5 ways to make PBL work in ELL

When I think about my “why” for teaching project-based learning I think of a particular student I had last year in fourth grade. I’m an ESL teacher for the Newcomer Program at Webster Elementary School in the Manchester School District, New Hampshire. The majority of our students are refugees and immigrants. I use project-based learning in my classroom because of the impact it has for EL students like this particular fourth-grade student. When he joined my class, like many of my students, he knew very little English.  Fast forward a year, and his transformation was so incredible that he was selected to do a live video interview with a panel of about 100 administrators describing how PBL has helped him. You never would have guessed he’d barely spoken English a year before! He also described the impact of PBL perfectly. When talking about a project that required research, he said, “It helped me learn to ask questions.” Another project teamed him up with a partner “so that helped with communicating,” he said. For another project he wrote letters “and that helped me [learn to] write information,” he said.

 “When [a teacher] tells you and just gives you worksheets to write everything down, I think that’s boring for most kids and they just want to finish it,” he said. “But when we do projects, it’s better because you actually get to do something and get some motivation.”

As a teacher, seeing his interview was an amazing moment because it was proof that what we are doing is working. This is the kind of confidence, courage and growth that I see in my students every day and it shows the impact of quality PBL on students -- particularly EL students.

Project-based learning to support equity

The Manchester School District receives training and support from the nonprofit PBLWorks through a grant-funded project to help support educational equity. Manchester is a refugee resettlement community and my school serves a diverse student population that includes students from 19 countries who speak 14 different languages. We also serve non-English speaking students from throughout Manchester in magnet classrooms. For some of my students, it is their first time in a classroom setting.

My students start at very different levels of proficiency. Some can read and write English beautifully, but either can’t or don’t have the confidence to speak it. Others can hold perfect conversations in English, but don’t have reading and writing skills, while others have difficulty with all areas of proficiency. Every student has a completely individualized level. We wanted to find a way to meet each student where they were. PBL is the perfect solution because of its ability to engage students at all levels in authentic learning through authentic, hands-on projects.

PBL requires students to work on projects that examine a real-world problem or answer a complex question. They demonstrate their knowledge by developing a product or presenting for an audience. PBL helps students engage more deeply in content and language acquisition while also developing skills such as critical thinking and communication.

Want to give it a shot in your classroom? Here are some things to consider:

  • Meet students at their proficiency level. The rigor, engagement and methodology of PBL provide a fast track to confidence and language acquisition for newcomer students, but it is important to meet each student at their specific level of proficiency. I do this by being intentional and strategic about scaffolding PBL readiness skills such as higher-order thinking and problem-solving. The majority of my students come to me without basic educational skills, so they require much more coaching than traditional EL students. I need to heavily modify PBL to make it accessible to them. I use linguist Stephen Krashen’s “i +1” theory of second language acquisition, in which the “i” symbolizes the learner’s current area of proficiency -- wherever that may be -- and the “1” is the next immediate step to improve their level of competence. Here is just one example. If a student needs an accommodation, I help them brainstorm what could help them. This metacognition is something that I am scaffolding. Once the student can independently come up with the rationale for the resources or tools they need, I know that I have made a huge leap in their autonomy and problem-solving. The exercise intertwines problem-solving, confidence, advocacy and language ability and vocabulary. This might seem small, but it is just another example of something that my students have never done before and will be expected to do within one year.
  • Make sure projects are culturally responsive. Allowing students to bring their own culture and experiences to a project makes it more engaging. For example, one of our projects focused on what makes up a community. Students researched the components of a community -- for example, what types of restaurants, businesses and government buildings are in the community. Students brought their own perspectives and shared what their communities were like where they came from which helped them connect with the project and created more opportunities for dialogue to build vocabulary and communication skills.
  • Include field trips. Experiences help students gain a greater understanding of a topic and can add another layer of excitement. If the project involves the water system, take a trip to the local water treatment plant. If it involves animals or the ocean. Go to the zoo or the aquarium. For our community project, we toured our neighborhood and took photos of what we saw in the community. They ultimately used the photos to create photo books that they presented to the mayor for their final project.  
  • Encourage authenticity. A quality PBL project helps students understand how what they are learning applies to the real world. For example, one of our projects focused on environmental awareness. As students were doing research they realized that our three ESL classes dispose of 400,000 plastic forks every year. Students were fascinated by this, so the project snowballed into a campaign to use real silverware in the cafeteria. As we researched this idea, we learned that having real silverware would require our school to purchase a dishwasher. So, the project has morphed into a letter-writing campaign asking our PTO to support funding for a dishwasher. This evolution showed the students how environmental awareness can have a local impact.  It’s also been incredibly rewarding to see students so passionate, which helps them engage in the content.
  • Encourage voice and choice. Project-based learning is all about helping students take ownership of their learning. One of my favorite success stories was when some of my students came to me without prompting and said, “we have an idea for a project.” It’s so rewarding to see students empowered -- especially students who may have been marginalized in the past because of their backgrounds or because they weren’t fluent in English.  The students wanted to create a “diversity day” for the 100th day of school. I coached them through the project, which they presented to the principal. For the project they put decorations and items such as artwork throughout the school that would showcase the diversity at our school. The students leading the project then had non-ELL students collect the items and use them to create a “diversity tree” display for the 100th day of school that celebrated our diverse student body. This project was completely led by students and I was blown away by how they took charge and ownership of it from start to finish.

So, whenever I’m asked why I use project-based learning, I share stories like those above. I describe how powerful PBL has been in helping individualize instruction to address my students’ ability levels and help them acquire English more quickly. I describe how they get so engaged that they want to collaborate with their peers, which is a huge step for an EL student to get over that hurdle. Their excitement helps them stretch outside of their comfort zone. I had some students’ parents tell me that their children never wanted to take English class before but are now excited to come to school. I attribute this to project-based learning, and that’s an amazing “why” for teaching with PBL.

Elizabeth Leone is an ESL teacher at Webster Elementary School in the Manchester School District in New Hampshire. The district uses PBLWorks.

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