George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Editor's Note: Today's guest blogger is Don Doehla, French teacher and instructional coach at Vintage High School in Napa, California. Don recently stepped up to become the new facilitator of our World Languages group. He's got some great ideas for teaching world languages, including the use of project-based learning. He shares a few of these tips today. We hope you'll join him in the World Languages group as well.

The world may be small and flat, but it is also multilingual, multicultural, and more and more, it is an interconnected world. Consequently, cross cultural communicative competencies are increasingly important for mutual understanding and cooperation - how is that for some alliteration?! Our students' need to be able to communicate with their neighbors, here and abroad, is increasing with every moment which passes! The borders separating our countries are diminishing in importance as the global culture emerges. The definition of who my neighbor is has changed as well. No longer are we isolated from what is happening across the globe. Recent events demonstrate this quite well! Examples abound for everyone on the planet. We must be able to communicate well and proficiently across the kilometers which separate us.

The Challenges

Like other World Language teachers, I am constantly trying to focus on the essentials in order to create a standards-driven, communication-based curriculum for my students. I am also keen on addressing the necessary skills students must acquire for the 21st century as outlined in the wonderful document from the Carnegie Institute available at How can I know whether I have achieved my desired objective? I need authentic assessments to evaluate target language proficiencies, while offering opportunities for greater engagement, for working in collaborative teams, for developing critical thinking skills, for managing precious time and resources, for emphasizing global themes, and for preparing students toward the new AP exam in French starting next year! On top of that, I want them to learn how to use proficiently the wonderful technology tools now available. Sound familiar? We work hard as teachers! Darn hard! Oui, monsieur, dur, dur!

The Rationale for PBL

And so I come to project-based learning as a way of bringing it all together. Projects provide opportunities for students to engage in real life communication, in context, with real people, and across the globe. I try to align my projects according to the California WL Standards, and the fluency stages of the Language Learning Continuum found in chapter 2 of the California World Languages Framework. I also keep the 21st Century skills in mind, along with the more familiar five C's from ACTFL, and the many things I have learned about literacy, and cross-cultural issues. I have found that the projects address all these things and more. I have tried to make sure that they also offer students the opportunity to be creative and to explore their potentials and aspirations. It is a lot of fun to see this in action. How about some examples?

Stage 1 Fluency Example: The Menu Project

In this project, students play the role of a restaurant owner who needs to develop and create a menu for his/her restaurant established in one of the target language countries of the world. Their menus must have at least five categories, and twenty-five items, all authentic dishes of the target culture of their choice within the Francophone world. They must decide on an appropriate name, create an address, phone number, website and twitter account name, consistent with examples they find on-line from authentic restaurants of the target culture. Their menu items must be priced in the local currency, converted in an appropriate manner for the target culture. The students then do a speech either in small groups or for the whole class in which they speak to the group as the restaurant owner, suggesting good dishes, specialty items, etc. They must say at least 15 sentences, and can either present live or on video. I have a rubric for the menu and one for the speech, and am looking for Stage 1 fluency, namely, formulaic language (memorized chunks of discourse combined with lists of works). I find that the kids learn a lot about a country of their choice, while having fun being creative!

Stage 2 Fluency Example: The Children's Story Book

We refer to stage two fluency as created language. The premise here is that students take the formulae that they have learned so well in stage one, and combine them together into their own created sentences. These statements no longer sound like memorized sound bites given back in the same formula, but rather in individualized, self directed expressions of thoughts and ideas. The sentences are frequently complex, but do not contain subordinate clauses of the kind requiring specialized verb forms. They also do not necessarily have to be strung together in a particular order to make sense - if we were to reorder them, they would make just as much sense in the new order. In other words, these are lists of sentences, but the order of the lists are not significant.

I have developed a project to measure this stage of fluency which I call the Story Book project. Students create a set of characters who live in one of the target language countries. They write the story as if the main character were describing his life when he was five years old (which requires the imperfect tense in French). The students then describe a big event which occurred in the life of the character, such as his first day of school, and then the things which happened in that day (requiring the use of the passé composé in French). They need to research what a child's life is like in the target culture and create an authentic and visually rich situation for the story's setting. I usually ask students to write about 5 sentences per page, and about ten pages total. They do rough drafts and peer editing. I also look at the drafts and highlight what is correct, and make some suggestions for corrections. The editing process is a learning experience of its own.

As students write their stories, they cannot help but compare their own lives with those of the characters they have created. The compare and contrast paradigme creates a good context for created language. It also allows students to try out their knowledge of how to narrate in past time frames, and demonstrate that they know how to use the various past tenses typical of the second year language curriculum. We often find that students reach what we call "linguistic breakdown" as they use various verb forms, but they do not necessarily do so at the syntactic level. They are able to make the sentence structures fit together well, even when their verb forms are not always correct. Frankly, I think this is great! When my focus is on the fluency stage, and not on distinct verb forms, I find that my students are actually progressing very well in their journey toward language acquisition. In time, they will perfect their use of verb forms, but in the meantime, they are clearly able to communicate at a higher level of fluency even if their accuracy is not yet up to par. We do want accuracy, of course, but in terms of fluency, this is a lesser problem for communication than is the sentence structure.

Stage 3 Fluency Example: The ABC Book Project

In stage three fluency, the text type I am aiming for is planned language, ie, paragraphing, in which there is a topic sentence, supported by concrete details and commentary, and a concluding sentence to sum up the important ideas. In French, this requires that students know how to create complex sentences, using main and subordinate clauses, requiring the subjunctive, or "if/then" type sentences, requiring imperfect/conditional tenses, among others (other languages may require knowledge of other paradigms as well). I have done this project over the course of a whole semester, breaking it down in smaller parts over time, and with the focus being Québec. We study many different aspects of Québécois culture: short stories, poems, song lyrics, historical texts, current events... The students do smaller projects along the way, but as a result of their inquiry, they write a page on each topic of their choice. I have them write 20 pages, one for each of 20 letters of the alphabet, according to their choice. An example page might look like this in English:

Q is for Québec City (title sentence). Québec is the capital city of the province of Quebec, and sits on a bluff overlooking the Saint Lawrence River (topic sentence). It seems to me that the people of Québec have much for which they may be proud (detail). It is necessary that they invest wisely in the maintenance of their historical monuments, because it preserves the diversity of their historical heritage (commentary). If I were to visit Québec, I would want to look out over the Saint Lawrence from the Terasse Dufferein so I could enjoy the beautiful view of the river and of the Ile d'Orléans (commentary). If I went to Québec in winter, I would go during the Carnaval so I could participate in the many activities (commentary). It is interesting that the local accent is different in Québec than in France. (commentary). If I go to Québec, I will practice speaking French with the local people and hope that I will be able to understand their accent without any problems (conclusion)."

This is a fair amount of work for one page, let alone twenty, so I provide a page template for students to use to be sure they keep on track. I have them do rough drafts of each page. When they turn in the drafts, I highlight what is correct and return the pages. The students may resubmit the pages with corrections until they have perfected their work. In this way, I am reinforcing their own editing process, and helping them to focus on the details they might otherwise overlook. This project has proven to be great fun, and I have found that by the end of the semester, they have mastered complex sentences and paragraphing quite well.

Future Plans

Next year, I plan to augment my project-based approach by connecting my classes with classes in 3 Francophone countries - France, Canada, and Sénégal. I want the students to collaborate with their peers across the world in writing digital stories which they will post on the web for their friends to read, and so they can offer comments and engage in conversations about the stories. I plan to have the students explore many story genres, including comic strips, manga, short stories and poems, and other kinds of writing as their interests are piqued. The many web 2.0 applications which are now available will be a big help in giving students the tools they need to write and create their stories. I expect the project to provide greater opportunities for engagement, creativity, problem solving, and collaboration ? ie, they will learn to communicate in French while learning 21st century skills!

Let's have some fun, too! Join the conversation. Post an idea on the Edutopia WL group. Need an idea? Got a question? Found a cool website, app or tool? Let's collaborate as well! Shall we get started? Thanks in advance for sharing your ideas ? together is better!

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Ken Wong's picture

Hi Don, some great information here about your project guidelines and how you set them up. In previous projects I set for my classes, they were similar to the one outlined above, but I am grappling with the idea of how languages at an elementary level can really get to the level of deep learning, analyzing, collaboration, critical thinking etc as noted in much of the reading about PBL. I read in the Larmer, Mergendoller and Boss book you recommended to me there are various types of PBL. I think for languages the "Exploring the abstract question and Conducting an investigation" ones are relevant. Getting the elementary learners of a language to a level where this deep learning can occur is really getting me to think, thanks.

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 Ken,

Thanks for your comments and reflection. I am glad you liked the book. I think it is an excellent resource for anyone interested in PBLL. For those who want to get a copy, here is the link to BIE's information. You can buy the book directly from BIE, or on-line at other bookstores, depending on where you live around the globe.

As for elementary grades and deeper learning... My initial take on this is that when students are a pre-novice to novice proficiency, it is a challenge to get to deeper learning, no matter how old the student may be. And yet, check this out!

My level 2 French students who are novice mid to novice high now, are learning about periods of artistic expression: realism, impressionism, cubism, surrealism, neoclassicism... Their learning targets include: "I can describe a painting. I can ask and answer questions about museums in Paris. I can express opinion about my artistic preferences and dislikes." These targets push students to do some deeper thinking, even if their statements remain formulaic, memorized chunks, akin to novice speakers. They are engaging in more than just recall, and moving toward application and analysis to express their opinions and reflections.

Not being an elementary level teacher, I don't know if children in grades k-5 would be interested in art history, but they might! I also realize that my example is for level 2, but students in level 1 can still learn about such things as world hunger, climate change, and other AP/IB type themes. I wonder if we might plan for instruction with great themes which would push the critical thinking level higher up by modifying our themes to be more challenging? The theme may best be captured in the essential or driving questions for a given unit.

Novice students, regardless of their age, can take on challenging subjects and materials, even if our learning targets are geared toward their proficiency level.

What do you think?

Best regards,

Ken Wong's picture

Hi Don, thanks so much for replying. That's pretty much what I was thinking as well. I suppose with your last point in particular, the objectives and outcomes of the PBL unit needs to be suitable and challenge their language level. At a novice level then, as they are limited in vocabulary and sentence patterns etc, a PBL would not be that long or complex, what do you think? I know its in the progression, but depth and length (of time) of PBL would really need to match their language. Does that make sense? Thanks again!

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

Yes, I think that is true, on both points. It will depend on any given unit. Students can be challenged to think deeply, even with formulaic language typical of novice proficiency. Try sentence starters, sentence frames, word walls, graphic organizers, visuals... We use a lot of different strategies to scaffold more language production. We can supply chunks of language that can be used to help students express opinions, to give critical feedback, or to analyze. The learning targets will still follow this format:

I can + Language function + Theme or topic

Keep thinking! And thanks for the posts.


Ken Wong's picture

Hi Don, thanks again! I think with that with the type of scaffolding you mentioned, definitely the deeper learning can happen instead of just the learn from page 3 of the textbook type, although that could be integrated into the Pbl as well. Will keep forging ahead! thanks again

Guest's picture

Hi Don,

I am interested in learning more about PBLL. Is there a book you would recommend that is very practical (as opposed to theoretical). Also, I am curious to know how much time do you devote to the projects you listed above (Menu Project, Storybook, ABC book)? Do you work on them all semester long? all year?


Guest's picture

Never mind about the book recommendation. I just saw that you recommend:
Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning By John Larmer John R. Mergendoller Suzie Boss

I will be looking into getting it.

Emily's picture

I love your menu project! Where else can I get/find ideas for Level I PBL activities in the World Language classroom?

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

Hi Emily, thanks for the post! I have also posted other articles here on Edutopia. Look for my profile, and you'll find a list. I also have a website on PBLL at You will find links to other PBLL people's sites on my website. I suggest that you also consider purchasing a great book on PBL by Suzie Boss entitled Setting the Standard for Project-based Learning. You can get it from and on-line at Amazon, as well as other sites, or your local bookstore can order it for you. Lastly, I have a training manual I have developed. I can sell you a copy. Just send me a personal message via the link here on Edutopia. I hope this helps!
Best wishes,

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