Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Who said that we cannot do PBL in ESL teaching?

Today, a group of secondary school teachers have questioned the fact that elementary students cannot learn proper English grammar through project working in the ESL class.

I have been teaching English for 25 years, using project working to improve oral and written communication, and I never had a problem with fixing grammar or verb tenses.
Why do I have to use grammar drills if my students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge in the ESL class? Why do I have to teach specific grammar if students are learning by need and they are using it in a real context?

I always carefully plan, manage and assess while allowing some degree of students voice and choice. And what’s more interesting, doing PBL I help students learn key academic content, practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products and presentations in ESL.

Why do I use Project Based Learning in TESL?

  • is intended to teach significant content. Goals for student learning are explicitly derived from content standards and key concepts at the heart of academic disciplines.
  • requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication. To answer a Driving Question and create high-quality work, students need to do much more than remember information. They need to use higher-order thinking skills and learn to work as a team. 
  • requires inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new. Students ask questions, search for answers, and arrive at conclusions, leading them to construct something new: an idea, an interpretation, or a product.
  • is organized around an open-ended Driving Question. This focuses students’ work and deepens their learning by framing important issues, debates, challenges or problems.
  • creates a need to know essential content and skills.  A typical unit with a “project” add-on begins by presenting students with knowledge and concepts and then, once gained, giving students the opportunity to apply them. Project Based Learning begins with the vision of an end product or presentation. 
  • allows some degree of student voice and choice.  The opportunity to make choices, and to express their learning in their own voice, also helps to increase students’ educational engagement.
  • includes processes for revision and reflection. 
  • involves a public audience. Students present their work to other people, beyond their classmates and teacher – in person or online.

Adapted from

 Just two  examples:



  1. First acquire the language and once you're fluent speaking it, then learn the grammar...

    It's been proved that when you're trying to learn non-linguistic content (like in PBL), you acquire more language (including grammar).

    1. Completely agree! I understand when secondary school teachers express concern about the low level of grammar that students demonstrate when they reach secondary school, but children learn the language within a process and a tempo that can not be ignored. Speaking is paramount ... This is how we learnt to speak our mother tongue. When was the first time we did a systematic work about grammar? Grade 1 or 2 hen we were 6 or 7 years old! Learning a language is a long journey, we can not skip any step!

  2. I love the idea of PBL in English-language learning, but I'm struggling with meeting demands of a set curriculum where students are tested on (say) XYZ, and they don't actually need XYZ in their projects. For example, what if the present perfect is coming out on the test, and students' projects do not utilise the present perfect (and thus, there is no opportunity to learn it)? How do you reconcile PBL with standards?

    1. I understand what you mean jaycee, and sometimes this is a big problem if our projects are so "open" that we cannot make a planning. But, as well as we develop a Scaffolding Learning Environment in PBL to ensure that the content reaches the planned goals, we must to design a parallel scaffolding for to ensure the language and grammar students need to communicate their findings and outputs.
      Improving PBL efficiency is to consider content and language in a whole (in the most holistic way!) and we need to have into account not only the grammar for a more spontaneous communication but also the curricular standards. This means to design activities and/or contexts in which the teacher helps to overcome the most common pitfalls and the students have the need to use different parts of the grammar: prepositions, adverbs, comparatives... and verb tenses.
      But there is still a contradiction between the basics of Project Based Learning and Teaching and tests that may not even know a word about PBL!

  3. Your entry was so enlightening! Thanks a lot for sharing! I'm trying to find my way using PBL with upper-secondary students, and your comments were really inspiring.

    1. Thank you Lucy for your appreciation! It is true that secondary students are sometimes more reluctant to carry on projects but we can find some really interesting topics to engage them into research and communication. Thanks again!

  4. I'm very pleased to find this entry!
    I'm a young researcher from Barranquilla, Colombia and I didn't know about it until today reading through the topics of my research but I was thinking it could be the only way teaching could be meaningful in real life. I didn't know it was already a method stablished neither that someone have been already implementated in Foreign language instruction. That's great!

    My project is about "How instruction can best best used to turn signers in better readers"?

    I'm still in the process of writing the draft I already have the experience of 1 year working with deaf students and now I'm trying to find and contrast my experience with theory.

    I would like to be in contact with you and people interested in the topic.
    I have some ideas to apply for the grammar instruction and maybe we can share ideas. My email is Let me know if someday we can chat about it.

    Thanks for your attention

  5. thank you, this is very helpful!