5 Ways PBL Can Benefit ELLs

Summer vacation has just begun, but that doesn’t mean a teacher’s brain isn’t still in school, reflecting on practice in a most challenging year; thinking about how to improve instruction when they return to the classroom in August. Among those considerations could be how to best meet the needs of the more than 5 million English Language Learners (ELLs) in U.S. schools. In some states, ELLs make up nearly 20 percent of the school population. They come with unique needs and varying literacy skill levels. Project-based learning (PBL) can be an excellent tool to facilitate deep learning in those for whom new language acquisition is an added challenge.

Here are 5 ways PBL can benefit ELLs:

  1. Collaboration enhances communication. Understandably, ELLs can be shy about talking in front of a whole class if they lack confidence in their English speaking skills. Small group activities, a hallmark feature of PBL, allow for the practice of valuable literacy skills – listening and speaking – and provide ELLs with a chance to gain confidence in their oral communication skills. Partnering ELLs with their native English-speaking peers creates a safe environment for students to use their newly acquired language skills.
  2.  Building bridges between languages and cultures. The element of choice with PBL can easily translate into creating a culturally rich assignment for students. When students are encouraged to apply their problem-solving skills to real-world issues, they may choose something from their home country to investigate or use the task to learn about their new environment. This promotes engagement and also global awareness for all students. ELLs can provide a unique perspective on their native culture that becomes a learning experience for everyone in the class.
  3. Connecting with content knowledge. PBL offers more than simply a quick breeze through a new lesson followed by a multiple-choice quiz. Instead, students spend time with the material, navigating through various assignments on their way to solving a problem. In this case, ELLs are reinforced with new content-area vocabulary, learning, and applying their understanding right away and for a sustained period of time. Throughout this process, ELLs are building understanding and vocabulary.
  4. Highlighting hands-on. Even where communication gaps may hinder an ELL’s ability to convey their full understanding of a topic, hands-on learning provides students the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding through other mechanisms – by building, digital design, photography, and more. With multiple ways to differentiate instruction, teachers using PBL can easily create high-interest projects that will challenge learners.
  5. Revision reaps rewards. Among the Gold-Standards of PBL design are project points that allow for critique and revision, read: more opportunities for ELLs to reflect on their work and continue to learn and grow as they make improvements. In this way, new language learners are able to hone their craft. The chance to go back and revise encourages students to take risks and builds confidence.

    English Language Learners bring unique challenges, added perspective, and diversity into the classroom. By providing the right instructional tools, teachers can help bridge the gaps between native languages and English, all while providing students with meaningful opportunities to learn and grow.

Joy Carey teaches eighth-grade English for Arlington Public Schools in Virginia. A middle school teacher for 19 years, Joy is currently working on her EdD in Educational Leadership. Find her on Twitter @joymswriter.


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