it is suggested that you ask students to write about ways the class can engage with the community issue they have chosen to have a positive impact.
  2. Write the final reflection question on the board for students to copy into their notebooks. You might write and ask “What ideas do you have for activities related to this issue that our class can do to have a positive impact on the community?” or something similar.
  3. If helpful, give students time to share a few ideas with the whole class. Then, assign students the task of writing ideas in their notebooks (either as homework or during the next class period).


  1. It should be noted that this seminar can be repeated several times over the duration of the service-learning project. Students can read or watch additional materials about the community issue and answer new questions in a seminar discussion. This activity can also be used to reflect on experiences when students are engaged in the project. More information about how to do this will be shared in Week 4.

The Guided Seminar allows students to use English to learn more about the community issue they are interested in. Learners also use English to engage in thoughtful, structured conversation about the topic, to reflect on what they have learned, and to generate ideas.

The final step in this week’s activity asks students to begin thinking about how the class can engage in service related to the community issue they have selected. This will be the starting point for designing the community service component of the service-learning project. Next week the Teacher’s Corner will present several ways for students to become actively involved with the community issue they have chosen.

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