George Lucas Educational Foundation

An enlightening experience with PBL in WL

An enlightening experience with PBL in WL

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I had a recent insight into the effctiveness of PBL through the experience of one of my students. It was an enlightening moment for both my student and for me! This particular student has a learning challenge – she has an auditory memory disability. Frankly, I wondered about a number of things, such as how did she learn to speak English? She is rather a typical teenager. She knows the usual slang phrases, as well as common everyday speech. She ought to be able, therefore, to learn another language. That is my premise. Anyone who speaks one language ought to be able to acquire another, given that they have exhibited the capacity to learn one already, regardless of whether or not they may have a learning disability. My student chose to take French. She has the right to learn like any other student. I certainly am committed to her success! She has had some difficulties. French poses a few challenges, such as spelling and pronunciation which is rather different than English. I do make a difference between pronunciation and accent. I do not expect my students to sound like a native speaker of French. Even if I did, which native speaker accent would I expect them to use? Many French teachers would say Standard International French sounds like that spoken in the Loire Valley of France. However, if I had a student who spoke with a French Canadian accent, would I be disappointed? Certainly not, especially as I am myself French Canadian by heritage! Of course, I teach standard international French pronunciation, but I think it is more important that my students be understood, than that they sound like native speakers. As for my student, she has tried hard from the very beginning, but the pronunciation and spelling have proven to be particularly challenging for her. Something happened recently, however, which proved to be a turning point for her, and it came in the form of a project we did, a simple one, but still it was what made the difference! We have been learning how to describe people, in masculine and feminine forms, using a variety of vocabulary with the simple phrases "he/she is..." and "I am..." as well as their negative equivalents. This is typical of very beginning French, being stage appropriate, and communicative in approach. I designed a simple project which entailed the students imagining themselves as pirates lauding their own personal characteristics as qualified shipmates. I created an entry document in the form of a letter from Capitaine Barbebleu who called for all worthy pirates to apply to become members of his crew aboard "La Grande Sophie." The students had to create a poster with a picture of themselves as if they were a pirate. They could choose to illustrate the picture in anyway they chose, ranging from collage, to clip art and manga style drawings. Students also wrote out a detailed description of themselves, using the basic positive and negative sentences we have learned, using as large a variety of vocabulary as they could demonstrate. The students had to present their posters to the class. There were rubrics for the quality of their written and spoken French, as well as for the quality of their presentation skills, again in both oral and written forms. I have posted this project on my PBL-WL wiki at this link: The day of presentations, the students came into the classroom with a heightened level of excitement. I was pleased to see they took pride in their learning, and were looking forward to demonstrating that they had learned well. Only one student had forgotten her poster at home, but she was still able to speak. The students met in small groups of four. I asked them to do a first presentation to the people in their groups. I asked them to do a critical friends response to each one in their group, offering a comment on what each one did well, and a comment about what he/she might be able to improve. They appreciated the opportunity to practice before presenting and it only took about ten minutes to provide them with the chance to do so. The students presented in their small groups once again, as I walked around to listen in on the presentations in order to assess them. Every student passed, and the majority received B grades. As for my student mentioned earlier... She came to class like all the others, excited about her presentation. Her poster was fabulous in design, but I noted a few problems with her sentences. I did not want to spoil her day, so I said nothing at the time. However, in small groups, as she listened to the others present, she realized herself that something was amiss. She called me over before she presented to her group, and told me "I did this wrong, Monsieur." I asked her how she thought that was the case. She told me exactly what was wrong, so I asked her to present with the corrections she noted, and to fix her poster then, of she wanted. The learning is the thing, isn't it! She learned! She did a great speech, earned a B on the oral part, and another for her corrected poster. Success! And what is more, since that day, many other thngs have been making sense to her. That day, she discovered an entry point for success that had eluded her up to that point. I am very proud of her for working hard, for thinking critically, and for taking charge of her own learning. Oh and I almost forgot. The boy who sits next to her in class, noticed that she is working hard, and has decided that he can as well now. Not only has she found an entry point for success, but she has also inspired another. I love PBL!

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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

So sorry - the correct link to the pbl-wl wiki is:

I welcome all WL teachers who want to collaborate on developing stage appropriate, Standards-based Performance Assessment Porjects for WL students. Let's build a library of fun projects together. Merci!

Hubert V. Yee's picture
Hubert V. Yee
social media and marketing manager of startup


This is an awesome story. I took 3 years of French in HS. I wish my teacher would've used more PBL.

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

Thanks, Hubert. I am keeping up with the interventions, and my student is still making good progress! I am delighted, and so is she. I'll post a follow up on this in a couple months.


slmUSA's picture

I usually do a project like this with the option of poster or Voki. I love the way you grouped the students for peer-to-peer collaboration. I'll definitely upgrade my lesson to include this! Merci !
Here's a link to create a voki (talking avatar). I link some of them on my teacher webpage to share with parents.

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