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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A question about PBL

A question about PBL

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Hi all, a colleague recently sent me a question that may be of interest to others, so let me post the question first, then pass on an answer! Here is the question: Hi Don! I am still trying to understand PBL and I am struggling. I have been reading a lot about PBL, and I see many great things about it. But I seem to have problem visualizing how class runs on a daily basis. How do they practice vocabulary? How do they practice sentence/ conversation? Do you mind sharing your lesson plan if you have one written? How can I make sure that students are practicing the target language? I just can't see my students really practicing the language while they are working on the project....I can see them discussing in English and just carrying on conversation in English...But they will memorize their parts for the project and that will be the only time they use the target language.... Am I just afraid to lose control?

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Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Dear friends,

No, you have all the same questions every language teacher has. Hang in there!

I don't worry a lot about them using target language while working on the project. They do learn a lot of language by working together on building the product. Remember that the 90% language rule applies to us, not necessarily to them. I move from group to group to ask and answer questions and I stay in target language nearly 100% of the time. This is a good way to check on formative processes, to do further comprehensible input, and to make sure they are on track with the project.

I do still have kids working on vocabulary and syntax, but rather than use the same old textbook exercises, I create a wiki page of vocab games, videos on the theme vocabulary and language patterns I want them to practice, etc. I have found a lot of games in French. I am not sure what there is in some other languages, but I predict that there are a number of options available for most of the commonly taught languages, like Spanish, Japanese, German and Italian. Perhaps some of our readers will have some things to suggest..

My basic daily lesson design looks like this: I provide my comprehensible input as always, ie, i tell a story, and check for understanding with yes/no, either/or, true/false and fill in questions, then move to open ended questions. Sometimes my entry doc for the project is part of the comp input (like a digital story, for example).

Afterwards, the students get some time to use the wiki page to work on vocabulary and structures. I often create a graphic organizer to guide them through the wiki material, which gives them a study guide for the unit. Sometimes I embed a story on the page using SlideShare, for example, and I may also embed a Google form so they can submit answers to comprehension questions on the story. I also use the Know/Need to know chart to help them see what they have learned; we move things to the know column once we have learned the material under the need to know list.

As they work in their groups of four to create the project, they have the opportunity to go deeper with the material. I don't mind that they may converse in something other than the target language while doing the project. Often their comments to each other are useful for clarification of details about the language, the culture or the use of the technology they are using. I continue to move around the room to ask and answer questions in target language during this stage.

After the project is complete and presented, I do proficiency assessments of spontaneous language, in both oral and written forms, and in all three modes: presentational, interpretive and interpersonal. These are the real life assessments of their communicative competency as a result of doing the projects. I have rubrics for these assessments, as well as for the PBL content and the four 21st Century Skills: communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.

There are still some days in my class which look a lot like the way we are used to teaching, but not everyday. I still present material, though usually in the target language, and for shorter amounts of time. I still have students to guided and independant practice, not so much with a textbook, though On occasion I do use a textbook as well. I still organize communication activities for practicing both oral and written language.

The thing about the projects in the PBL model is that they are mostly about student engagement more than anything else. Yes, I care about the content and the standards, as well as the 21st century skills, and so on. Mostly, however, I create group PBL style projects to help students let go of apathy, gain more control of their own learning, become more self-directed and purposeful, and exercise voice and choice in the process. By letting go more, by giving students more control, they learn more, more deeply, more thoroughly, and they have more fun as well. This is a big part of why I love PBL!

I hope this helps, but please feel free to follow up with more questions and commenta If you have more! I will be glad to hear from you, as well as all the other readers on our forum!

Best wishes, everyone!


Patricia's picture

Thank you, Don, you're a great source of information. I am in the same place as the person who wrote the question on PBL. I have taught for over twenty years in a traditional style and am trying to update my teaching to incorporate more technology. One of the courses I am taking suggests PBL, but I had a hard time envisioning how to use this for language lessons and still cover the required vocabulary and grammar. Your description of your classes was helpful. Also, a blog entry you of yours at http://www.edutopia.org/blog/world-language-project-based-learning-educa... also provided some good examples of PBL at different levels.

Before I make a request, let me say that I will certainly understand if you are not comfortable with this. I wonder if you would mind sharing your class wiki page to give me a better idea of how it works? In my online graduate classes I am also studying wiki, but have never used it. It sounds like you have done a great deal of work lining up your technology. I'm sure students really enjoy your interactive classes. Thank you for sharing it.

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Hello Patricia - so sorry for my delayed reply! Summer has been very busy and just now catching up on many things. I don't mind sharing an example wiki page, but it is not a collaborative page, I merely make it available for viewing and for guiding learning activities. Right now I am updating, rearranging, changing, so it is a bit of a mess, but should still give you an idea. Here is my French 3 level site:


Wishing you a great new school year!


Patricia's picture

Wow, Don!
Even if you are working on this, it is a great site full of so many useful and interesting links. I've only glanced at them, but I bet the students really enjoy them. I wasn't looking for a collaborative page, just an example of things that I might consider or include as I update my own outdated homework site on Edline for the new school year. My goal is to have something more interesting and interactive, like yours. Thank you so much for sharing it! You gave me many useful ideas and a boost of enthusiasm for the new year.

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Have fun creating great learning experiences for your students!


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