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.
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.
- 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.
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
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.
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.
More time interacting with peers
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.