Monthly Archives: March 2015

Going deeper with PBLL planning

This question was posted recently on Edutopia

Dear Don,

Thank you for your article. I am a French teacher at the American School of New Delhi and I am currently preparing a COETAIL program (Certificate of educational technology and information literacy) . As part of my last course, I have decide to implement a PBL task. I am teaching a beginner group and our next unit is about ‘food’. I have been inspired by your article to ask the students to set up a restaurant in a francophone country. As a novice with PBL, I would be really grateful if you could give me some advice to ensure a succesful and enjoyable experience for my students : do you give your students any vocabulary or structures beforehand? how do you make sure that they communicate with each other in the target language (considering that I have a beginner group, they might use more English than French)? How do you assess them along the way? How do you track individual’s participation in the group? I’ll appreciate any advice, rubrics, resources I could use to help me set up that project. Merci beaucoup!


Hi Julie – you have some GREAT questions! Well done on experimenting with PBLL (project-based language-learning) as well.

I usually introduce a PBLL-aligned unit with some form of comprehensible input in the form of a story related to the learning targets and including a driving question for inquiry. For example, for this “food unit,” the driving question(s) is/are: How can we help to preserve the rich culinary heritage of the Francophone world? The learning targets are formulated in “I can statements” = I can + language function + theme. For example:

  • I can describe how to prepare a recipe from the target culture.
    I can ask and answer questions about the foods of the target culture.
    I can help someone select a dish from a menu.

My story will model all these learning targets. I include key vocabulary and structures (not grammar! but syntactical relationships, or sentence frames) as a model of the language they will learn and produce. My story may have episodes as well, to break it down into segments, as all at once could be overload. I do not provide lists of words, I ask students to share out new words they are learning, and we create a word wall – usually on, but also the walls of the classroom. I am not keen on a “defined list” – I want students to own their vocabulary. There can be choices here.

Students work in groups of four ideally. More is too many, three is the least. They have assigned roles (decided by the group) to ensure everything is done well – project manager, secretary, questioner/clarifier, producer…). I help scaffold interpersonal communication between students with sentence frames – on Padlet and on paper. I also circulate around the room constantly, checking in with groups as they do their research. I ask and answer questions in French, and support their use of the target language. Students are encouraged to use target language as much as possible, but they are not required only to speak French.

I have rubrics for several things: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and of course communication: oral and written, in the three modes of communication – interpretive, interpersonal and presentational. I am working on updates of my rubrics, including making variations for novice, intermediate and advanced level fluencies. The ones I have made are on my website at – see the tab labeled “PBLL” – note that this page is under construction, but there is a link to my old site where there is all I have posted so far. More to come on this! You will find a lot of resources there.

I am writing a “how to” book on PBLL, but it is in draft, not yet done. More to follow on this!

I hope this gets you started! Thanks for your post, and best wishes on your good work!


The Importance of World Languages and Intercultural Competence

The national debate about education seems omnipresent in the media, whether on TV or the radio, in newspapers and magazines, or in social media, from Facebook to Twitter, and more. As a nation, we look to our schools to educate students for participation in an increasingly flattened global economy. We hear about the importance of teacher accountability, of better test scores in math, sciences, and English. We also need to hear much more about creating increased opportunities for students to learn other languages, starting in early grades, so they may have sufficient opportunity to reach high levels of communicative proficiency and intercultural competence. The time has come for us to open up the debate more fully about this important question.

While it is true that English enjoys a position of prestige on the global scale, we should not to take it for granted; we cannot predict what the future may hold. Even so, America must develop citizens who can communicate well in other languages. We have to address national security concerns, to be sure. We must also to prepare students who can demonstrate respect for our trading partners. Beyond those concerns, we do well to ensure that students are prepared to understand our neighbors, friends, allies, foes, and those within our own borders who are members of language minority communities. Language learning opportunities open doors for mutual appreciation, understanding and respect. As a world leader, America needs citizens who show an interest in building positive and equal relationships with other nations. When we make that kind of investment, we gain much more than a business transaction. We also gain the prospect of making new friends and allies.

There is another benefit to language study that warrants our attention. Students who learn other languages also gain insights into other cultural perspectives, and intercultural competency, which is defined as the ability to communicate in culturally appropriate ways, while showing appreciation and understanding of others, and maintaining a spirit of openness and respect for others. To attain to a high level of intercultural competency, students require enough time not only acquire another language to sufficient proficiency, but also time to explore, explain, investigate, and reflect upon the perceptions of other cultural groups, their values and their beliefs.


As students investigate other cultures through authentic resources, they gain insights into the commonalities and the differences between cultures. According to studies by Kramsch, Deardorff, Moeller, and others, cultural inquiry leads to greater insights into one’s own culture, a greater awareness of the similarities and differences between cultures, and greater self-awareness. As students reflect on the results of their inquiry, they come to realize how culture impacts one’s attitudes and worldview. They reach a deeper understanding of others, and they also grow in flexibility, adaptability, empathy, and respect.

Intercultural Competence – A Conceptual Framework

To achieve these worthy goals, we must be bold in our efforts to increase language-learning opportunities in the early years of our children’s educational journeys. In my own school district, for example, we recently completed a group inquiry into the ways we could offer more opportunities for students to begin language study in early elementary years. We have a Spanish-English dual immersion magnet school, which has been in existence for several years. This highly successful program is modeled on the French immersion schools of Canada, which have a long-proven record of success in supporting students to become bilingual, interculturally aware, and cognitively more advanced than their monolingual peers. In my district, we have added a second dual immersion magnet school, and plan to add others. In addition, we have worked to establish clearly defined language learning pathways in K-12 so students will be able to pursue language studies across their educational journey. Efforts such as these should be considered and implemented across the country.

Clearly there are many advantages to establishing such language-learning opportunities for the future of our country and its citizens. Let us begin in earnest to discuss how we can ensure we meet these strategically essential goals, and how we may prepare our children to be globally aware and communicatively proficient in more than one language. The future of America’s standing in the world is at stake. Now is the time to act thoughtfully, thoroughly and intentionally, to meet these important objectives.