Tips on Starting PBL with English Language Learners
By Aletha Williams
When I first started teaching, I did a disservice to students in my classroom. I would put them in rows and lecture to the students in the front row. I thought that all thirty students were listening to me teach science and was learning. Then they added about six students that didn’t speak English into my room, and still, I thought that pairing them up with a partner that spoke their language was going to help them learn in my class. I assumed this was the best way to teach these learners. However, they were not understanding what I was teaching. At first, I blamed them for not listening to me lecture (45 mins every day) but finally recognized that I was the problem -my teaching methods were not engaging and I needed to make a change fast.
I started to study what I could do to help my students relate to the material that I was teaching in the classroom. The first thing I tried was putting students into groups and letting them figure out problems together. The next thing was that I made the class lessons more hands-on and inquiry-based. When I saw the glow in their faces, I knew I wanted to learn more about implementing project-based learning (PBL) in my classroom. To do this, I went to workshops, graduate classes, schools, teachers’ classes, and bought books to learn how to implement projects the correct way in the classroom.
I’ve been doing project-based learning with English Language Learners (ELLs) now for many years. These students learn so much through project-based learning – they are in charge of the teaching in the classroom and work well together in collaborative groups. PBL has helped build their critical thinking research skills, learn new facts, and have that hands-on experience.
Recently, I have been given the opportunity to help ELL teachers learn how to implement project-based learning in their classrooms. I’ve taught them how to show students what PBL looks like and how to help students work collaboratively and guide them on their projects.
Here are tips I give to ELL teachers on getting started with PBL:
- Make sure that the parents and students understand what project-based learning is. The teacher needs to know that project-based learning requires a shift in thinking too, “it’s okay to work in groups and share resources and tools.”
- Be patient and start off slow when it comes to project-based learning. If the students are new to the US, this may be their first time learning in groups in a classroom, so teach them how to work in groups first. Then, get them used to the lesson in the class before introducing them to project-based learning. It takes effort, but over time it does help the students to learn concepts in the classroom.
- Don’t start with a huge project if you have never done project-based learning. More things not to do: don’t rush the teaching with the students, don’t rush the project, don’t expect the students to understand the concepts at first, and don’t expect students to know how to work in groups.
- Make sure that everyone has the proper tools for the project and knows that success is a team effort.
About the Author:
Aletha Williams is an educator for Houston ISD. She has been teaching high school science for the past thirteen years. She is in the TEACHPlus internship this year and was part of the TED-ED Innovator Educators last year. At the current time, she is attending Texas Tech University to receive her PhD in C&I for STEM Education. Her long-term goal is to create policies to help ELLs learn better in the classrooms and to have more teachers of color teaching students of color.