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PBL in the TL FAQ




Project-Based Learning, sometimes also Problem-Based Learning; I prefer Problem because it emphasizes the “meat and potatoes” nature of the goals of PBL projects, as opposed to “dessert” projects that–while fun and engaging for teachers and students–tend not to focus on goals beyond the academic. In PBL, we’re not just tacking on projects for entertainment: they solve something that students find worth solving, and they are intended for a real audience who’s not just there to give them a grade.


Target Language–in my case, Spanish; the ACTFL (more letters!)-designated goal is to spend 90% of class time in the TL. 90% TL is pretty tricky, especially at lower levels, when trying to instill PBL goals as well as a basic working vocabulary.


Buck Institute for Education; this group provides training and materials for educators to implement PBL in their classes. They have planning tools, evaluation tools, and support materials to illustrate the how and why of PBL.


Can novice learners do PBL and stay in the TL?

Yes they can, though definitely with limitations. They need familiar routines and procedures to scaffold the process and are still likely to stray from the 90% TL path, but with the proper foundations, they can still meet communication goals.

How do we structure a PBL unit to marry language and project goals?

Communication should be infused with the routines and procedures as means of achieving the goal. For example,

  • Research = interpretive reading and writing
  • Planning and reflection = interpersonal communication 
  • Presenting finished product = presentational writing and speaking

How do we ensure all students are engaged in meaningful language production?

Again, the question comes down to establishing procedures and routines along with sufficient task scaffolding. We must establish relevant vocabulary and expression to discuss both the project planning process and the ultimate presentation goal. Then we can combine that language with routine schemas, procedures like conversation cards, interview “scripts,” and peer review discussions.

How do we incorporate local goals (grammatical structures, vocabulary, textbooks) into projects?

Traditional language goals related to grammatical structures, vocabulary lists, and textbook chapters are a fact of life in so many districts. While their study can be at odds with a PBL-focused curriculum, the two approaches are  not mutually exclusive. Use the lists and rules as guides when designing a driving question. If you must teach past tenses, select a topic that focuses on narration of past events or reflection activities where using the past tense makes sense. If the reflexive or daily routines are mandated, choose an audience where exchanging such information would be engaging and purposeful.

How do we ensure all students engage in project development critically and authentically?

Choice is certainly an essential factor here. At first, you may have to assign tasks, roles, and resources, but if students feel empowered to decide the direction they will take the project and–if they can handle it–with whom they’ll collaborate, the buy-in takes care of a lot of issues. And while a little bit of freedom can go a long way, ensuring that students feel confidence in their ability to complete the designated tasks is also essential to engagement. This means they need plenty of practice with both the language and structures they’ll need to complete a given task and the project planning/production skills to see the project through. Believing that they are capable of success is essential to purposeful engagement with the tasks.

How can we facilitate meaningful collaboration?

Collaboration with the community beyond the classroom–local or online–is best served by rehearsed, semi-scripted interactions. In the classroom, establishing standards for collaboration and periodic self/group evaluations over the course of the project help students see how they need to change any unproductive behaviors. Also, once more, establishing routines and procedures for research, planning and presentation help students understand and meet expectations. One procedure that I have found that especially enhances collaboration is the midway and post-project evaluation based on the collaboration evaluation rubric, wherein groups share how they evaluated themselves and others, providing explanations when needed.

How can technology be used to enhance PBL instruction?

Technology is almost essential for meaningful inquiry, in any language. The abundance of authentic resources available to support research is both daunting and exhilarating. Resources available with infographics and other visual context cues are especially useful to language development. Furthermore, tools like Skype and Google Hangouts literally connect our students to audiences around the world. Students can collect information via synchronous meet-ups or asynchronous collaborations through wikis or Twitter or VoiceThread and share their final products through YouTube or Facebook or any number of outlets that broaden their audiences exponentially.

What are some examples of units that have worked before?

Glad you asked! I’ve made a separate page to track the projects I’ve attempted–with varying levels of success–and suggestions to myself for improvement, plus links to further information (where available). I would have listed more, but as I was trying to evaluate them, I realized some projects didn’t really qualify as PBL! The driving question and the ultimate audience are key for ensuring you have a project that is a main course and not just a dessert.

How do we evaluate projects using proficiency goals?

The project themselves are the result of multiple different steps in multiple different modes, and the final presentation is generally the result of all of those. As such, I put equal weight on pretty much every step of the process–including the final product–and instead make my “test grades” IPAs (Integrated Performance Assessments) that help students plan or evaluate their projects at different points during the course of the project.

How do I get started?

I suggest starting with a single unit in a single course. Find an audience that you can connect with for students to present to–bilingual community leaders, parents, classes in other countries or across the country. Nail down a time and a topic that your students can share with your audience, preferably with some contact time in between, so students can get feedback as they go. Then figure out what the benchmarks will be on the way to completion: what do students need to collect, discuss, prepare, and present? Those decisions should guide the language you focus on as you find ways to incorporate the interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational modes at least twice throughout your unit.

Still want to know more?