To celebrate Volunteers Week 2024, we’re shining a spotlight on our brilliant and dedicated volunteers throughout the week.

Henrietta has penned this thought-provoking piece on her experience volunteering with our Intermediate English class.

Our Intermediate English class meets weekly to support women to develop their English skills, build their confidence, and to connect with one another. As Henrietta says in her wonderful writing: “A dozen women meet to listen and talk… In addition, there is plenty of non-verbal communication: making tea, sharing fruit, putting on and off layers of clothes, sitting down and standing up, in a circle or not, looking for a pen, arriving late or early.”

Thank you for sharing your piece Henrietta, and for all that you do for Women for Refugee Women! We’re so grateful for your support and dedication.


“There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus to speak a true word is to transform the world.” – Paulo Freire, the Brazilian writer and teacher, author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

When I was training to become a teacher for adults, I was asked to choose a pedagogy to study in detail and put into practice. I chose Paulo Freire. I never wanted to be the so-called charismatic teacher who could hold their students transfixed. I was curious about what the students had to offer. Freire’s pedagogy is about being transformative, and about problem solving. To learn to describe a problem, to write a problem is to transform it and oneself. To name the world is to change it. There was to be no teacher narrative or ‘banking’ of knowledge. I took this to mean, in my work, that all language, words and topics must come from the students.

There’s a huge tension between this kind of teaching and a traditional ESOL course in which there is a ‘target’ language, in which students are empty vessels to be filled with correct grammar and syntax, in which later they’ll be tested.

They, the ones who present themselves, are grown adults who already have English. Their English comes from their years of living in London, moving around a city in which this many people speak this many languages, interacting with people in their own and other established communities. So what is it they are asking for, looking for? What am I providing?

In this weekly class, the class I’m talking about, there is no exam or curriculum.  A dozen women meet to listen and talk. English is possibly a ‘target’ language as advertised but it is also a shared language, a language in common that we are all practising. We’re really developing a means of mutual understanding for dialogue.

In addition, there is plenty of non-verbal communication: making tea, sharing fruit, putting on and off layers of clothes, sitting down and standing up, in a circle or not, looking for a pen, arriving late or early.

On this occasion, I bring newspapers. We choose photos of humans, famous or not, and describe them to each other.

Kate Middleton has her hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. The words for her hairstyle pass around the table: bun, chignon, pony tail, up do.

Words briefly appear and disappear. A few I write on the board, others float by like so many scraps in the current, as the river rises up to one metre above its normal level, what with all the rain we’ve been having.

The women laugh at the idea that one ‘wears lipstick’. Then I laugh, the volunteers laugh, we all laugh. Is it really ‘we’? How far is it possible to be ‘we’?

The words in the room disappear into some patch at the back of my mind. Words detach themselves from their meanings. Queries go unresolved. Statements can be both positive or negative at the same time, ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ sound the same. It’s common to hear ‘too’ for ‘very’ or ‘too much’ for ‘a lot of’.

If I introduce some words no one has ever heard of, straight out of the unused lexicon (‘I despise’ for ‘I don’t like’) there is only more confusion. The unusual words become a distraction for me and create distance. The women start talking in their own languages or the other languages that they share. Arabic works for most, French or Kurdish for others. These are also languages that cross borders.

After a good class, they come up to me smiling, joyful. Something has happened. I don’t know what, as a teacher, I might have provided. There’s been dialogue and communication, some hilarity and laughter. My job is to make sure everyone is included, is warm enough, can hear and see. I’m a sort of micro party planner.

In an episode of the radio programme Word of Mouth, Michael Rosen talks to Ruanni Tupas, a professor of linguistics. There is, we learn, the concept of English as a global language, and then there are all the other ‘Englishes’ that people use everyday. In linguistic terms all englishes are equal. As examples, Tupas talks about local influences on American English in the Philippines, his country of birth and Singlish, spoken in Singapore. In my own experience, I hear my grandchildren switch from one ‘English’ at home to another ‘English’, that is Geordie, with their schoolfriends. We all become competent in a ‘repertoire of Englishes’.

In terms of everyday life, my English is just one in a number of Englishes spoken in London. Hence the discussion over what to call Kate Middleton’s hair do. My word is as good as anyone’s.

There is a pervasive ideology, Tupas goes on to say, that one kind of English is better than another, but studies show that communication is not lost without standard UK English. Communication is helped by competency in many ‘englishes’.

The women in the group have to cope with concepts from officialdom and have to account for themselves in a way I have never had to. More than anyone they will have to be careful what they say, at the same time as learn how to say it.

What ‘English’ is it that the students want? Following Freire, I spend weeks on this question: what shall we practice, what shall we study? While the immediate answer is just ‘English’, after discussion and enquiry we can come up with a few of what Freire calls ‘generative themes.’ One theme might be to be able to speak confidently to the doctor or with a child’s teacher or to immigration lawyers.

In the tension between desire for real dialogue and desire to teach, I am left with big questions that I can ponder for the rest of my teaching life. Here I am with something to offer, the skills with which to teach a language I didn’t do much to learn. How can I teach correct English without teaching western culture? In my resistance to teaching ‘correct’ English am I gate keeping myself? I could give a few answers but for now I’ll hold the tension. It’s not correct English that’s needed for justice and equality, but true communication and dialogue.

Written by Henrietta Cullinan


Check out our other Volunteers Week blogs: an interview with our Drama volunteers; Eesha’s reflections on volunteering at WRW.