Applying PBL to English Language Teaching and Learning

Along with the benefits described on previous pages I believe PBL has a lot to offer teachers and learners of English.

Input of Language and Skills

We could just say that for content based instruction PBL offers potentially more interesting and motivating source materials because the topic and materials are chosen by the learner.

According to Thom Markham “PBL offers teachers the opportunity to teach, observe, and measure the growth of real-world skills” (Markham, 2012, p.x). In the case of ELT these may be the skills needed for academic study or those required to become a successful language learner. It also offers us the opportunity to consider the linguistic skills and knowledge needed to master these skills and take this into consideration when designing projects.

Language and skills specific input can be linked to specific stages of the scenario. For example, in the  scenario described on the Problem Based Learning page*  the discussion of the patient’s symptoms and potential illness could be preceded by a teacher’s input on the use of hypothetical language. The individual research stage may lend itself to work on reading skills, or note-taking, before the learners start researching. It is unlikely that an English teacher would exhaust the potential learning possibilities – rather the challenge is to limit the input and not overload the learner.

The observation of learners as they work on the project also enables teachers to monitor for remedial or further (guided) input.

But that scenario was for medical students*!!

True, so unless we are teaching in an ESP medical context the problem may be inappropriate. However, we do not need to stick to the simple scenario described – it is not difficult to imagine adding stages and tasks relevant to ELT as well as relevant scenarios and topic areas.

It must be said that, although I describe this scenario as simple, it quickly becomes quite complex the more we consider what is needed to successfully achieve the task. We then, as teachers, need to consider the staging and scaffolding of the Problem.



PBL as natural vehicle for Communicative Language Teaching

We may be in a post-method (Kumaravadivelu, 2001) ELT world yet there is a broad commitment to a communicative approach. Project Based Learning, when combined with Web 2.0 technologies (more to come on this), offers many opportunities to promote language use and acquisition in real-life contexts. Boothe et al provide a rational for the creation of an information gap that can be exploited for language teaching purposes.

“The basic premise of PBL is that learning begins with a problem presented in the same context as it would be encountered in real life. When presented with the problem, students begin by organizing their ideas and previous knowledge to define the problem’s broad nature. Inevitably they reach a point at which they realize they are missing essential information or do not understand aspects of the problem”

Naturally will want much of the problem solving to take place in English – reading and writing are easy to ensure, speaking and listening not so easy because projects will entail independent work – we can create outcomes that require the demonstration of spoken English. I have done this in my own PBL tasks.



Motivating our learners

Boothe et al also mention the motivation fostered by undertaking tasks that prepare learners for future studies or professional careers. My own research, conducted using Problem Based Learning (unpublished 2012), suggests that learners recognized the development of skills that hinted at future utility – for example how collaborative working prepares for a professional career.  This corresponds with Dörnyei’s Motivational Self Theory and identity goals (Ushioda 2011) – indicating that if learners are able to see the skills and knowledge developed though PBL they are likely to be motivated in undertaking the project. Furthermore, from an ELT perspective if learners are able to creates a link between the learners use of L2 and their views (and hopes) of themselves as future users of the language.



Trying to capture and acknowledge more learning…and encouraging mastery approaches to learning

It is important to make a distinction between teaching and learning. Teachers have an idea of what we want our learners to learn and plan and deliver our lessons accordingly. However, we cannot determine what learners will learn. They may learn what we have intended to teach – they may also have learned something in addition. They may have actually learned something totally different to the teacher’s intentions. Should we disregard the learning – which was important to the learners (otherwise it wouldn’t have happened) or try to capture and recognize it.

PBL allows us to capture this learning and development which is lost when we make judgments based solely on traditional assessment or teachers narrow judgments of learning. Traditional assessment promotes passive performance orientated learning which tends to be short-term. PBL can foster mastery learning which is deeper and encourages reflection on and recognition of a wider range of achievement.



PBL, ELT and globalization of English

Warschauser argued, way back in 2000, that globalization with English as its common language, along with advances in Information Technology makes PBL an essential approach in ELT.

“new information technologies will transform notions of literacy, making on-line navigation and research, interpretation and authoring of hypermedia, and synchronous and asynchronous on-line communication critical skills for learners of English. The above changes, taken together, will render ineffective curricula based strictly on syntactic or functional elements or narrowly defined tasks. Rather, project-based learning incorporating situated practice and critical inquiry, and based on students’ own cultural frameworks-will be required if students are to master the complex English literacy and communications skills required by the emerging informational economy and society” (2000, p.511)

…and as I write this it is 2014.



Examples of PBL in practice

This section has been longer than I had intended so let’s finish this page with a couple of positive examples of PBL used in English Language Contexts.

Among the successful ELT Projects (Duzer & Moss, 1998,pp.3 & 5) mention are lesson planning and teaching other learners (following a PBL cycle) and an amazing sounding project in New York that led to the founding and running of  café and catering business.



Boothe, D Vaughn, R Hill, J & Hill, H 2011?, ‘Innovative English Language Acquisition Through Problem-based Learning’, viewed 15th May 2014,,Vaughn,Hill,Hill.pdf

Kumaravadivelu, B 2001, ‘Toward a postmethod pedagogy.’ TESOL Quarterly, vol 35, 537–560.

Markham, T 2012, Project Based Learning. Design and Coaching Guide, viewed 1st May 2014,

Moss, D & Van Duzer, C 1998, ‘Project-Based Learning for Adult English Language Learners’, ERIC Digest. Washington DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education, ED427556.

Ushioda, E 2011a, ‘Language Learning motivation’ self and identity: current theoretical perspectives’, Computer Aided Language Learning, vol.24 no.3, pp.199-210.

Warschauer, M 2000, ‘The Changing Global Economy and the Future of English Teaching.’ TESOL Quarterly, vol 34, no.3, pp.511–36.


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