Looking at the Bigger Picture: 7 Tips for Using Project Based Learning in the ESL Classroom

Looking at the Bigger Picture: 7 Tips for Using Project Based Learning in the ESL Classroom

Not everything we do in school is for the end result.

Sometimes the process of getting there is more valuable than the final project itself. That’s the idea behind project based learning. It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey. And sending your ESL students on that type of a journey can be great for their language learning. Learning English is about using it, after all. So if you’re unfamiliar with project based learning, here are the basics along with some tips for implementing it in the ESL classroom.

What Is Project Based Learning?

Project based learning is a process through which students grow in their knowledge and experience. They are given a real life problem to solve. And together with their classmates, they determine what steps are necessary to find a solution to that problem and then take the steps to get there. It is not just about accumulating information. Project based learning is about working together, solving problems, and presenting solutions to an audience. If you haven’t noticed already, these are all different types of communication, which is the primary goal of learning English, and that’s what makes project based learning great for ESL students.

What Does Project Based Learning Entail?

Generally, for a project based lesson, you will go through the following six steps.

  1. The teacher present students with the problem to be solved.
  2. Students determine the information they will need and what steps are necessary to solve the problem.
  3. Students make a plan for getting that information.
  4. Students research the problem.
  5. Students determine the best, creative solution to the problem.
  6. Students present their solution to an audience using a multimedia approach.

Why Is Project Based Learning Good for ESL Students?

The beauty of working with ESL students in project base learning is that you can do your project on just about any topic that interests your students. If you were teaching chemistry, for example, you would be limited in the topics you might assign to your students. Because most ESL classes don’t have to cover any particular content, you are free to tap into your students’ interests and passions when you assign a problem. This will instantly increase their involvement and investment in the project.

Everything is connected. When you do traditional lessons in the ESL class, it’s not unusual to separate reading from speaking from grammar from listening. That’s not how language works in the real world. Everything is mixed together in a haphazard manner, focused on the function of language rather than the different aspects of it. In real life English, the lines aren’t clearly defined. And that means that approaching language in PBL may be challenging at first because it is so much all at once. But this is how English is going to treat them in the real world, so blending the lines actually makes things better for students in the long run.

Project based learning depends on successful communication at every step in the process, and that should be our greatest goal in our ESL classes – getting students to communicate with English. Since they are continually talking to each other, reading research, and planning how to present information to the class as they reach for the best solution to their problem, they are communicating continually.

What Makes a Good Problem for Project Based Learning?

The problem you present to your students should have the following qualities.

  • It should have more than one right answer.
  • It should be an authentic problem in a real life setting.
  • If you are teaching advanced students, it should mirror a problem they will face once they are outside the classroom.

What Is the Teacher’s Role in Project Based Learning?

It may be tempting to give students an extensive assignment and then sit back and work on lesson plans while they complete the steps you have outlined, but your role in project based learning should be far more active than that. While the end result of the project is important, it is not the most important part of the process for your ESL students. How they approach and accomplish the goals related to the assignment is the point of this type of learning in ESL classes.

This means that your role throughout the process is to be continually checking in with your students, offering your observations on their performance, and giving them direction to reach a successful conclusion. You should be facilitating the entire process for your students. This is where your communication becomes so important. You should be meeting with students on a regular basis to check in on their progress and offer guidance. But consider a more frequent interaction than formal evaluations. Have students sent you status reports (a great way to include some business writing in the assignment) or even an informal email saying what they have accomplished, what their next goal is, and any problems they are having. A simple email isn’t too much to do every day, and you will have a great read on where your students are at throughout out the entire project.

7 Tips for Successful Implementation of Project Based Learning in the ESL Classroom

  1. Set a schedule or series of goals for students to accomplish throughout the project.
  2. Give students a choice of how they will present the information to the class. (For example, write and produce a film, give an in class presentation with visuals, create a fictional newspaper, etc.) Ask students for input on how they would like to present their solution to the class.
  3. If you plan on doing more than one project with your class, require them to do a different type of presentation for each problem.
  4. Consider having students keep a blog on the project, their process solving the problem, and the results. You can do this on a class blog or have individuals set up their own blogs on free blog sites.
  5. Invite feedback from the public or those knowledgeable about the topic on your students’ final presentations.
  6. Give your students feedback throughout the process. Don’t wait till the end and just assign a grade for the completed project.
  7. Guide students through the process. Continually meet with them to evaluate how they are addressing the checklist. Give them guidance on how they might better accomplish their goals. Help them periodically set new goals as needed.

We ESL teachers and our students can get in the habit of thinking language is the end goal.

And when you look at a given semester or school year that may be relatively accurate. But when you look at the larger picture, the one that expands beyond your classroom walls into the rest of your students’ lives, English is a means to an end. It is a tool for accomplishing other things. Whether it’s social interaction, academic success, business success, or something else, your students will be using English to reach other goals. With project based learning, you bring that big picture attitude into how you teach and how your students learn.

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