Project Based Learning

This article, based on material originally used in our Delta Module One course, focuses on Project Based Learning and asks about...

a) the advantages of using PBL

b) the potential problems and, where possible, solutions

 The Advantages of Using PBL

1. There is nothing that is liable to be on the syllabus which can’t be covered in a project.PBL is topic based and can therefore give both massed and distributed practice (Stevick) to the language associated with a specific topic (particularly lexis). However, it is also an integrated skills activity, potentially involving the development of all four skills and all four language systems. 


2. PBL is often done with Ls working in pairs or groups. This collaboration involves them not only in using the language of the topic, but also in using language to decide on content, negotiate who will do what, and generally organise the project. A broad range of functions and subskills are therefore covered.


3. A PW/GW project also means that the learners need to develop collaborative skills – which may be particularly important in a Young Learners’ class where the teacher is arguably not “just” an English teacher but also an educator who has to include general educational objectives in the course.


4. Other general educational skills that can be developed through PBL include:

  • The development of autonomous study skills such as research skills, time management etc. 
  • Higher Order Thinking Skills (Bloom)

Again, these are of particular value with young learners in a learning context where the focus is on education as well as just language learning.


5. PBL provides both for input (in the research stages) and output (in the planning and execution of the project) of language. It therefore satisfies the criteria of both input and output based theories of acquisition (eg input based, Krashen; output based– Swain).


6. PBL can increase motivation on the course by allowing Ls to work on topics of personal interest which might not be covered by a textbook. Ls (whether YLS or adults) can choose a project which reflects a particular hobby that they have, or work on the biography of a person who particularly interests them, etc. They will therefore be engaged by the content and by finding out how concepts related to the topic are expressed in English. For example, a group of pony-mad primary learners might not learn anything they didn’t already know about pony-care, but would be highly engaged in finding out how to discuss it in English. This engagement is liable to mean the language is processed at greater cognitive depth (and is therefore retained more effectively) than language that just occurs in a coursebook but has no personal relevance to the learner.


7. Similarly, projects allow the T. to cater for differing needs within the same group. They can be particularly useful in eg a university setting, with pre-sessional course students who will all be working in different academic fields. Working individually on a project allows them:

  • To concentrate on the language of their own academic subject, and the genre features of papers, presentations etc in that subject, which may well be different from those of the other participants.
  • To focus on the task types that will be important on their course, and the study skills needed to perform them – eg reading research which forms the basis of  a written paper or tutorial presentation.


8. Projects can cater to multiple intelligences (Gardner).  In every class, there will be learners who may not be the strongest in the class in terms of English, but can make other valuable contributions to the project. For example, projects will have a final product which in the case of young learners might be for instance a poster presentation. The layout and illustrations for this can be planned by Ls with visual-spatial intelligence. Alternatively, learners with a high musical intelligence (or an intelligence related to any other academic subject) can work on a project related to that.


9. Gearing the projects towards the specific intelligences of the learners will also enhance the quality of the final product and add to the learners’ self- esteem. This can be maximised if the work is displayed on a classroom noticeboard, or in the school corridors where it can be seen by other students, teachers and parents. This will have a positive effect on motivation towards the course and learning English in general.


10. PBL is a Constructivist (Vygotsky et al) and Experiential (Dewey et al) learning approach . “Learning by doing” is likely to mean that the information (in our case the language) is processed at a deeper level of cognitive depth than otherwise, and is therefore more likely to be retained.


11. PBL can add variety to an otherwise textbook-based course. This occasional change of focus can keep learners motivated towards participating in the course. In a state school setting where learners have an hour’s lesson every day, two days a week might be dedicated to PBL and the project developed gradually over the term; in a private language school where Ls attend only, eg, four hours a week, the month mid-course might be devoted to a project to give a “break” from the normal lesson format.


Potential Problems and Solutions


12. Problem: Level of language and cognitive abilities required:  PBL may not be possible at beginner level and with very young learners who lack the cognitive abilities needed to carry out the project. Solution: However, even with this latter group, very simple “show and tell” activities can be used which are the first step towards PBL.


13. Problem: The T may lack the content knowledge necessary to create, scaffold and evaluate the project effectively. This might be the case with the group of EAP students described in point 7. Solution:  In this case, however,  if the Ls were doing the course at the university the English language teacher could liaise with the lecturers on the courses that the students would be doing, who could suggest what projects might be suitable, the different steps, and the required final outcome. If the English teacher was unfamiliar with the genre features specific to texts etc that academic subject, the lecturers could also provide examples for analysis and answer questions such as “What are the expected sections of a paper in this subject? /What citation and referencing style is expected?” etc.  The final evaluation of the project could also be carried out collaboratively, with the lecturer responsible for evaluating the content and the teacher the language.


14. Problem: Ls cultural expectations. Ls from cultures such as China, Vietnam or various other Asian countries may be used to a T-led, input-based approach to learning, may be frustrated by the lack of a structured approach to language that PBL entails, and may lack the autonomous learning skills necessary to complete the project willingly or successfully. Solution: In this situation, a high degree of scaffolding is initially needed. The T needs to plan each step of the project and provide input on how it should be carried out – both in terms of the procedures and the language needed. In subsequent projects, the scaffolding can be gradually removed – eg in the first, Ls would be told the topic and objectives of the project; in the second, they would be given a choice of three different projects; and finally they would be asked to decide on a project for themselves.


15. Problem: Time.  Unless PBL is the “official” approach for the whole course, it means taking time away from a syllabus that may have been set by other people – eg an approach common in many private language schools where Ls buy a textbook and the T. is expected to eg cover a two page spread in each lesson. Not only the school management may complain if this is not done, but also the Ls, who feel that they have bought a coursebook which the course “should” be based on, but that they are not going to finish it. Solution: Introducing PBL in this situation could only be done if the T. could negotiate the syllabus and approach with both management and the Ls, and convince both of its usefulness as a supplement to coursebook based lessons.