PBL in the Second-Language Classroom

News from the Integrated Subjects program

May 16, 2022

Project-based learning (PBL) supports research about learning, research about student motivation, and even PNA’s mission. When students complete a PBL project, they feel pride and a sense of accomplishment that is difficult to achieve through a traditional classroom assignment.

As PNA’s teachers would agree, carrying out a PBL project is sometimes daunting. PBL projects typically take months, at least, to go from the idea to the result. There are, as the saying goes, many moving pieces. World language teachers often avoid the PBL process, because a typical PBL project in a language classroom requires students to use too much first language and not enough second language for a project to support language acquisition. 

Enter storytelling, or rather, “story-asking.” Fifth-grade students at PNA recently followed a story-asking project from start to finish. As a group, they collaborated on an entire story. Asking the story meant that students heard questions about the characters over and over. The repetitions in a story-asking allow vocabulary to be cemented in students’ brains, but the repetition is interesting because students are creating together. In this case, students envisioned a family that included a burrito named Taco, his (?) father, a Taco, and his mother, another burrito. Taco had a bean for a pet and a friend named Sam. Neither one liked to do homework. It was silly, but as students contributed ideas, they enjoyed their classmates’ creativity. 

As the class created the story, we would write it on the board, in notebooks, and on paper, adding more visual support for language. Slowly it took shape, and when it was finally finished (if a story can ever be truly finished), each student got a copy to illustrate. They practiced reading the story with the entire group, in pairs, and finally got to share the story with an audience: second-graders. 

This particular project is very small, especially when compared with the larger PBL projects that the homeroom classes have presented this year. But it shows off the ways that such a project can meet goals of a strong language program and those of PNA at the same time. The focus on comprehensible repetitive language, writing, and reading support the research on acquisition while allowing for differentiation in a group of mixed levels. Story-asking and illustration support research on student motivation and autonomy. And sharing with others fits the PBL requirement for addressing an audience. Students develop confidence to use their second language and have the opportunity to share their individual contributions through their artwork. Finally, the project met the teacher’s goal of returning to a pre-pandemic, multi-age-level grouping. Such grouping is a large part of what makes PNA students into a family of learners.