Support Your English Language Learners During PBL with These 5 Tips

If you’re an educator in the U.S., chances are you already have several English Language Learners (ELLs) in your classroom. ELLs account for more than 10% of the total K-12 student population, and are on the rise in a majority of states according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education. These students, who are not yet proficient enough in English to effectively communicate and learn in the language, require additional support to succeed in the classroom.

All too often, ELLs are confined to drill-and-skill instruction and only engaged in lower-level thinking, but new research suggests project-based learning (PBL) can act as a lever for the success of all students, including underserved populations like ELLs.

This article explores existing research about the effectiveness of PBL for ELL students, as well as five tips for teachers to support ELLs during PBL instruction.

Can ELLs Participate in Project-Based Learning?

There’s an idea that ELLs (or low-income students) aren’t “ready” or proficient enough to participate in rigorous PBL. But the truth is authentic, engaging learning experiences and opportunities to use relevant and contextualized academic language are a recipe for growth for all students. Several studies support this notion, too. Lucas Education Research, a leading PBL resource, recently released several white papers and research briefs documenting the impact of PBL on underserved student populations, including ELLs. In one such study done in collaboration with Stanford University researchers, ELLs engaging in authentic science instruction demonstrated “significant learning across multiple content areas,” outperforming the comparison group on a language proficiency test.

The reason PBL is so powerful for ELLs is the same reason it appeals to all students: Learning evolves from an isolated abstraction into an authentic, engaging, and contextualized experience, igniting student interest and boosting achievement outcomes.

“When students see the learning as relevant, they are more likely to engage in acquiring vocabulary skills, language, and content needed to be successful in the project,” explains Andrew Miller, a seasoned PBL educator and instructional coach, in a case study on the potential of PBL for ELLs. ELL students deserve the same opportunity to engage with rigorous academic content and language and practice critical higher-order thinking skills as their language proficient peers.

How to Support ELLs During PBL: 5 Tips for Teachers

There are several steps and strategies teachers can use to support the learning of all students, especially ELLs, during PBL instruction.

1. Pre-select Research and Resources


Having a select set of research and resources ready for ELLs ensures they’re able to engage with accessible content about the project’s topic. Be sure to include a variety of modalities, like podcasts, images, online videos, and other visuals to support your ELL students.

PBL also provides a perfect opportunity to incorporate realia, or real objects and images from everyday life. Realia is authentic and appeals to both visual and kinesthetic learners; its incorporation can make material more memorable and help students form more concrete connections. 

Visual aids are proven to aid ELL students in absorbing and understanding content, in addition to boosting their confidence and engagement. These benefits are compounded when teachers also pull students for individualized instruction.

PBL and 21st Century instructional coach Heather Wolpert-Gawron suggests the research phase is the perfect time to pull ELL students and help them with preparations so they can return to their group with something new to contribute.

2. Scaffold Structures and Academic Language

In order for ELL students to be successful during rigorous, language-rich PBL, teachers must anticipate and scaffold the structures and academic language necessary to complete the project. This starts by pulling the processes and key vocabulary from the standards connected to your project. For example, Ms. Trowbridge’s project “Digging for Dinos” combines standards across content areas, including explaining Earth events, writing opinion pieces, and estimating lengths.

To meet the needs of her ELL students, Ms. Trowbridge planned for difficult vocabulary, like “estimate,” “inches” and “feet,” and modeled the structure of supporting claims with evidence for her students. Samples of scaffolding strategies include providing sentence stems for students, activating background knowledge, incorporating visual aids, or modeling through think-alouds. When you consistently provide sentence stems for ELL students, they’re able to focus more on the content of their response than its structure.

3. Leverage Peer Collaboration


Collaboration and discussion offer ELL students a chance to practice vocabulary and language structures and functions with peers in a low-stakes environment.

Collaboration is a core element of PBL and can appear in both the process and product. For example, students may critique and revise each other’s work, or create and present their final product together.

Research supports collaborative writing assignments and peer editing in particular can lower anxiety and increase self-confidence and motivation in ELL students.

In order for group work to be productive and successful, students must be grouped mindfully and given clear expectations and goals for their conversations. Here, PBL also provides the perfect framework for teaching SEL skills and social norms during group discussions, like listening, taking turns, and navigating disagreements.

Rotating through groups and listening to contributions from ELL students also provides a great opportunity to informally assess their grasp on the project’s language and structures.

4. Model Metacognition

Metacognition, or “thinking about thinking,” is an excellent tool to add to your ELL students’ toolbox. Elizabeth Leone, whose New Hampshire class is largely composed of refugees and immigrants, models metacognition to empower her students with the confidence to self-advocate and increase their autonomy. Whenever her students require an accommodation, she brainstorms potential solutions in a think-aloud format to scaffold the language and structure of the request. “Once the student can independently come up with the rationale for the resources or tools they need, I know that I have made a huge leap in their autonomy and problem-solving,” explains Leone. Incorporating metacognition into your PBL instruction is an excellent way to ensure your students are getting the support they need, and truly taking ownership of their learning.

5. Integrate Their Culture and Native Language


Building connections to students’ own experiences and existing background information can accelerate learning and language acquisition. These authentic connections also make learning more engaging, and can cultivate a deeper, more collaborative classroom culture.

For example, Leone’s students examined the characteristics of a community by researching local buildings, documenting a field trip around their neighborhood, and creating photo books as their final project.

The topic inspired students to share their own experiences and led to additional language learning. “Students brought their own perspectives and shared what their communities were like where they came from which helped them connect with the project and created more opportunities for dialogue to build vocabulary and communication skills,” reflects Leone.

Additionally, a student’s native language should be viewed as an asset. Allowing students to produce another final product in their native language can increase the audience, reach, and impact of the project, notes educational resource Edutopia.

Summing Up PBL for ELLs

Project-based learning (PBL) improves learning outcomes for all students by presenting the opportunity to tackle rigorous, relevant, and contextualized challenges.

PBL’s engaging nature encourages English Language Learners (ELLs) to interact with the content and better absorb the language skills and structure necessary to participate.

This research-backed approach is far from out of reach for ELL students, but does require additional support and strategies from educators, like modeling and scaffolding, to ensure student success.

Ready to harness the power of PBL in your school or district?