Sunday, December 26, 2021

Projects in World Language Classes: An Opinion

image: classroom background with text overlaid that reads: Do projects support language acquisition?

Let's talk about projects, shall we? 

It's something that comes up a lot.   I am basing this on the number of posts about projects in every language teacher forum, even those that are dedicated to comprehension based teaching.  
Important: I am writing this piece, on my blog, about what I think. I am not intending to judge anyone for their instructional choices. I *do* want to explore some ideas that have been sloshing around in my brain around projects and their various purposes. Again, I am not writing this to say that anyone is bad or less good or anything else. And maybe, you might find some ideas that support you in your journey to be a little bit more comprehension based and/or a little bit more equitable, which *is* what I hope to do. 

Some teachers build their whole language curricula around projects. Others use projects to manage an otherwise unmanageable set of school expectations and duties (e.g. coaching, directing a school play, etc.).  Others have such fond memories of their own projects in language class that they can't imagine not doing them! And, finally, some kids love them, parents and admin often love them, and they do seem to part of the unspoken list of "Important Things to Do In Language Class."

What are projects? 

When I think about projects, I am thinking of things like:

  • Students write, edit, illustrate, and publish a text to share or include in the class library. 
  • Students make a craft of some sort, usually culturally relevant.  They might present about the craft as well. 
  • Students research a topic and produce something- a written or oral presentation or product on that topic. 
  • Students work together to create a skit  to perform in front of other students. 

Project Based Learning (PBL), a super hot New Thing, has a lot going for it too, and many schools are jumping on the PBL bandwagon to show how their students are using real world skills to solve real world problems.  Now, I have some love in my heart from project based learning as a general educator, and I have a lot of questions and critiques of it as well- again, as a general educator. Having watched my colleagues move to an integrated project based learning system (and being dragged along for the ride), I see how it *can* result in meaningful learning.  IN GENERAL EDUCATION CLASSES.  As a language teacher, I have a lot of concerns. 

A recent post in a language teacher group got me thinking about what the purpose of projects might be, why kids (and admin) ask for them, and how we can meet that purpose in a way that supports language acquisition.  

My Opinion: Most projects do not support language acquisition. Especially for novice and intermediate leaners. 

Teachers might choose to do them for other reasons, so again #nojudgement.  

 I have written before on this subject, but here's a summary of my thinking:  (excerpted from this article):
  • Projects are usually not level appropriate.  Most teachers overestimate what their students can and “should be able to” do, and most projects involve specific, contextualized vocabulary that will require time to look up and memorize, as well as discourse beyond their level. A good rule of thumb is “if they struggle with the activity, the task is too challenging.”
  • Projects are incredibly time consuming for both teachers and students, using time that could alternately be used to do things that help students acquire language (e.g. input). 
  • If the students have to produce something to share with others, either it is fairly low quality (because they don’t have the language yet) or it requires a great deal of time- consuming editing and correction on the part of the teacher.
  • Dr. Bill VanPatten talks a bit about project based tasks in chapter 6 of While We're on the Topic, and points out that project based tasks are not intended to practice language, nor are they appropriate for beginners. He gives some solid examples of tasks that might work in upper levels. He also speaks very specifically about Project Based Learning (PBL) in Target Language.  
Most PBL is beyond what students of language can do at the lower levels. Imported from educational contexts, PBL assumes ability with language. This is why it is a popular approach for learning science, history, and other subjects; speakers work in their first language to complete PBL projects, but beginning students don't have skills in the second language equivalent to their first language skills. So PBL in languages might be better for more advanced language proficiency levels."   (VanPatten, 2019)
  • Research in second language acquisition (SLA) tells us that practice is unnecessary for language acquisition. Students do not need to speak or practice to acquire. They need to listen to messages and read messages, that they understand. 

Background of bookshelves with text that reads: What need is not being met when stakeholders ask to do projects?

What do projects accomplish?

This is some new thinking for me: to really consider what it is that projects accomplish. 

When kids/parents/admin ask for projects, what is the purpose? 

What need is not being met (or not being visibly met)? 

In asking for projects, stakeholders might be asking for:

  • more "fun"
  • opportunities to follow their interests and personalize learning
  • opportunities to create with language
  • more time interacting with peers

Background of classroom with text that reads "How can we meet those unmet needs in a way that DOES support language acquisition?"

So my question becomes: are there other ways to directly meet some of those needs, while still giving students lots of input?

Yes! I think there are! My first idea is centered around reading, aka Free Voluntary Reading / Self-Selected Reading / Free Choice Reading. 

Background of books with text that reads "Free Choice reading accomplishes many of the same goals as projects".

Personalize Learning & Following Student Interests

Free reading is a great way to let students personalize their learning, follow their interests, acquire vocabulary that is relevant to them, and of course, to differentiate. When one student is reading about music, another is reading a story about immigration, and another is reading about a favorite sport, students are personalizing their learning. 

And remember- you don't have to have a huge budget to buy readers in your target language. There are many ways to get free and low cost texts in your classroom. (Hint: a printer and dollar store page protectors can go a long way!)  

You can read more about how I set up my free reading program here,  and from Alina Filipescu here: SSR/ FVR Reading Program.  Bryce Hedstrom recently wrote an entire book about it (which I have not yet read but plan on it!): High Impact Reading Strategies 

More time interacting with peers

Letting students talk about their books with each other is a very simple, quick way to let students socialize. Yes, I *do* let them speak in the shared language (English, in my case) because I only want them to do this for a couple of minutes. The payoff is huge as they get excited about their books, hear about different books, and engage in the habit of readers everywhere: telling people about their favorites. Andrea Schweitzer has a great activity for this as well- you can read that here, on Martina Bex's blog: Speed Dating your classroom library.

What about Game of Quotes? This game, from AnneMarie Chase, is social, fun, and lets students feel like they are creating with language...while re-reading. It's brilliant.

More Fun

Have you ever played Game of Quotes? Go do that. Have you ever gotten pleasure from telling someone about a book that you enjoyed? Let your kids do that! 

Background of school hallway with lockers with text that reads: "Co-creating narratives is fun, community building, personalized, and interactive."

Co-creating narratives (aka Asking a story, story asking, TPRS)

For some teachers, asking a story is really stressful and doesn't work for them. I get that, and also, it works for me and it one of my favorite things to do with students of all ages.   You can read more about story asking here and watch me do it with students here and here. 

When I co-create a story in class, I have a script outline (usually, but not always!). I ask the students for details about who the story is about, specific events in the story, and often the end of the story. Students contribute their ideas, and often these ideas are glimpses into what they are interested in. 

Personalize Learning and following student interests

When you co-create a story and are able to incorporate student interests in that story, it is all about them.  I know it seems like story asking is very teacher directed, but when student suggestions and interests are incorporated, the story really does become their story. From watching Storage Wars to riding on the backs of giant bison (a reference to some popular animated Netflix show), their ideas that are included (and even the ones that aren't included) create a sense that the language in the classroom is theirs. 

More time interacting with peers

I ask students to interact with their peers in a lot of ways, both during the process of story asking as well as after.  During story asking, I might let them turn to a shoulder partner to do a quick recap of what happened so far (in our shared language or in the target language, depending on the level), or to make a prediction, or to decide what happens next.  After the story is done, I might do any one of a variety of interactive activities.  Play doh scenes comes to mind, as do any of the small group variations of Secret Input. (You can even see a video of my kids doing some interacting here: Breathing Space, Resting Space.)  Some of my favorite activities from the SOMOS Curriculum, like Running Dictation, Write Draw Pass, Fan N Pick, and 9-Square and variationss all involve some level of peer interaction (depending on how you do it).  And don't forget all the input focused Kagan activities and cooperative learning that Martina has adapted! The Lucky Reading Game, from AnneMarie Chase, is a blast and is virtually no prep. 

Heck, I have even been known to let students write, with a peer, their own version of the story (I give them 20 minutes and very specific directions). Although they spend their time speaking English during the process, the payoff is a bunch of different stories that I can type up (correcting any irregular language), and that we can then read, illustrate, vote on (funniest, most probable, least probable, most creative, etc.), and add to our class library. 

More fun

Story asking is usually pretty fun, in and of itself. And playing with play doh? Yep, also fun. Any of the post-reading activities I listed above are pretty fun! Some are more prep, some are low prep, and some are no prep.  

Creating with language: Some musings 

Now, you may have noticed that I haven't really mentioned a lot about giving students more opportunities to create with language, although that may be one reason why projects are requested. 

Here's the thing: I think that it is possible to give students lots of opportunities to create with language, but I tend *not* to create activities that force them to do so.  The one glaring exception to this is when I ask students to do Timed Free writes (Fluency Writes).  Please read more about why I choose to do these, if you are curious. 

The reason I don't force them to create with language (with that one exception) is that I strongly believe that forcing them to create won't help them acquire, and it has the strong potential to raise their affective filter- that is- to make them stressed out, which will inhibit their acquisition. 

I will work on a future blog post about how I create opportunities to create with language at some point. Annabelle Williamson (La Maestra Loca) has a lot of brain breaks that support students creating language as well- take a look at her blog for some ideas.

One way that allows students to create with language is to give them rejoinders. 

I use rejoinders all the time, and I find that they are a great way to let students express themselves, even when they are beginning language students. For more about rejoinders, hop over to Grant Boulanger's blog and learn more. 

So, to sum up: when stakeholders ask for projects, it's worth it to ask ourselves: what needs are not being met that they think projects will meet? How can I meet those needs in a way that will support language acquisition?  

I hope this blog post has given you some food for thought!  


  1. Merci beaucoup for a great post! You have great insights, and they make me think about the topic in different ways. And I was thinking that I was the only one who didn't always see tons and tons of value in projects...glad to know I am not alone!

    1. Thank you! I am so happy that you got some new things to think about!!