Four Key Take-Aways for PBL in the ELA Classroom


This past Monday, I had the honor of hosting an #engchat on the topic “Project-Based Learning (PBL) in the English/Language Arts (ELA)  classroom.”

[Connect with ELA-minded educators in real-time #engchats on Twitter on Mondays from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. eastern time.]

During the conversation, some crucial advice came up, and teachers both learned and gave their best advice on designing PBL projects that teach and assess ELA standards, particularly the Common Core State Standards.

Here are four key take-aways from the conversation:

1. Know PBL vs. Projects. I’ve seen this confusion around PBL and projects a lot in my work with teachers, and this Twitter chat was no exception. Projects aren’t bad, but they are not PBL. Projects usually occur after much of the teaching has already happened, and often take the shape of a culminating performance assessment. In the ELA class, this might look like reading a text such as Romeo and Juliet, and then creating a video where the students make a modern interpretation of it. A traditional project usually refers to just this summative assessment video piece.

A PBL project, on the other hand, is the entire learning process—from the summative and formative assessments to the lessons and activities that scaffold the learning. Students might be asked to create a dating guide for other teens, given a text (like Romeo and Juliet) to learn examples (and nonexamples) from it, and use what they learn along the way to create their product. The teacher would be teaching lessons and scaffolding material along the way to support that work.

2. Invite Authentic Writing. PBL calls for authentic products that are shared with a public audience. Instead of just an essay, students could write proposals, guides, letters, and other writing pieces where the writing is meeting a real need. These writing pieces are critiqued and refined as they are constructed by experts, self, and peer evaluations.

3. Create the Need to Read. When doing a PBL project in the ELA classroom, a common mistake is reading an entire text before doing a project. This defeats one of the crucial engagement strategies of PBL: creating the need to read.

Instead of reading the whole text upfront, teachers should give the engaging project upfront to students, where reading the text is essential to performing well on the project. Through this,  teachers can scaffold the reading process with the great activities and lessons that they already do. In addition, students use what they learn to work on the project along the way. This creates manageable application of knowledge for all students and creates an ongoing, relevant connection to the text.

4. Don’t “Cover” Reading Standards, Target Them. During the #engchat, many teachers were concerned about targeting Common Core State Standards, especially in literature. My advice is to target specific standards that the text or piece of literature really demonstrates well. There is a tendency to cover all the possible pieces in a text, but in reality, we don’t need to. We have a year, and have time to hit the targets in-depth at intentional times. PBL projects create this opportunity. Use the PBL project to go in-depth on targeted standards, rather than trying to cover all the possible standards that a text might be able to demonstrate.

Designing PBL for the ELA classroom isn’t an easy task, but I believe PBL provides invaluable opportunities to engage students in reading and creating authentic products for real-world use. PBL can “tie up in a bow” all the literacy strategies and scaffolding that teachers must do while fostering  inquiry processes for students.

Andrew K. Miller (@betamiller on Twitter) is on the National Faculty  for the Buck Institute for Education, an organization specializing in 21st century project-based learning, as well as for ASCD, providing expertise in a variety of professional development needs. He is also a regular blogger for Edutopia.