Using Project-Based Learning to Teach World Languages

This post first appeared on Edutopia at this link.

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest blogger is Don Doehla, French teacher and instructional coach at Vintage High School in Napa, California. Don recently stepped up to become the new facilitator of our World Languages group. He’s got some great ideas for teaching world languages, including the use of project-based learning. He shares a few of these tips today. We hope you’ll join him in the World Languages group as well. 

The world may be small and flat, but it is also multilingual, multicultural, and more and more, it is an interconnected world. Consequently, cross cultural communicative competencies are increasingly important for mutual understanding and cooperation – how is that for some alliteration?! Our students’ need to be able to communicate with their neighbors, here and abroad, is increasing with every moment which passes! The borders separating our countries are diminishing in importance as the global culture emerges. The definition of who my neighbor is has changed as well. No longer are we isolated from what is happening across the globe. Recent events demonstrate this quite well! Examples abound for everyone on the planet. We must be able to communicate well and proficiently across the kilometers which separate us.

The Challenges

Like other World Language teachers, I am constantly trying to focus on the essentials in order to create a standards-driven, communication-based curriculum for my students. I am also keen on addressing the necessary skills students must acquire for the 21st century as outlined in the wonderful document from the Carnegie Institute available at How can I know whether I have achieved my desired objective? I need authentic assessments to evaluate target language proficiencies, while offering opportunities for greater engagement, for working in collaborative teams, for developing critical thinking skills, for managing precious time and resources, for emphasizing global themes, and for preparing students toward the new AP exam in French starting next year! On top of that, I want them to learn how to use proficiently the wonderful technology tools now available. Sound familiar? We work hard as teachers! Darn hard! Oui, monsieur, dur, dur!

The Rationale for PBL

And so I come to project-based learning as a way of bringing it all together. Projects provide opportunities for students to engage in real life communication, in context, with real people, and across the globe. I try to align my projects according to the California WL Standards, and the fluency stages of the Language Learning Continuum found in chapter 2 of the California World Languages Framework. I also keep the 21st Century skills in mind, along with the more familiar five C’s from ACTFL, and the many things I have learned about literacy, and cross-cultural issues. I have found that the projects address all these things and more. I have tried to make sure that they also offer students the opportunity to be creative and to explore their potentials and aspirations. It is a lot of fun to see this in action. How about some examples?

Stage 1 Fluency Example: The Menu Project

In this project, students play the role of a restaurant owner who needs to develop and create a menu for his/her restaurant established in one of the target language countries of the world. Their menus must have at least five categories, and twenty-five items, all authentic dishes of the target culture of their choice within the Francophone world. They must decide on an appropriate name, create an address, phone number, website and twitter account name, consistent with examples they find on-line from authentic restaurants of the target culture. Their menu items must be priced in the local currency, converted in an appropriate manner for the target culture. The students then do a speech either in small groups or for the whole class in which they speak to the group as the restaurant owner, suggesting good dishes, specialty items, etc. They must say at least 15 sentences, and can either present live or on video. I have a rubric for the menu and one for the speech, and am looking for Stage 1 fluency, namely, formulaic language (memorized chunks of discourse combined with lists of works). I find that the kids learn a lot about a country of their choice, while having fun being creative!

Stage 2 Fluency Example: The Children’s Story Book

We refer to stage two fluency as created language. The premise here is that students take the formulae that they have learned so well in stage one, and combine them together into their own created sentences. These statements no longer sound like memorized sound bites given back in the same formula, but rather in individualized, self directed expressions of thoughts and ideas. The sentences are frequently complex, but do not contain subordinate clauses of the kind requiring specialized verb forms. They also do not necessarily have to be strung together in a particular order to make sense – if we were to reorder them, they would make just as much sense in the new order. In other words, these are lists of sentences, but the order of the lists are not significant.

I have developed a project to measure this stage of fluency which I call the Story Book project. Students create a set of characters who live in one of the target language countries. They write the story as if the main character were describing his life when he was five years old (which requires the imperfect tense in French). The students then describe a big event which occurred in the life of the character, such as his first day of school, and then the things which happened in that day (requiring the use of the passé composé in French). They need to research what a child’s life is like in the target culture and create an authentic and visually rich situation for the story’s setting. I usually ask students to write about 5 sentences per page, and about ten pages total. They do rough drafts and peer editing. I also look at the drafts and highlight what is correct, and make some suggestions for corrections. The editing process is a learning experience of its own.

As students write their stories, they cannot help but compare their own lives with those of the characters they have created. The compare and contrast paradigme creates a good context for created language. It also allows students to try out their knowledge of how to narrate in past time frames, and demonstrate that they know how to use the various past tenses typical of the second year language curriculum. We often find that students reach what we call “linguistic breakdown” as they use various verb forms, but they do not necessarily do so at the syntactic level. They are able to make the sentence structures fit together well, even when their verb forms are not always correct. Frankly, I think this is great! When my focus is on the fluency stage, and not on distinct verb forms, I find that my students are actually progressing very well in their journey toward language acquisition. In time, they will perfect their use of verb forms, but in the meantime, they are clearly able to communicate at a higher level of fluency even if their accuracy is not yet up to par. We do want accuracy, of course, but in terms of fluency, this is a lesser problem for communication than is the sentence structure.

Stage 3 Fluency Example: The ABC Book Project

In stage three fluency, the text type I am aiming for is planned language, ie, paragraphing, in which there is a topic sentence, supported by concrete details and commentary, and a concluding sentence to sum up the important ideas. In French, this requires that students know how to create complex sentences, using main and subordinate clauses, requiring the subjunctive, or “if/then” type sentences, requiring imperfect/conditional tenses, among others (other languages may require knowledge of other paradigms as well). I have done this project over the course of a whole semester, breaking it down in smaller parts over time, and with the focus being Québec. We study many different aspects of Québécois culture: short stories, poems, song lyrics, historical texts, current events… The students do smaller projects along the way, but as a result of their inquiry, they write a page on each topic of their choice. I have them write 20 pages, one for each of 20 letters of the alphabet, according to their choice. An example page might look like this in English:

Q is for Québec City (title sentence). Québec is the capital city of the province of Quebec, and sits on a bluff overlooking the Saint Lawrence River (topic sentence). It seems to me that the people of Québec have much for which they may be proud (detail). It is necessary that they invest wisely in the maintenance of their historical monuments, because it preserves the diversity of their historical heritage (commentary). If I were to visit Québec, I would want to look out over the Saint Lawrence from the Terasse Dufferein so I could enjoy the beautiful view of the river and of the Ile d’Orléans (commentary). If I went to Québec in winter, I would go during the Carnaval so I could participate in the many activities (commentary). It is interesting that the local accent is different in Québec than in France. (commentary). If I go to Québec, I will practice speaking French with the local people and hope that I will be able to understand their accent without any problems (conclusion).”

This is a fair amount of work for one page, let alone twenty, so I provide a page template for students to use to be sure they keep on track. I have them do rough drafts of each page. When they turn in the drafts, I highlight what is correct and return the pages. The students may resubmit the pages with corrections until they have perfected their work. In this way, I am reinforcing their own editing process, and helping them to focus on the details they might otherwise overlook. This project has proven to be great fun, and I have found that by the end of the semester, they have mastered complex sentences and paragraphing quite well.

Future Plans

Next year, I plan to augment my project-based approach by connecting my classes with classes in 3 Francophone countries – France, Canada, and Sénégal. I want the students to collaborate with their peers across the world in writing digital stories which they will post on the web for their friends to read, and so they can offer comments and engage in conversations about the stories. I plan to have the students explore many story genres, including comic strips, manga, short stories and poems, and other kinds of writing as their interests are piqued. The many web 2.0 applications which are now available will be a big help in giving students the tools they need to write and create their stories. I expect the project to provide greater opportunities for engagement, creativity, problem solving, and collaboration ? ie, they will learn to communicate in French while learning 21st century skills!

Let’s have some fun, too! Join the conversation. Post an idea on the Edutopia WL group. Need an idea? Got a question? Found a cool website, app or tool? Let’s collaborate as well! Shall we get started? Thanks in advance for sharing your ideas ? together is better!


About Don

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT French Teacher Co-Director Berkeley WL Project UC Berkeley Language Center Facilitator #langchat team moderator Keen on 21st Century Skills & PBLL View all posts by Don

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