Project-Based Learning: A Beneficial Approach for English Language Learners

Friday, December 16, 2016
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Project-based learning is a popular teaching practice built around student-driven projects, done either independently or collaboratively, that are often shared with one or more groups of students. This way, students are encouraged to learn by doing, which may lead to more interest, excitement, and energy in the classroom.

The question is, can this practice apply to ELL students, too?

The answer is a resounding yes. In 2012, for example, education practitioners from Stanford University launched a new initiative, “Learning English in action,” designed to help classroom teachers of English learners embrace and incorporate the Common Core State Standards. Moving beyond the more traditional practice of focusing on vocabulary and other aspects of language acquisition, the Stanford initiative goes a step further by outlining ways for students to “show what they know.” This particular effort was connected to ELA standards, and, as one example, included an assignment asking students to do a “deep dive” into the Gettysburg Address.


After wrestling with Lincoln’s famous Civil War speech, students would then delve into other challenging documents, such as Martin Luther King Jr's “I Have a Dream” speech. Finally, students would be given the chance to create their own persuasive texts, after working closely with their teachers and their peers. Stanford education professor Kenji Hakuta described the benefits of this approach with enthusiasm, saying this collaborative model “speeds up students’ language acquisition” by moving the classroom “beyond the old, sequential mode of teaching grammar and then having students apply their language knowledge to the real world.”  


The Stanford approach is designed for students who are at the intermediate level with their English language skills. So, what should teachers do when they are working with students at various other levels of language acquisition, who may walk into the classroom knowing only a word or two of English? In New York City, for example, students at one high school arrive with a rainbow-like array of native languages, making English—regardless of skill level—the common classroom language. An instructive article for teachers, “Mastering English through project-based learning,” describes just such a classroom and walks teachers through a sample lesson.

The lesson aims to help students grasp the scientific concept of hydroponics—growing plants without soil. The teacher, Jordan Wolf, groups students together at small tables and then puts them to work helping one another “label drawings with leaves, stems, nodes, and soil, all in English.” The idea is to help the students develop a working definition of the word “structure” by seeing how it applies to a “spindly green bean shoot” situated before them in a cup of soil.


The article describes a joyously thriving classroom of students engaged in conversation in English. Science teacher Schwerta Ratra points out that although the students become “tongue-tied” when asked to address the whole class, they are lively and talkative in their small groups. The benefit is that these ELL students are learning vocabulary and other language skills while working together and poring over meaningful content.


Project-based learning puts ELLs at the center of dynamic teaching practices, casting students as active agents in their own learning. This is a departure from previous teaching practices, according to Ratra, who says frankly, “We have evolved as teachers.”

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