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Project-Based Learning

This is a draft extract from the forthcoming handbook and is a joint blog written with Gianfranco Conti of

Project-Based Learning (PBL)

This is akin to task-based learning and what is known in the UK as CLIL (Content and Language Integrate Learning).  Terminology varies in this field, but the following definition of CLIL from Coyle et al (2010)* is handy:

A dual-focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for the learning and teaching of both content and language.

When you think about it, it's what you often do when you teach at advanced level where the language becomes little more than the medium through which you teach about a cultural topic, film or literary text for example. At this level much basic grammar and high frequency vocabulary is already quite familiar to students and the focus becomes the content more than the language itself. With that in mind, many language teachers are already familiar with something loosely resembling  PBL or CLIL. If there is a difference between PBL and CLIL, it is that the former has a specific task to perform involving a student presentation of some sort. Whatever the terminology employed, the main point is that content takes precedence over language.

With younger classes in schools the PBL/CLIL approach is used more rarely, but does have its fans. How does it work and what are the implications of the approach in terms of incorporating culture into lessons?

American teacher Lisa Lilley describes the key components of a PBL task thus:

1. A need to know.
2. A driving question.
3. Student voice and choice.
4. Twenty-first century skills (the only time you will read this phrase in our book).
5. Inquiry and innovation.
6. Feedback and revision.
7. A publicly presented product.
8. Teachers significant content.

Now, it is possible to view a project a little less prescriptively than this, but the guidelines are handy if you decide to plan your own activity.

PBL/CLIL is  attractive because of a problem which language teachers often recognise: the discrepancy between students' cognitive levels and the level of their L2. Put simply, it is hard to find material which is easy enough for classes yet really important and engaging. It could therefore be seen as an antidote to lessons about pencil cases, daily routines, holidays and hobbies. In the context of culture, PBL offers a number of advantages:

It can provide contexts really relevant to students' needs and interests.
It promotes both linguistic skill and general cultural knowledge.
It may allow for a more creative use of language than with traditional form-focused approaches.
It may provide particularly good contexts for widening students' understanding of their own culture and those of others.

A common way PBL  is put into practice in schools is through interdisciplinary modules where language teachers work alongside colleagues in teaching a topic, partly through the medium of L2. The project may be led by the language teacher, whereby students see the work as both linguistic and cultural, or by another department, whereby the language work may be perceived as an add-on to the main content.

Other ideas for a more content-orientated, which do not always have to culminate in  a presented ‘product’, PBLL approach might be:

Using the Google Art Project website as a basis for a topic about art. You could talk in L2 about particular pictures, stimulate L2 discussion about them and get students to conduct personal research on a particular style, artist or period. You may be able to collaborate with the art department of your school. The aim of the project could be to produce a guide for younger students.

Using websites of L2 charitable organisations, students could summarise the work of charities and voluntary organisations. The focus would be on reading, note-taking and summary with a particular project in mind, for example, sponsoring a child in the developing world. Students could produce a PowerPoint or Prezi, for example.

Using the websites of well-known sports clubs or sports people, students could use L2 material to produce pen portraits. At a simple level you could scaffold the activity by producing gap-fill templates or information grids to complete. At a higher level students could write imaginary interviews with sports personalities. One outcome might be an imaginary journalistic interview in L2.

As part of a topic on healthy lifestyles students could use health and nutrition websites to find health statistics for a country and summarise healthy living advice. For French a good place to start is the site They could produce a guide or oral presentation for healthy living for younger students. Again, lower level students can be supported with scaffolding resources.

British teacher Chris Fuller has done a project for low intermediate students in Spanish on drugs legislation in Uruguay. At the time of writing, the details can be found here:;Another British teacher, NoƩmie Neighbour, has worked with her low intermediate students on the French revolution.

American French teacher and blogger Don Doehla has used this project based on restaurant menus:

Students  play the role of a restaurant owner who needs to develop and create a menu for their restaurant established in one of the L2 countries. Their menus must have at least five categories, and twenty-five items, all authentic dishes of the L2 culture. They must decide on an appropriate name, create an address, phone number, website and twitter account name, consistent with examples they find online from authentic restaurants. Their menu items must be priced in the local currency. The students then do a speech either in small groups or for the whole class in which they speak  as the restaurant owner, suggesting good dishes, specialities, etc. They must say at least 15 sentences, and can either present live or on video. You can supply as much linguistic support as the class needs.

Your class could produce an L2 newspaper, blog or website rooted in the L2 culture. You could provide L2 input in the form of example features (weather, horoscopes, crosswords, news items) then students could work in groups to produce their own material to be shared with other classes, younger students or a partner class abroad.

Your class could take part in a letter, email or social network exchange with a partner class. The aim would be to exchange information on aspects of daily life with the goal being to produce a comparative presentation in L1 or L2. You would provide support and guidelines for the exchange. For example, would the students communicate in L1 or L2? Would the emphasis be on reading comprehension or written output?

You could get intermediate and advanced students to research an L2 singer or group. They would listen to songs online, research the artist's website and produce a PowerPoint presentation about the artist with examples of lyrics and song videos in L1 or L2.

It is worth reiterating that projects of this type are time-consuming and you need to be clear what your aims are when setting them up. Is the language emphasis on input or output? The former may end up placing more stress on the content and be more motivational for students. If students have to produce L2 material, although the task becomes more challenging, many will find it hard, time-consuming and may lose interest in the project content itself. As a teacher, you do not necessarily have to judge the success of a cultural project by the spoken or written outcome. If a good deal of interested listening or reading has been done, this is still valuable; indeed some would say all the more valuable. So, in short, consider the ‘surrender value’ of PBL tasks, as with any language learning activity.

* CLIL: Content and Language Integrated Learning, Coyle, Hood and Marsh, Cambridge, 2010.


  1. Not my choice if words. It is a phrase I avoid. I think she means, in part, using digital technology.

    1. While I don't like the term 21st century either, pretty sure that Lisa is referring to this:

  2. Hello all. Thanks for your post. I would just nudge us all forward a bit with a couple new terms to complete the conversation. In World Languages, we are now calling it PBLL - Project-based Language-learning.

    Also, with the need to review and revise, has set the Gold Standard, and re-callibrated the terminology for the 21st Century skills, and we now call them "skills for success" as we are well into the 21st Century. Do with that as you will, of course!

    Also, the 8 elements have been updated. Here is an article on the matter.

    I recommend these two articles for more:

    I recommend this book as well:

    The NFLRC at the University of Hawaii at Manoa has much more on PBLL.

    And finally, not to toot my own horn, but in the interest of our discourse, my own website is available:

    Best regards to you!

  3. Hi Don. Thank you for thise links. I shall have a look. At first glance they carry some of that evangelical, 'panacea approach' promotion which always makes me a bit wary! Acronyms in this area come and go, don't they? The resaerch claims made for PBL look a bit thin, don't they? Over here in the UK, explicit instruction (also 'supported by research') seems to be making a comeback. I am pretty agnostic about these things, having seen so many approaches come and go. I dislike the terrm 21st century skills and expect it to disappear soon. It's always interesting to see different perspectives on these matters. All the best.

  4. You make a good point and I tend to agree. That being said, what makes the difference for me is that in my own classroom, I am getting great results. The biggest change is engagement! My students love having the opportunity to be creative. They will spend hours and hours creating a video simply because it is fun! I expect them to show me the standards, and make that clear upfront, and then it is up to them to produce. They come to realize that they do "need to know" some things they previously found dull and unengaging. Whether the research is thin or not, it is no less so than for the constant ebb and flow of so many other approaches! To me, each teacher must come into his/her own calling, and decide what works best for him/her, and for the students we serve. I love PBLL because it works for me, not because there is research to support it or because others say it works. Whatever! No fad, no what's the next thing, just engaged students, enjoying their learning, and becoming proficient in the target language.

    All the best to you in your own path forward.


  5. That sounds great, Don. I do think teacher belief in an approach is so important too. I suppose my question would be the one about 'surrender value'. Namely, if a student spends loads of time creating a video, how much does that impinge upon quality input and how much is spent on non-linguistic technical activity? That's not to criticise, but I just throw it in! I always hesitate to be dogmatic about any of these things since so much is about local context in language teaching. All the best!


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