During a project-based learning (PBL) unit in my secondary French class last spring, I noticed with frustration that my learners were resorting—once again—to English to give feedback on their projects. I couldn’t imagine why. We had gone over the phrases they needed: ways to give suggestions, how to express opinions, how to ask questions. I had scaffolded vocabulary to identify different elements of the project. They could say they liked football and ask what someone was doing next weekend, so why couldn’t they transfer this skill to our project?
The Challenge of PBL in World Language Classes
For many secondary language acquisition teachers such as myself, implementing a curriculum anchored in gold standard PBL presents unique challenges. While all phases of PBL are linguistically challenging, I have found that the critique and revision phase is particularly tricky. Giving meaningful feedback is a cognitive leap even in a learner’s first language.
In many languages, such as French, expressing feelings and opinions, as well as giving suggestions, tends to be a more complex linguistic function. As a result, we often assume that our learners lack the linguistic skills necessary to engage in comprehensive and useful narrative feedback, especially when they are at lower proficiency levels. Consequently, many language teachers avoid project-based learning because they believe that it’s nearly impossible to remain in the target language, build proficiency, and include most or all elements of PBL.
Despite this frustration, I was unwilling to abandon PBL and the rich learning opportunities it offers, so I decided to find a way to give feedback in the target language.
My colleague and I had been using the feedback capture matrix, published in the Stanford d.school’s Design Thinking Bootleg cards, in a co-taught class, but like my learners with their language skills, I had not thought to transfer that matrix to my French classes. Once I made this cognitive leap and implemented the matrix with my language students, the payoff was enormous.
The beauty of the feedback matrix lies in both its simplicity and its flexibility. It’s a four-square matrix with a quadrant for each of the following: positive feedback, constructive feedback, follow-up questions, and ideas that stem from the feedback process. Because of its simplicity, the matrix can be used in language classes for nearly any proficiency level.
With appropriate scaffolding, learners receive meaningful feedback in the target language, while the teacher can assess linguistic proficiency. Learners use it to capture feedback given to them, but they also use it as a note-taking tool to capture the feedback they want to give to their classmates. As the facilitator, I can assess their proficiency level as they listen and respond to their peers.
When I initially present the feedback matrix to my learners, I provide sentence starters for each quadrant. The majority of my learners are at the intermediate-low proficiency range, which means they rely less and less on pretaught phrases and are beginning to create their own sentences by mixing and matching what they already know. Still, to ensure that the matrix is accessible to everyone, I include a mix of sentence starters with ideas for finishing the sentence as well as full phrases that could be used.
In my advanced classes, I ask the learners to provide sentence starters with which they’re already familiar, and we create our own template to be used during the actual feedback process. In all classes, learners copy the feedback matrix, as well as the scaffolded language, into their notebooks.
To practice the structures, I ask the learners to create a sample sentence for each quadrant in the target language using an image that is tied to the project content. For example, in our recent eco writers PBL, which focuses on environmental issues in biomes, I showed the class a picture of a tropical forest from Guadeloupe and asked them to write a sample sentence for each quadrant based on that image. This allowed them to practice the structures necessary to give feedback in a context relevant to the work, facilitating the transfer of language between contexts.
Implementing the Feedback Matrix
1. In teacher-led small groups, each learner in turn presents their work-in-progress for feedback in the target language. The rest of the group takes notes using the matrix, also in the target language.
2. The group provides feedback in the target language, using their notes as a guide. The learner who is receiving feedback notes the feedback in their matrix, once again in the target language.
3. The learner presenting their work for feedback then summarizes the feedback they received in English, allowing the teacher and the other learners to verify comprehension.
4. When all members of the group have presented their work for feedback, all learners reflect on the feedback process in writing, using the target language when possible.
Verifying comprehension can be as formal or informal as the teacher needs it to be. The first time I used the feedback matrix, I simply confirmed comprehension verbally. Implementing it a second time, I opted to assess listening comprehension using a one-point rubric that I had developed based on my state’s world languages standards and American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language guidelines.
While I typically assess only the learner presenting their work for feedback, the summarization process also allows everyone in the group to think about how clearly they’re communicating in the target language.
One frequent question we work through, which is applicable in many situations in the world languages classroom, is whether miscommunication stems from the speaker, from the listener, or from both. I have found that using this feedback matrix quickly identifies the source of a miscommunication, allowing each learner to instantly adjust their message or their understanding, leading to clearer communicative skills for both parties.
PBL does not have to be daunting for teachers of other languages. Instead, it can provide viable ways to build practical language skills in a variety of contexts.