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by Sara Hallermann
BIE Consultant

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Topic tags: literary design collaborative LDC, how to do PBL


February 22, 2012
How Does PBL Support Authentic Literacy?

by Sara Hallermann
BIE Consultant

Project Based Learning offers one of the best ways to provide students in your classroom with authentic literacy experiences—which means having them read and write for a real purpose, as opposed to an “inauthentic” academic exercise. To incorporate authentic literacy, be sure to answer these questions when you design and implement a project:

  • Does the project include an authentic written product that someone outside the school context would create?
  • Does the project include a written product that meets a real need?
  • Does the project set students up to generate their own questions to frame their investigation into the Driving Question?
  • Does the project enable students to find answers to their questions?
  • Does the project include critique, ideally by an expert or the product recipient?
  • Does the project allow students to present their work to the intended recipient?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you’ve got it: a fully authentic literary experience for your students.

For example, in the Small Acts of Courage project at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, students researched and wrote about local stories of the Civil Rights Movement. In response to the Driving Question, “What was Maine’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement?“, they created a book for a public audience which included people who participated locally in the struggle for civil rights. This is an authentic product which differs from a more traditional assignment for this topic, like an informational report, because it’s for a real purpose, not just for school. The students felt it was important to record these local connections to a major part of 20th century U.S. history before they were lost.

The project gave them a real “need to read” – to answer further questions for inquiry that students came up with on their own. They found answers by reading authentic sources, which can be defined as sources of information that are found outside of the learning to read or write context – they occur naturally in people’s lives outside of the classroom. In the Small Acts of Courage project this included a lot of primary source documents. They also found answers to their questions by interviewing local residents who participated in the events. These people offered critique as the students created their book and were part of the intended audience to whom the students presented their work.

When they use authentic sources, students are not merely repeating the words of already conducted research, but are instead using critical thinking skills as a part of the inquiry process. Rather than simply clicking on the first site that comes up in a Google Search, students are involved in a discovery process that uncovers the meaning behind the words. Again, this is authentic because it mirrors the work of many writers in the professional world.

When planning a project to incorporate authentic writing experiences, teachers should think about three things: what’s the genre of writing, who’s the audience, and what authentic product is most appropriate? For example, for the following commonly-found writing genres, think about authentic products that require that kind of writing:

Arguments to support claims:
editorial, proposal, commercial, public service announcement

Informational writing:
field guide, press release, policy statement, research report

Narrative writing:
short story, book, biography, article

Here are some more examples of how teachers used writing genres to create authentic products for authentic audiences:

  • In a project about how to increase food sales in the cafeteria, students wrote reports for the food service provider after gathering and analyzing data.
  • In a history project about slavery in the U.S., students wrote narrative diary entries in the voices of local slaves, owners, and participants in the Underground Railroad. Their work was displayed for visitors to their county’s historical society museum.
  • In a science project, students investigated ways to conserve energy and wrote policy proposals to the mayor of their city—which actually became part of public policy!

While reading and writing “just for school” certainly still has a purpose in our education system, authentic contexts are highly effective for improving student learning. Students who experience authentic literacy projects show high levels of growth in reading comprehension and writing ability. And unlike all-too-many traditional reading, writing, and research assignments, projects that incorporate authentic literacy will engage students more deeply and meaningfully.


Authentic Literacy and PBL

Project based learning is one of the best vehicles for providing powerful, authentic literacy experiences across the curriculum. Students who experience opportunities for authentic literacy show higher growth in both comprehension and writing. In this Webinar, Sara Hallermann leads you through an exploration of high-impact elementary and secondary sample projects in which students read truly authentic texts and produce writing for audiences who want and need the students' written work. You'll see the power in this practice and will learn tips for designing projects that incorporate authentic literacy experiences for your students.


  • I really enjoyed the video clip of Authentic Literacy and PBL.  It’s great for students to actually produce work that is useful.  Student are always asking the question, “Why do I have to do this?”.  If they have a real audience then they will take it more seriously and do their best.

    istanton on February 23, 2016 
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