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Project-Based Language Learning for Writing

by Betsy Gilliland |

What do the following situations have in common?

    • High school students interview senior citizens in their community about what their hometown was like 50 years ago, write up the stories, and create a book that is shared with the elders and with primary school children studying local history.
    • University students research the challenges international students at their college face during their first semester, investigate resources available on campus and in town to address those challenges, and create a website that the university’s international student services office can share with prospective students before they arrive.
    • Adult immigrant English as a second language students consult with their neighbors about home remedies for common ailments, replicate the remedies and carefully measure the ingredients, and create an interactive ebook with recipes for treating everyday illnesses in culturally diverse ways.

If you noticed that these were all writing projects that (1) required learners to get out in their communities, talking to people, and (2) culminated in products that can be of value to both the learners and other people, you are already picking up on some of the key elements of what makes project-based language learning (PBLL) different from many of the other tasks we assign in our writing classes. In this blog post, I describe some other features of PBLL and suggest some resources where you can learn more about this amazing approach to language teaching.

Project-Based Learning and Project-Based Language Learning

PBLL is derived from project-based learning (PBL), an approach to teaching that engages learners in investigating and creating projects (products and presentations) that require them to draw on skills and knowledge for real-world purposes. These projects may be designed to help a local community, visitors to the students’ hometown, or communities far away. In PBLL, the language students are learning should play a key role in the process and final product.

Many of us may remember doing “projects” in our school classes. These were, however, often what the PBL literature calls “dessert” projects — projects that we did on our own, as homework, after we had read the textbook and taken the unit test. The opposite of a dessert project is a project that encompasses some or all of a learning unit (from a few weeks to a full semester); students learn new content and create products during class time, as the main part of the unit, not as an add-on after the end of the unit. These projects are collaborative, not individual, and driven by students’ authentic curiosity and critical thinking.

PBLL has several defining features:

    • Driving question or problem statement: Each project should be focused on answering a core question that is important to the students and to the world. These questions are not textbook-type questions with one right answer. In fact, the best projects are those for which even the teacher does not know the answer. Through their investigation, the students become the experts in the topic, with the teacher acting as a guide and resource rather than an all-knowing expert.
    • Sustained inquiry: A good project engages students in investigation of the topic over an extended period of time. It requires more than just internet and book research, as the answers are often held by people in the community. In addition, the inquiry is driven by students’ questions, so as they learn more, they may realize they need to ask additional questions to continue the process.
    • Student voice and choice in process and products: Unlike many class assignments, where the teacher decides the topic and the final product, PBLL should give students some say in what they are doing with the project. This may mean they choose the topic or driving questions, select the inquiry processes, or decide on the form of the final product.
    • Reflection: Throughout the project process, students should have opportunities to reflect on what they are learning and how it is going. Depending on the class, students might reflect orally in discussion with each other, or they might reflect in writing.
    • Opportunities for critique and revision: From early in the project, students should get feedback on their ideas, plans, and drafts from peers, teachers, and outside mentors. Feedback should be focused on helping them move forward with the project and understand how to frame the final product for its intended audience.
    • Public product shared in presentation or publication: No matter what type of final product students create, they should be aware that it is meant for an audience beyond their teacher. When the product is completed, they can invite members of the community that they hope will use the product to attend a presentation in which they explain what they have made and how it can be useful.

For more information about “Gold Standard” PBL, check out the PBL Works website. The organization offers resources and training for teachers of all subject areas.

Thinking about PBLL, it is important to keep in mind that the language students learn should be determined by the project and not the other way around. What I mean is that to complete the project — its driving questions, inquiry process, and final product — students will need to use certain grammatical structures and vocabulary. Language should be used for communication (information gathering, product creation, and presentation to end users) rather than passing a test.

This is not to say that you can’t focus on specific language structures or vocabulary sets — in fact, as the teacher, you should anticipate what language students will need in order to succeed in the project and make sure they have opportunities to learn and practice it. But as you are planning to introduce a project in your class, make sure you think through what language students will need and whether they are at an appropriate level to learn and use it.

Where Does Writing Fit in a PBLL Class?

Writing is an integral part of most if not all stages of PBLL. In terms of getting started, if you are asking your students to brainstorm driving questions and problems they might address in their projects, they can engage in reflective writing. Then, as they start planning and doing their projects, writing is everywhere: They need to develop a plan for all the steps they will take, they need to write request emails to people they will interview, they need to take notes on articles they read and events they observe…

As they engage in their process, students can read each other’s written texts and provide feedback, helping their classmates move forward with their work. In addition, the final product quite likely will involve writing in some way. Some products are entirely written, in the form of multimodal websites or brochures, and other products are partially written, such as scripts for films or slide decks for oral presentations.

Integrating PBLL Writing in a Set Curriculum

Perhaps a bigger challenge is how you might integrate PBLL into an established non-project-based curriculum. You may be teaching in a program where you are required to cover certain aspects of a coursebook, or to assign certain writing topics, or to prepare students for a common final exam. These requirements cannot be ignored. But you could still integrate the qualities of PBLL into smaller projects that nevertheless engage students in authentic writing for real community members.

One language teacher, for example, noticed that there were increasing numbers of newcomers in her community who were taking evening strolls across her college’s beautiful campus, speaking in the language she was teaching. Her first-year language students needed to learn the contents of their coursebook, which covered topics like colors, directions, and common places around campus and town. She recognized a perfect project that would allow her students to use their basic language knowledge to share what they knew about their campus with the town’s newcomers, who wanted to learn more about where they were now living. The teacher designed a project where her students would create digital guidebooks to describe the campus and its history in the language the newcomers spoke at home.

Although your students may not have extensive vocabulary or grammar knowledge, they can combine photographs and video with simple written sentences, practicing their coursebook language while creating authentic and useful texts.

If you are interested in learning more about PBLL and how you can integrate projects into your teaching, keep an eye out for the next iteration of the MOOC “Envisioning PBLL” and check out the other resources available from the National Foreign Language Resource Center.

With thanks to the world language teachers who took part in the 2023 PBLL Summer Institute, some of whose ideas for projects I have summarized here, and to Susan Gaer, who introduced me to the home remedy website her students had created many years ago.

About the author

Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.

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