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March 15, 2016

Project Based Learning: A Tool for Engaging ELLs

By Amanda Nehring
Grades PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

     

    If we want our ELL students to love learning and develop the language skills necessary to communicate both socially and academically, then we as teachers have to make learning both authentic and motivating. The best way I have found to do this is with Project Based Learning in the classroom. Through the use of student-centered, cross-curricular projects our ELL students can engage in learning like never before! Take a look at how my class’ project on birds of prey brought the fun of learning to life for my ELL students.

     

     

    Choosing a Topic

    While as teachers we are accustomed to planning our students’ learning experiences, the project approach asks that we give up that control in favor of exploring students’ interests. This can be difficult to do, but I promise that it is worth it when you see your students’ excitement about a project selected specifically for them. It can be difficult in a class of 25 students to find a project topic that appeals to everyone, so I found it best to observe students’ interests over time and select a project that would meet the following criteria:

    1. Topic should be of interest to your students

    2. Topic should explore a central theme that is relevant to your students’ lives

    3. Topic should lend itself to the hands-on exploration of real artifacts and real life experiences

    4. Teachers must be willing to let the topic take a new direction as students ask questions and guide the project themselves

    For our class project I teamed up with my colleague, friend, and classroom neighbor, Ashley, and her class of general education students. This allowed my self-contained bilingual class the opportunity to interact with new friends who could also serve as models of the English language. This leads me to my ELL Project Tip #1: Involve both ELL and native English speakers in your project in order to bring diversity to your group and provide native language modeling for your ELLs.

    Topic selection for our project was easy. Our school backs up to a county forest preserve, making our playground a perfect viewing site for hawks and eagles. Many times our students would come in from recess asking questions and recounting stories of seeing the large birds. With easy access to birds of prey and a great deal of interest from the students, we selected the topic Birds of Prey of Northern Illinois.

     

    Making Webs and Question ListsAnchor Charts

    Once you and your students have chosen a topic it is time to start brainstorming. I recommend creating three anchor charts that you will use throughout the entire project. The first chart will be your class web. Begin with your topic written in the middle of a large piece of chart paper and let your students share everything they can about the project’s topic. As students share, fill out the web, adding to it each day as you learn more. ELL Project Tip #2: Don’t worry if your students share information for the web that is incorrect. As you research the project's topic your students will learn about their misconceptions and be able to go back and correct the web. It is most important for your ELL students to feel comfortable sharing what they know about the topic and learning that it is okay to make mistakes as you go along.

    The second chart I recommend for your class project is a list of questions. Again, students will add to this list of questions throughout the project, so make sure you have lots of paper! As your project progresses and your students find the answers to their questions, encourage them to go back and add the newfound answers to the anchor chart.

    The final must-have project chart is a list of new vocabulary. Academic vocabulary is important for all students, but it is especially important for ELL students. List the words you learn along with a short definition on the chart. Make sure this chart is visible at all times so that your ELL students can refer back to it while reading, researching, and even while they create their final project. ELL Project Tip #3: If your class is bilingual like mine, you can also add a cognates section to your vocabulary chart. This is the place for students to make connections between their native language and English, identifying similarities in related words from both languages.

     

    (Student-led) Researching the Topic

    Kids workingProject Based Learning is all about giving students the freedom to explore a topic in ways that are meaningful and motivating to them. Instead of just providing students with the answers to their topic questions, teach your students how to research for themselves. Here are some great ways we found information on birds of prey:

    1. Visit the school and public libraries, asking librarians to help you find the section dedicated to your topic of study.

    2. Bring in experts to your classroom. We were fortunate enough to have three different experts come and share with our class, answering students’ questions in person.

    3. Instead of letting students loose on Google, provide them with some websites you’ve already found that are appropriate to the topic and the age group. I really liked using these resources with my students:

    ELL Project Tip #4: Allow your students to research the topic in their native language as well as English. This allows them to use all of the resources available to them and encourages them to make connections between languages on a single topic.

     

    Using Real Life Examples and Experiences

    The part of Project Based Learning that I find most valuable and rewarding is the chance to expose students to real-life artifacts and experiences. ELL Project Tip #5: ELL students learn best by seeing and doing, so give your students every opportunity to do just that! For our birds of prey project we had two separate visits from live raptors, one from the McHenry County Conservation District, and another from a local raptor rehabilitation center called Barnswallow. Here are some photos of our experiences with real birds of prey in our classroom!

    Birds of Prey Expert Visitors

     

    Presenting Your Final Project to an Audience

    Final Project NestsTo conclude your many weeks (or in our case, months) of research and exploration, bring your students together to create a project presentation. It is important that this project be authentic and allow them to share what they have learned with an audience outside your class. We were able to have a project celebration night at our local children’s museum where students brought their families and shared all they had learned.

    Afterward the students worked in groups to make posters all about the birds of prey of Northern Illinois, models of talons made from clay, and even their own nests created from materials a bird would be able to find in the wild. These posters and products spent two weeks on display in our community’s public library. The students were so proud of all they had learned and were eager to share this knowledge with others. ELL Project Tip #6: Provide your ELL students with a venue for sharing their project that allows them to incorporate listening, speaking, reading, and writing of the English language.

    I cannot emphasize enough how rewarding this project was for my class and my ELL students. This is a favorite memory of all of my kids and the growth I saw in their interests and abilities was staggering. If you have ELL students in your classroom, you have got to give Project Based Learning a try! For more information on this topic, check out Meghan Everette’s "8 Essential Elements of Project Based Learning" and Lindsey Petlaks’ "Hand Over the Reins: Student-Driven Projects."

     

    If we want our ELL students to love learning and develop the language skills necessary to communicate both socially and academically, then we as teachers have to make learning both authentic and motivating. The best way I have found to do this is with Project Based Learning in the classroom. Through the use of student-centered, cross-curricular projects our ELL students can engage in learning like never before! Take a look at how my class’ project on birds of prey brought the fun of learning to life for my ELL students.

     

     

    Choosing a Topic

    While as teachers we are accustomed to planning our students’ learning experiences, the project approach asks that we give up that control in favor of exploring students’ interests. This can be difficult to do, but I promise that it is worth it when you see your students’ excitement about a project selected specifically for them. It can be difficult in a class of 25 students to find a project topic that appeals to everyone, so I found it best to observe students’ interests over time and select a project that would meet the following criteria:

    1. Topic should be of interest to your students

    2. Topic should explore a central theme that is relevant to your students’ lives

    3. Topic should lend itself to the hands-on exploration of real artifacts and real life experiences

    4. Teachers must be willing to let the topic take a new direction as students ask questions and guide the project themselves

    For our class project I teamed up with my colleague, friend, and classroom neighbor, Ashley, and her class of general education students. This allowed my self-contained bilingual class the opportunity to interact with new friends who could also serve as models of the English language. This leads me to my ELL Project Tip #1: Involve both ELL and native English speakers in your project in order to bring diversity to your group and provide native language modeling for your ELLs.

    Topic selection for our project was easy. Our school backs up to a county forest preserve, making our playground a perfect viewing site for hawks and eagles. Many times our students would come in from recess asking questions and recounting stories of seeing the large birds. With easy access to birds of prey and a great deal of interest from the students, we selected the topic Birds of Prey of Northern Illinois.

     

    Making Webs and Question ListsAnchor Charts

    Once you and your students have chosen a topic it is time to start brainstorming. I recommend creating three anchor charts that you will use throughout the entire project. The first chart will be your class web. Begin with your topic written in the middle of a large piece of chart paper and let your students share everything they can about the project’s topic. As students share, fill out the web, adding to it each day as you learn more. ELL Project Tip #2: Don’t worry if your students share information for the web that is incorrect. As you research the project's topic your students will learn about their misconceptions and be able to go back and correct the web. It is most important for your ELL students to feel comfortable sharing what they know about the topic and learning that it is okay to make mistakes as you go along.

    The second chart I recommend for your class project is a list of questions. Again, students will add to this list of questions throughout the project, so make sure you have lots of paper! As your project progresses and your students find the answers to their questions, encourage them to go back and add the newfound answers to the anchor chart.

    The final must-have project chart is a list of new vocabulary. Academic vocabulary is important for all students, but it is especially important for ELL students. List the words you learn along with a short definition on the chart. Make sure this chart is visible at all times so that your ELL students can refer back to it while reading, researching, and even while they create their final project. ELL Project Tip #3: If your class is bilingual like mine, you can also add a cognates section to your vocabulary chart. This is the place for students to make connections between their native language and English, identifying similarities in related words from both languages.

     

    (Student-led) Researching the Topic

    Kids workingProject Based Learning is all about giving students the freedom to explore a topic in ways that are meaningful and motivating to them. Instead of just providing students with the answers to their topic questions, teach your students how to research for themselves. Here are some great ways we found information on birds of prey:

    1. Visit the school and public libraries, asking librarians to help you find the section dedicated to your topic of study.

    2. Bring in experts to your classroom. We were fortunate enough to have three different experts come and share with our class, answering students’ questions in person.

    3. Instead of letting students loose on Google, provide them with some websites you’ve already found that are appropriate to the topic and the age group. I really liked using these resources with my students:

    ELL Project Tip #4: Allow your students to research the topic in their native language as well as English. This allows them to use all of the resources available to them and encourages them to make connections between languages on a single topic.

     

    Using Real Life Examples and Experiences

    The part of Project Based Learning that I find most valuable and rewarding is the chance to expose students to real-life artifacts and experiences. ELL Project Tip #5: ELL students learn best by seeing and doing, so give your students every opportunity to do just that! For our birds of prey project we had two separate visits from live raptors, one from the McHenry County Conservation District, and another from a local raptor rehabilitation center called Barnswallow. Here are some photos of our experiences with real birds of prey in our classroom!

    Birds of Prey Expert Visitors

     

    Presenting Your Final Project to an Audience

    Final Project NestsTo conclude your many weeks (or in our case, months) of research and exploration, bring your students together to create a project presentation. It is important that this project be authentic and allow them to share what they have learned with an audience outside your class. We were able to have a project celebration night at our local children’s museum where students brought their families and shared all they had learned.

    Afterward the students worked in groups to make posters all about the birds of prey of Northern Illinois, models of talons made from clay, and even their own nests created from materials a bird would be able to find in the wild. These posters and products spent two weeks on display in our community’s public library. The students were so proud of all they had learned and were eager to share this knowledge with others. ELL Project Tip #6: Provide your ELL students with a venue for sharing their project that allows them to incorporate listening, speaking, reading, and writing of the English language.

    I cannot emphasize enough how rewarding this project was for my class and my ELL students. This is a favorite memory of all of my kids and the growth I saw in their interests and abilities was staggering. If you have ELL students in your classroom, you have got to give Project Based Learning a try! For more information on this topic, check out Meghan Everette’s "8 Essential Elements of Project Based Learning" and Lindsey Petlaks’ "Hand Over the Reins: Student-Driven Projects."

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