by Heather Wolpert-Gawron
Project Based Learning is for everyone. It’s not meant to be used only for those who are done with their work. It’s not meant to be used only for those looking to be challenged. It’s meant to hoist up every student to their highest standard.
PBL is about opportunity and expectations, and to give all students access to engaging and rigorous learning we must provide scaffolds that help them achieve their best. But many teachers think that students must be able to achieve at a certain level before even attempting to jump into PBL.
English Language Learners are one of the groups that tends to be looked over when thinking about who is “ready” to do PBL. But all students are ready if armed with appropriate scaffolding by their teacher. In fact, if we look at learning in terms of growth, EL students are likely to show huge success due to how immersive PBL is in communication skills and critical thinking.
So I have to push back on this notion that a student needs a certain level of ability to be able to create, think critically, collaborate, and communicate.
All students, with guidance, can mull over, research, and respond to driving questions related to their content. Second graders of all levels can think about “What do we have to do as a school community to allow dinosaurs to enroll?” Middle schoolers reading The Giver can think about “How can we, as Givers, decide on the most important memories to bestow on the new Receivers?”
Will a student struggling with communication standards produce a perfectly fluent product? (Shrug). Maybe not. But with PBL, it’s not about the outcome, it’s about the journey and growth the students show while chugging along the path. Learning isn’t proved only at the end of the unit; students prove their growth throughout the unit.
The Need to Have Access to Engagement and Rigor
It’s frustrating to find so many EL students stuck in drill-and-kill classes simply because they lack foundational English. Their lower level of English somehow condemns them to worksheets and Level 1 thinking expectations. But research proves that what they really need is thoughtful engagement with authentic experiences in language. And PBL, as defined by the Gold Standard, is just that.
Jennifer Miyake-Trapp, an Assistant Professor of Education at Pepperdine University and Lead Faculty of their MA TESOL Program, agrees. She believes that “engagement in PBL increases opportunities for students to authentically use and apply language and literacy skills in a meaningful context, making learning relevant and fun.”
Here’s what is true: using PBL takes more frontloading. But that is true when teaching any underrepresented population. Nevertheless, there is a misconception that just because you are providing scaffolds means you somehow aren’t teaching independent learning. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Giving EL students the resources they need to access “the good stuff” means you’re giving them the tools to improve and grow so that independence is more accessible later.
Therefore, PBL, with its focus on writing and speaking and thinking and cross-curricular reading, is just what these students need to improve quickly and deeply. Miyake-Trapp emphatically states that “In PBL, English Learners develop a sense of agency and take ownership of their learning... simultaneously practicing academic language and literacy skills while engaging in critical thinking.”
So what are some strategies that teachers can use in the classroom to give EL students more access to PBL?
8 Strategies to Scaffold PBL for EL Students:
All students can benefit from these targeted tactics, and you’re probably using some of them without even knowing it. So don’t be nervous about engaging in PBL with your English Language Learners. The inevitable growth that you will see, and their enthusiasm for what they are learning and how they are contributing, will help you realize their strengths and potential.