Project-Based Instruction: Writing Grant Proposals

Joshua P. Miekley describes his method of using proposal writing as an authentic, service-based communicative activity with adult EFL learners in Kosovo. See Dorothy Zemach's Communities of Practice column, "The Mystery of the Perfect Method," Essential Teacher, October 2009.

After a few semesters of assigning narratives and expository essays to first-year college students at the University of Prishtina, in Kosovo, I decided to design a writing project that would provide students with tasks that they were likely to do again after graduation. Although most of the students were being trained to become English language teachers, many of them would be seeking jobs as translators, interpreters, or employees of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). As I considered various projects, I asked myself, "What writing tasks are students likely to perform in the future? What type of project would help meet their academic needs?"

I chose a grant proposal project for a number of reasons. First, there would be a clear connection between the skills students were learning in the English classroom and the world outside the classroom. Local NGOs are constantly seeking employees who are fluent in English to write grant proposals, and the salary for employees at these NGOs is twice as high as that of public school teachers. Second, this project would combine a series of writing tasks that had previously been completed in a number of different assignments. Students would continue to summarize and describe, and they would also edit their resumes and prepare cover letters, yet all of these tasks would now be connected. Finally, I knew that students would be interested in it. Each semester, when I had proposed the topic "What would you do for your community if you had $100,000," the discussions were so vigorous that I was constantly looking for ways to expand on it.

Description of the Tasks

I chose the following components for the grant proposal format: abstract, organizational information, problem description, project description (including work plan/specific activities, a timeline, and the projected outcomes/impact of activities), method of evaluation, and budget. I provided explicit instructions for how to write each section, and we looked at examples of each section in class.

When I introduced the project and divided students into groups, they immediately began discussing problems in the capital city and what needed to be done about these problems. I asked students to choose projects that could be accomplished by international or local NGOs that were already operating in Kosovo. They obtained information about the organizations they were focusing on by visiting a local office or searching for the information on the Web.

For the next few weeks, students worked on the project, which involved writing individual sections, engaging in peer review, and preparing an oral presentation (see the Appendix for a sample schedule).

Benefits for Students

Connecting English With Problems Outside the Classroom

One group decided to write a proposal for a project that entailed building handicap-accessible entrances to public places in the capital city. After brainstorming a number of places in this category, they chose the university hospital, the national theater, and a state park as the top priorities. They visited these places, took pictures, made measurements, and calculated construction costs.

Taking on the role of the organization Women for Women, another group decided to target uneducated women living in villages below the poverty line. Their final project proposal requested funds for an art show where their organization would display embroidery made by these woman. The goal of the show was to connect these women with potential buyers.

One student in the class had worked for an NGO that held a summer camp with youth from various ethnic groups with the goal of racial reconciliation. His group reevaluated the way money was spent on this project.

Experience With Different Writing Tasks

In previous semesters, I had often needed to assign two or three writing assignments in order to provide students with ample practice writing in various tenses, but with the grant proposal project, they received this practice in one assignment. In the organizational information section, they used the past tense to describe projects that their organization had accomplished. The problem description involved the present and present perfect. And the method of evaluation gave them practice in the future tense.

The project also provided a context for teaching different methods of organizing writing. The problem description required students to structure paragraphs based on cause and effect. The work plan in the project description was organized chronologically. And the abstract and organizational information sections gave them practice summarizing.

Additionally, students were forced to make changes in their individual sections so that the entire proposal put together by their group could be read as one coherent document and not just a series of sections slapped together.

Increased Motivation for Peer Review

During the peer review sessions for this project, I noticed that as students read their classmates' writing, they were asking themselves questions such as these: How can this thought be stated more clearly and succinctly? What else would a potential reader want to know about this topic? Whereas past peer review sessions had yielded some results, with this project students were motivated to read their classmates' writing more thoroughly and to advise them more precisely.

Connection With Moral and Social Issues

As students were submitting their second draft, one stated an objection: "Our group is going to be penalized because student X hasn't made any changes." Because this was the first time that these students had worked together on a project that would be graded, we discussed the importance of being an effective team member and the options for dealing with a team member who does not complete the necessary work.

Accountability in spending was another issue that was mentioned. One project involved donating computers to a local high school and providing technology training to the staff. The students stated outcomes that related to the benefits of using instructional technology in the classroom. When asked what method they would use to evaluate the impact of the project, they replied, "We know the computers will be used." Because some people involved in NGOs had misused humanitarian aid to further personal interests, a law had recently been passed in Kosovo requiring all NGOs to pay import taxes regardless of whether the import was for public benefit. In the ensuing discussion, students talked about the need for accountability. They also developed a method for evaluating the impact of their project by means of follow-up questionnaires and interviews with the school staff and student body.

Students' Evaluation of the Project

As I sat down with students for coffee at the end of the semester to conduct an informal evaluation of the course, I asked them, "What did you like most about the course? What activity or assignment was the most useful?" One student responded, "The grant proposal project was very helpful because it helped us think about how we can use English to help our country." Another student stated, "It was the first time that I used English for something that is really useful."

Additional Perspectives

It has recently been noted that there is often a mismatch between teaching and learning styles when native English speakers work as EFL instructors (see "Reflecting on Native-English-Speaking Teachers in China," Essential Teacher, March 2008). I found that the grant proposal provided a balance between my desire to teach using a communicative approach and students' custom of learning language through lectures. This project does involve using English for communication and interacting with authentic texts, but students who are used to a teacher-centered approach in the classroom would not feel that the teacher is going to an extreme by asking them to write a grant proposal.

Because the project and writing tasks involved are specific in nature, teachers should be careful to avoid the danger of assigning a project that is "too broadly focused for successful student writing within the classroom context" (Reid & Kroll, 1995, p. 29). Students are able to choose the goal, but each section of the grant proposal contains a clear task with certain parameters that must be followed to complete the task.

Although this grant proposal project was originally designed for a university course in an EFL context, a project such as this would yield many of the same benefits for ESL students in the United States as well. Students would gain experience in different types of writing, make connections between the classroom and real life, and likely be more highly motivated in peer review sessions. Additionally, recent research on content-based instruction at the college level has shown that this type of instruction not only improves learning outcomes in the ESL classroom, but also has an impact on students’ learning in other courses (James, 2008).

References

James, M. A. (2008). Transfer of learning from a university content-based EAP course. TESOL Quarterly, 40, 783–806.

Reid, J. M., & Kroll, B. (1995). Designing and assessing effective classroom writing assignments for NES and ESL students. Journal of Second Language Writing, 4, 17–41.

Joshua P. Miekley (jbmiekley@gmail.com) is a teacher training coordinator at the Lincoln Center, in Tirana, Albania.

Appendix: Sample Schedule for Grant Proposal Project

Week 1: The instructor introduces the project components. Look at a sample grant proposal. Divide students into groups.

Week 2: The instructor explains how to write the organizational information and the problem description sections. Each group decides on a problem, and each group member chooses a section to write. Students begin to write the first draft of their section.

Week 3: The instructor explains how to write the project description, method of evaluation, and budget. Give examples of cause-effect writing and writing organized on a chronological basis. Give instruction on peer review and practice in class.

Week 4: The instructor explains how to write the abstract. Students submit the first rough draft of all other sections. Students review each other's first draft. The instructor meets with each group to discuss problem areas.

Week 5: The instructor explains how to write a résumé and cover letter. Students submit their second draft, including changes made after receiving feedback from other students.

Week 6: Lecture: How to go from a written proposal to an oral presentation. Students receive their second draft with the instructor’s comments. Students review each other's résumés and the group's cover letter.

Week 7: The instructor meets with each student to discuss comments and areas for improvement.

Weeks 8 and 9: Oral presentations

Week 10: Students submit the final draft of their proposal.