By Yvette Ramirez
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 4.5 million public school students (9.3 percent) were English language learners (ELLs) in the 2013-2014 school year. This means that almost 1 in 10 students have the difficult challenge of learning the English language at the same time he or she is learning academic subjects.
At the school where I teach, we have 165 students who speak 32 different languages. A common approach to teaching these ELL students is to pair a student with stronger language skills with a struggling student. I’ve found that Project-Based Learning (PBL) is an extremely effective method of facilitating this kind of collaborative learning. PBL gives students an opportunity to dive deep into a topic and really spend time with it. They also get to practice their language skills in a variety of ways including listening to and watching videos, reading articles, and writing their own content.
Here are 3 tips for using PBL to engage K-12 English language learners:
Utilize digital solutions
I use a web-based resource, Defined STEM, to implement PBL lessons. Defined STEM provides hundreds of engaging, relevant, cross-curricular performance tasks. The students can access the lesson directions and rubrics in many different languages, but all of the articles, videos and other supporting content are in English. This helps the students feel comfortable that they understand the directions by reading them in their own languages, but challenges them to use their English skills to complete the assignments. Without the help of a digital supplementary curriculum tool, it would have been much harder to do these types of complex, lengthy PBL projects. All of the resources are there and designed to support English language learners.
Engage students with real-world performance tasks
ELL students have influences from all around the world and finding projects that allow them to incorporate a piece of their native background helps engage them. The performance task that generated the most excitement and engagement in my classroom was Defined STEM’s task titled “Culinary Artist: Sustainability”. The Developmental Language Arts class, which is for students who speak very little English, worked on the project. The goal of the project was for students to create their own farm to table restaurant, including deciding where to locate the restaurant geographically, what to farm, how to farm, and ultimately what the menu would be. Defined STEM has a lot of articles and videos within students’ Lexile levels that helped them get started but then they had to go find additional resources outside of Defined STEM. Students research healthy recipes and figured out what kind of gardens they needed and where in the country they needed their gardens to grow. The Culinary Artist project culminated in students presenting the commercials and TV interviews they created that showcased their unique farm-to-table concepts. Their influences from around the world was show in their menu and food choices. Even though the project helped them build their English skills and gain knowledge about American culture and geography, the students still were able to incorporate a bit of home.
Offer student’s a choice
Offering my students options builds their confidence, independence, and creativity. Defined STEM allows me to offer my students a variety of PBL topics they can choose from. In addition, the performance tasks have several end products they can create; brochures, audio and video news broadcasts or commercials, etc. I require my students to create one written, one oral, and one digital product for each project – how they create those is up to them. This taps into all four language domains: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. I provide samples that come with the Defined Stem project, but if a tech savvy student has another idea… I say go for it!
Combining technology with real-world PBL lessons makes the projects exciting for these students so when the work gets tough, they persevere because they’re totally engaged. The Culinary Artist projects is a great example – the students worked hard and really deepened their understanding not only of English but of technology, geography, math, and so much more. They were so proud of themselves and that is exactly how I want my students to be.