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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Complex Ideas vs Beginner Level? (for PBL and Inquiry WL learning)

Complex Ideas vs Beginner Level? (for PBL and Inquiry WL learning)

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Hi everyone! I'm a 9th grade Spanish 1 teacher at an innovative, project- and inquiry- based school in Philadelphia. First of all, I'm so excited I found this forum, and I've already gotten many ideas from the various threads (muchas gracias!).

I've previously taught language in a traditional context, and I'm really excited to use inquiry and PBL, but I'm concerned about balancing complex and engaging content with level-appropriate vocab and grammar. How have other teachers managed this tension? Maybe it hasn't even been an issue? And how have you managed this in relation to creating an immersion environment?


Max Rosen-Long
Spanish Teacher, Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber

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Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia

Hi Max, welcome to the Edutopia community. I just wanted to quickly note that our resident expert on all matters PBL in WL will respond to your question. Sorry for the delay, but Back to School is a crazy time for everyone.

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Hello Max, and everyone else who may join us on this thread. I look forward to the exchange of ideas on this great topic!

So sorry for my delayed reply - school just started and I have just been swamped with getting started with the new school year - can you relate?? Welcome back to everyone, and I hope you have a great year of learning with your students! Now, on to the topic at hand.

Max, you have asked THE question about PBL for WL! In my own inquiry on the matter, I have thought long and hard about this very thing. Obviously, I am not the only one - like you, every WL teacher I meet who seeks to do PBL in a WL class and who understands our 'prime directive' from ACTFL and many of our state curriculum standards, is to teach the target language IN the target language, asks the question - how do I do that in a PBL context!? In case you want to know more about our prime directive, as I call it, I share with you the ACTFL document, as well as this fairly recent article from ACTFL's publication, The Language Teacher (October 2012), which explains the rationale for 90% or more target language usage in class - ie, the teacher communicates in the target language 90%+ and the students do as well, with the caveat that we bring everyone along using comprehensible imput strategies, etc., a step at a time... Here are the links corresponding to the 'prime directive':



Once we acknowledge that the language, in cultural contexts, using authentic texts is the goal, how do we then do PBL in WL? Most of us have less trouble seeing how it can be done once the students have reached intermediate proficiency, but what about novices??? Obviously, when students are beginners, they have limited target language proficiency to be able to do a full PBL unit which incorporates all 8 elements (see BIE.org for this) and the 21st Century skills (see P21.org for this)! So what to do?

I am sure that there are some who will disagree with me, but I am going to be brave anyway, and advocate as I do in the workshops I do for WL teachers learning to to PBL for WL, at least until I figure another way to do it! My approach is that we roll out the 8 elements a bit at a time, over the course of the first year of WL. Some elements and skills are easier to unwrap than others. Creativity and communication skills are a natural fit for WL teachers - any project we do aims to support students to learn to communicate effectively. We are also usually open to giving students options, choices, as to how to create a project. Still, deeper inquiry is a bit more challenging for those who can only produce formulaic language. This is often where others, well meaning as they may be, suggest to us that we can have students present their projects in English - as long as it is on topic, all is fine! NO! No it is not fine! We come back to our prime directive then, and realize that we need to do all things in the target language, and not just some things, since to do otherwise, is to cave in and not help our students achieve the main thing, communicative proficiency in the target language.

Accordingly, for me at least, this means that I do simple projects at the beginning of level one which do not necessarily include all eight elements and all four 21st century skills. Instead, I gradually add them in, element by element, skill by skill, until I reach capacity where all the pieces of the model are included. As I mentioned, some will disagree with me about this approach, however, it has been my experience, without meaning to simplify too much, that many of those who object this approach do not teach other languages. They teach in English and expect their students to be fluent enough in English to complete a PBL-aligned unit without needing to account for the fact that their 'subject matter' is not the language itself, even if it may be a part of the desired outcomes. In our case, the language IS the content! Of course, we know that also includes the cultural context for the language as well. Nevertheless, the language is the thing, isn't it!

So, as we consider the 'significant content' for our PBL units, we must include a section of our planning which is devoted to the linguistic content. I like to ensure that the linguistic content includes both the bricks and the mortar - e. g. the bricks being the vocabulary, and the mortar the things which hold the words together. Regarding the mortar, I don't think we must necessarily stick to teaching grammar and structures in a very traditional format. We could ensure students learn the syntactical relationships of the language by modeling them in storytelling, with our comprehensible input, and with much more reading as part of the curriculum, for example, rather than the traditional grammatical structural approach, though there is certainly room for an occasional grammar lesson, to be sure. As for the vocabulary, I don't believe we need to limit ourselves to specific vocabulary lists either - we can give students some voice and choice here. I like to create a know/need to know conversation around this aspect of the project. Once the students go through the entry doc or event, they should be able to identify some vocabulary items they will need to know. There will undoubtedly be some variation from student to student on the lists that are generated. We will need to be more flexible than our textbooks, if we still use them at all, and find ways to assess our students without confining them to specific lists of words alone to measure their proficiency. For example, instead of giving the traditional vocabulary tests we may given in the past, we might develop an open ended prompt for the students to demonstrate how much language they have acquired, such as, 'write a letter to a friend on ___ topic' as an example.

How do I fit it all in? Well, is that not always the challenge? In thirty one years of teaching High School French, I have never once finished all I had planned to teach! I also like to over plan in case I have students who wants to go further. But I think that there is another matter underlying your question, and that is the idea of 'covering the curriculum' of a given course. I think if we believe we can actually 'cover' the material, or that we must 'cover the material,' then I think that is really the issue we have to face. All too often our course descriptions have an impossibly long list of structures and vocabulary items we expect to cram into students heads in a given year. I wonder, have any of us ever been able to do that? Rather, I think it is time we engaged our students in a journey of 'discovery' that will ask them to identify what they will need to know in order to be able to communicate in a particular context. This is what PBL is meant to be about! Let us rid ourselves of the unrealistic lists of structures and words we have for so long sought to pour into students' minds. Oh I know, I can hear your colleagues and mine say it already! 'These students cannot go on to level 2 unless they 'have' such and such a verb or a tense, and so on. I want to meet the child whose mother handed him or her a grammar book as he or she exited the womb and was told 'learn this structure, and this list of vocabulary, then we'll talk to you.' Never happened, never will, except in a language class! So sad.

I may be a radical. I may be advocating for more than you can handle at this time. I may really be a target for some language teacher somewhere who has taught for 85 years using the same lessons every year for those 85 years and claims to do so successfully, having students lined up eagerly to take his or her class and coming out fluent as measured by how many verbs they could conjugate in 15 tenses plus the subjunctive, but I ask you this: where is that teacher? I suspect in the mental hospital, along with all the students who went to a street corner somewhere and tried to communicate with someone by conjugating the verbs he or she knew in all those tenses and the subjunctive! Is it not time we stopped 'covering' the material, and rather started offering the students with whom we spend so much time each day, the opportunity to 'discover' how the world is made, how it operates, how it communicates?

I hope I have answered your question in such a way that you feel free to go on your own adventure of discovery this year! Let's really make a difference. Let's give our students the opportunity to engage with their own learning and acquire communicative proficiency along the way! They don't need a list to memorize, they need an adventure of experiential learning. It will be fun (shudder!!) and they will really know more than they would have known the other way. They will be ready for the next level. And they will look forward to it as well!

If you want to ask other questions on this or other topics related to World Languages, please feel free to post something here in the forum! We'll try to rely in a timely manner!

Best wishes,

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

By the way, in a few days I will also add some ideas about what kinds of projects work well for novices! In the meantime, you may want to check out my website of materials for PBL-WL at http://pbl-wl.wikispaces.com


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