TESOL Connections

The Benefits of Using Open Educational Resources

by Charity Davenport, Chadia Mansour, and Sharon Tjaden-Glass

English teaching resources are critically limited around the world. As teachers have shifted to remote teaching, traditional textbooks have failed to meet the needs of English language teaching communities. Open educational resources (OER), which allow teachers to use, edit, and share digital materials, help narrow the digital divide. Learn more about how to access and use these valuable materials. 

English language teaching and learning communities around the world are facing educational inequity. While the information and resources divide could also apply to regions within the developed world, it is amplified in the underresourced communities of the developing world. In sub-Saharan communities, English teaching resources are critically limited (Modisaotsile, 2012) and teachers face many challenges, including lack of textbooks, libraries, and exposure to language usage (Kuchah, 2016).

These problems have been exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic. As teachers rushed to shift to remote teaching, traditional printed and copyrighted textbooks have failed to meet the needs of English language teaching and learning communities even within developed countries. The dependence on traditional textbooks has left many teachers without knowledge of digital resources that can be used to engage students in learning during these difficult times. In addition, remote learning often works best with more flexible and editable materials that teachers can easily adapt as learning conditions change.

Unfortunately, the digital divide between students who have sufficient and reliable access to high-speed internet and digital devices and those who don’t has also been exposed by this virus. Now more than ever before, open educational resources (OER) are needed to help narrow the ever-widening digital divide.

Problems With Copyrighted Materials in ESL Instruction

Understanding copyright protections is often an issue in which teachers are not well-versed. One common misconception that often leads to violations is related to online materials: Just because materials are accessible via the internet, that doesn’t mean teachers can legally use them.

The protections of copyright begin as soon as a work is created, whether it’s a lesson plan, a worksheet, an image, or any other creative work. Therefore, even if a teacher finds a great New York Times article to share with students, they are not legally permitted to print out a copy of that article and distribute it to their students. Downloading a copy of the article is also illegal. Providing students with a direct link to the article is best, but what if that article needs to be adapted to your students’ level? Copyright doesn’t allow for individual revisions.

Few traditional ESL textbooks offer online resources or eBook versions, and ones that do cost just as much or even more than their printed counterparts, or the additional resources do not meet students’ needs. Copyright protections for the digital resources of traditional printed textbooks often create barriers to access for teachers and students, including the necessity for digital accounts and passwords, not to mention the difficulty of teachers and students learning to navigate multiple digital interfaces.

What Are OER?

OER differ from traditional copyrighted educational resources because they carry a different license than copyrighted materials. This difference in licensing permits users to take specific actions that would be forbidden with copyrighted materials. These specific actions are sometimes referred to as the “5Rs” of OER, which determine whether the material is truly “open” (see Figure 1). The material can be:

  1. retained (you can download a copy)

  2. redistributed (e.g., to your students)

  3. revised (altered or modified)

  4. remixed (combined with other OER or your own materials)

  5. reused (by anyone with whom you share them)

Figure 1. Image by BCOER Librarians CC BY 4.0. Taken from BCcampus. Click here to enlarge.

OER not only enable but facilitate the ability of teachers to use, edit, and share digital materials, including Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, Google apps, video files, and even simple web pages. OER add legally bound permissions on top of copyright, which give authors the right to give up some of their control so that users can do more with the work. These permissions are called Creative Commons licenses (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Example of a website as an OER.

The Benefits of OER

As it involves copyright, OER can be complicated, but the benefits of using OER are significant.

  • Using OER reduces textbook costs for students in higher education, saving students around US$115 per course (Nyamweya, 2018).
  • Using OER makes content more accessible because it is not locked behind a paywall or account, meaning that students don’t need passwords to access materials, and teachers can modify materials without wondering if they are breaking the law.
  • Using OER gives students more options on how to learn, not only by reading text but by watching videos or interacting with content.
  • As OER is accessed digitally, there are more chances for interactivity instead of only reading or watching instructional content.
  • As materials can be tailored for each student’s needs and teacher’s classroom contexts, OER help teachers help students reach learning outcomes.
  • OER textbooks can be easily edited to include the most up-to-date information, which is especially useful in any field where information quickly becomes outdated or even obsolete between editions of printed textbooks.

OER have many benefits that revolve around improving the quality of teaching and learning through shared educational innovation and pedagogy. OER also play a role in improving educational content through teachers’ communities of practices.

A Sample Open Educational Resource and How to Use It

OER can vary widely. They can be as large as full courses and complete textbooks and as small as short lessons and worksheets. They can be images, Word files, Google Slides, webpages, and YouTube videos. OER can fit into whatever you need it to fit in and can be used to supplement traditional textbooks or replace them.

Here is an example chapter from an open textbook. It contains questions to think about before reading, a vocabulary exercise, and comprehension and critical thinking questions. This example textbook chapter is at a low B2 CEFR level and is targeted to adult learners in higher education. Let’s say you are interested in using this chapter for one of your courses, but you teach intermediate middle school students. Thanks to the Creative Commons licensing of this OER, you are free to copy this material and edit it to fit your curricular and classroom needs. We recommend using the COCA Corpus to adapt works with more frequently used vocabulary and RoadtoGrammar to analyze the CEFR level of OER and subsequent adapted texts.

See Figure 3 for an example of an OER YouTube video geared toward teaching ESL teachers how to turn their already existing materials into OER (Tjaden-Glass, 2020).

Figure 3. Example of YouTube video as an OER, licensed CC-BY 4.0.

Learn More About OER

If you are interested in learning more about the OER movement and open pedagogy, we are heading an OER initiative for TESOL International Association and have teamed up with the Computer-Assisted Language Learning Interest Section to offer a webinar with more information to get teachers started with the basics of OER, including how to find and use them. We also hope to share how OER can be helpful during this extraordinary time, and how it can also be just as helpful once we “return to normal.” We hope that using OER will become the “new normal” for many teachers.

The webinar will be Saturday, 23 January, 9–10 am EST. Look for upcoming updates in the Computer-Assisted Language Learning Interest Section discussion board in the MyTESOL Lounge.


Kuchah, K. (2016). ELT in difficult circumstances: Challenges, possibilities and future directions. IATEFL 2015 Manchester Conference Selections, 149–160. https://researchportal.bath.ac.uk/en/publications/elt-in-difficult-circumstances-challenges-possibilities-and-future

Modisaotsile, B. M. (2012). The failing standard of basic education in South Africa. Policy Briefing No. 72. http://www.ai.org.za/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/03/No.-72.The-Failing-Standard-of-Basic-Education-in-South-Africa1.pdf

Nyamweya, M. (2018, December 20). A new method for estimating OER savings. SPARC. https://sparcopen.org/news/2018/estimating-oer-student-savings/

Tjaden-Glass, S. [Lucky Frog English]. (2020, June 3). How to turn a PPT into an OER. [Video] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0RUbibsB64&t=3s

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Charity Davenport (MS in TESOL) is an instructor at the English Language Institute at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is also working on a second master’s degree, this one in instructional technology. She is the author of the open textbook It’s All Greek to Me! and an open English as a second language resource “Writing with Grammar.”

Chadia Mansour is pursuing her doctorate in online and distributed learning. She has 17+ years of international teaching experience (English as a foreign language, English as a second language, English for specific purposes, discourse and culture) in physical and blended modes. Her latest leadership project targets narrowing the information and digital gaps within the English language teaching communities through access to OERs.

Sharon Tjaden-Glass is an instructional media designer for the eLearning Division of Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. Her current areas of research interest include intercultural communication, instructional design, OERs, and second language listening instruction. She is the current community manager for TESOL International Association’s Intercultural Communication Interest Section.

From the President: Brought to You by the Letter V

by Deborah J. Short

TESOL President Deborah J. Short reflects on November 2020 and looks toward December, framing the past month and year using the letter V: She discusses topics such as the COVID-19 virus, the Virtual Convention, and voting, as well as TESOL's vision and values. 

This month’s column is brought to you by the letter V. Those of you who have watched Sesame Street may remember that each episode features a letter or two and ends with a message like this. In reflecting on November 2020 and looking toward December, I find no better letter than V to suit this time.

V is for Virus. The COVID-19 virus has cast a long, deadly shadow on our year. We have chronicled its disruptive and destructive force on education and the economy. We have suffered and struggled yet done our best for our students, colleagues, families, and friends. We can now also recognize its role in promoting innovations and interconnections. So, some benefit has come from the crisis.

V is for Virtual Convention as well. Because of the ongoing pandemic, the TESOL Board of Directors decided to hold our 2021 Convention remotely. Safeguarding our members’ health is very important and continuing to bring you research and pedagogical knowledge about effective English language teaching is equally so. From 24–27 March, we will showcase 500 presentations, four or five keynotes, and an abundance of networking opportunities. Recordings will be available for you to watch for 60 days after the Convention ends. And 23–24 March, we will have 10 Preconvention Institutes, with the Graduate Student Forum on 23 March.

V is also for Vote. November saw an election in the United States that resulted in a vote for a new head of government. We have issued a statement declaring our hope that the Biden-Harris administration will strengthen our TESOL community with more funding for public schools, more attention to the needs of teachers of English learners, and an end to Visa bans and the travel restrictions faced by foreign students and individuals from certain countries, among other policy recommendations. With an English teacher as first lady, we can hope more good will come.

V is notably also for Vaccine. November brought the very welcome news of three effective vaccines against COVID-19. We can now see a way out of this dreadful year and look forward to a recovery. It will take time, maybe 6 months or more before the vaccines are widely distributed and people are inoculated, and we won’t return to the same life we had before the virus victimized us, but we will prevail and we will be stronger.

Because, in the end, V is for Victory. The vaccines will give us a victory over the virus. TESOL’s vision and values will be sustained. Our strategic objectives and communities of practice will be more vibrant and viable than ever.

I thank you for your valor in these dangerous times. I wish you vim, vigor, and vitality during the upcoming holiday season. And I wish you peace. ✌️

Deborah J. Short, PhD, is TESOL International Association president (2020–2021). She directs Academic Language Research & Training, LLC and provides professional development on academic literacy, content-based ESL, and sheltered instruction worldwide. She has led numerous research projects related to English learner education, codeveloped the SIOP Model, and served as series editor for several 6 Principles books.

A Framework For Developing Online Tests

by Rosario Giráldez and Victoria Dieste
In assessment, it's important to test what you teach, and how you teach it. With the shift to online teaching worldwide, this means we must learn how to develop valid, reliable online tests. 

The advent of online and blended programs has brought about changes for teachers and learners, and it has required adjustments in curricula. One such adjustment involves the design and development of testing frameworks that can fulfill new program needs. These frameworks must include measurements that provide reliable information for assessment and evaluation purposes.

Bachman and Palmer (2010) contend that “In the real world of language assessment use, it is becoming increasingly important, and in many cases mandatory, for test developers and users to be accountable to stakeholders.” Being accountable means being able to demonstrate that the intended use of a test is justified, which means developing tests that reflect what students have learned and been exposed to. This can be done by comparing the test specifications to the course syllabus. It is also important to explicitly state that the intended use of the test will be the one described in the specifications and to share this information with students.

The update of programs must be accompanied by an update in testing methods. Coombe and Hubley (2013) state that “The term validity refers to the extent to which a test measures what it says it measures. In other words, test what you teach, how you teach it!” If testing doesn’t match teaching, then the test isn’t valid—and the scores derived can’t provide reliable information about meeting program outcomes. If new programs have online teaching components, then the logical consequence is that testing frameworks should include online components, and these new tests must be developed with a careful focus on reliability and validity.

We started out with the design of a framework to be used in our blended programs. Because the components of our program were 50% in-person and 50% online, the design included 50% in-person testing and 50% online testing. We later applied the same framework to our fully online testing program.

Test Development Procedure

Designing an Online Test

Our programs include courses at all levels, from beginning to advanced, and therefore, our test design needed to comprise all levels as well. We followed these steps:

Step 1. Define the Test Construct
State the knowledge and abilities that the test is to measure.

Step 2. Revise the Inventory
Revise the inventory of course contents and materials that will guide the language to be used in each of the levels.

Step 3. Write Test Specifications
These provide the general instructions and details for creating the test blueprint.

Step 4. Define the Skills and Number the Tasks
As you create the test blueprint, define the skills to be tested and suggest the number of tasks to include to assess each skill.

Step 5. Weight the Tasks
Assign the relative weight that each skill or area is going to have in the total test score.

Step 6. Design the Question Types
Bear in mind the cornerstones of testing; the question types need to be the ones that students are familiar with, disregarding the inclusion of questions to which students have not been exposed.

Guidelines for Creating Test Items

At the same time, we developed the following guidelines for test developers to assist the process of creating objective test items, for example, multiple-choice or true or false tasks:

  • Item formats are correctly matched to the purpose and content of each item. When writing test items, we need to bear in mind the objective of each item and decide if the ideas included accurately match the format in question.

  • The items are written at the intended level of students’ proficiency. It is imperative to revise the level of the test input to assure that it is right and fair for the intended audience.

  • All parts of an item are visible at the same time. The task to be completed must be displayed on a single page or screen so that the test taker can focus on content and not on scrolling up and down or changing windows.

  • There is only one correct answer for each problem. Having more than one correct answer may cause ambiguity and thus affect test fairness.

  • Negatives and double negatives have been avoided. It may be misleading and confusing to write a negative answer as the correct one because that may be a source of confusion for the test taker.

  • Rubrics provide clear guidance for test correction. They show the relative weight of each test task and each item within the task. Rubrics are shared with students so they have a clear idea of how the test is to be graded.

  • Race, gender, and nationality bias have been avoided. It is of the utmost importance to revise items to detect possible sources of bias that would influence test impartiality.

  • At least one other colleague has proofread the items. It is essential to have reviewers that check all test items to ensure test validity and fairness.

Sample Tools

There are many tools that can be used to develop online tests, and it should be up to the institution or the teacher to decide which is best for their contexts. Language management systems could be considered one of the most powerful and complete tools.


In the case of our adult courses, we opted for Moodle because it provided us with an array of possibilities that proved highly effective for our context. Our students are accustomed to using Moodle as a learning environment, and therefore validity is considered by using the same means for teaching and testing purposes. Additionally, Moodle presents several advantages over other language management systems, given that it is open source and offers a comprehensive, responsive interface that can adapt to different devices.

Google Forms

For our teenage courses, we went in a different direction. Our teenagers were familiar with publishers’ platforms for online work, but they did not use Moodle. Because these platforms did not offer us a testing solution, we resorted to Google Forms to provide students with a tool that was user friendly and easily accessible to all of them. The Google Forms feature of converting forms into quizzes offers valuable data analysis for teachers. Our students had already used a few Google Forms and we made sure to train them in the program before they faced their first online test in this modality. Google Forms offered us an efficient, easy-to-implement solution to test our teenage students.

In all cases, it is advisable to provide students with a mock test to run a system requirements check. Even if students are familiar with the testing tool to be used, this check provides an opportunity to familiarize them with the test mechanics and navigation, thus ensuring content validity.


It is undeniable that online teaching and testing have come to stay and will be used in education for the coming years. It is also true that online testing presents advantages for teachers and learners. We must capitalize on these advantages as they can provide an excellent way to help make a smooth transition from paper-and-pencil to online testing. Consequently, we need to develop frameworks for online testing so that teachers can have appropriate evaluation tools, ensuring that learners are fairly tested.


Bachman, L., & Palmer, A. (2010). Language assessment in practice. Oxford University Press.

Coombe, C., & Hubley, N. (2013). Fundamentals of language assessment. Cultural Affairs Office, U.S. Embassy.

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Rosario Giráldez is the academic director at the Alianza Cultural Uruguay-Estados Unidos, where she has also coordinated Teacher Education Programs, Alianza Centers, and English Programs in Schools. She is a frequent presenter at national and international events. Her main areas of interest are evaluation and curriculum design. She holds a TEFL degree from the Alianza and has taken courses in her main areas of interest at Iowa State University, Indiana University, and Hawaii Pacific University.

Victoria Dieste is an EFL teacher who has been working at the Alianza for the past 15 years and is currently the associate academic director. She has presented in various academic events in Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, and the United States. Her last experiences abroad were as a teacher-in-residence in Minnesota, 2016, and as a presenter at TESOL 2019. She completed the TESOL ELT Leadership Management Certificate Program in 2020.

6 Strategies to Improve Student Writing and Literacy

by Erik Thornquist
Though argumentative and academic writing are important, it's important to teach students to move beyond these genres. These six strategies will help your ELs become better writers. 

We as language teachers are expected to teach writing. The research essay and position paper are staples of composition classrooms. At the same time, students need to move beyond genre. How, then, can you teach students to write? I’ve spent 25 years teaching and researching how to help students move beyond the argumentative or cause-and-effect essay to just write.

At Be a Better Writer in 26 Lessons, my friend Rob MacKenzie and I present A through Z lessons that boil writing down to its essentials. Each lesson is short and focused, aimed at aspiring writers and language learners, and backed by a “learn” exercise and a “use” exercise, because the best way to learn to write is…to write. In this article, I address an idea that is mystical to many but in truth totally teachable—the idea of flow. To make ideas on the page flow like water, I teach my students to follow six simple guidelines.

In setting these guidelines for my students, I present them at three levels: at the sentence level, from sentence to sentence, and at the paragraph level.

1. Use Active Voice

At the sentence level, start with this: (1) Make the person doing the action (the actor) your subject whenever possible. Yes, I know passive voice has its uses. However, even in technical and scientific writing, statistics show that writers use passive voice far less than many believe—usually to describe research methodology. In general, passive voice is only used to vary sentence structure or when your actor is unknown or unimportant. It often refers to an institution or a rule. At the same time, behind the institution or rule, there’s a person pulling the lever—and a reader will want to know who’s doing the pulling.

Making your actor your subject reveals truth. Your reader knows not just the action but who is accountable. Examine the following from the U.S. Constitution and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Active Voice

Passive Voice

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. (U.S. Constitution)

These truths are self-evident, that all men are created equal (according to whom).

I had a dream. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

A dream was had (by whom).

The versions on the right obscure; the ones on the left reveal (both the who and the what). Good writing makes both actors and action clear—and that starts with having a clear subject for each sentence.

2. Use Short Dependent Clauses

The second guideline focuses on readability: (2) Put any dependent clause first and make it eight words or fewer. Noted composition instructor Joseph Williams (2006) claims six, not eight, as his magic number. Readability indexes also agree that shorter clauses and more frequent verbs make a text more readable. Still, as a language teacher, I feel that anything less than eight puts my learners in a hard spot. Later on, I allow my students to “flip” the sentence—that is, put the dependent clause last—only if it presents new information…but the eight-words-or-fewer guideline is constant.

Students who follow this guideline have to economize. Just as the 10-items-or-less line gets you out of the supermarket quickly, the eight-words-or-fewer maxim forces your student to get to the main clause quickly. Suddenly, the writing has velocity; that is, the words move in a particular direction. This benefits your reader, who only reads because of the promise that the words will go somewhere.

3. Focus on the Psychological Subject

The next two guidelines help a student go from sentence to sentence. In particular, (3) focus on the psychological subject of each sentence. In short, know which noun or noun phrase connects to the sentence before and the sentence after, which may—or may not—be the actual subject of the sentence. To practice, give your students the following sentences to develop into paragraphs:

    1. I know the solution is a good one.
    2. They met on the train.

    First, have students identify the nouns or noun phrases—in a) I, solution, good one and in b) they and train. Then, ask them to expand each sentence into a paragraph. To do this, they will use the next guideline.

    4. Use Parallel or Sequential Structures

    (4) Use either parallel or sequential structures. The English language moves in one of two ways. The first is in parallel. A sentence will have a topic (subject) and a comment (verb). In a parallel structure, the next sentence will have the same topic but a new comment. The second is sequential—that is, the first sentence will be Step 1, and the next sentence, still tied to the psychological subject of the previous one, will be Step 2. Let your students go back and forth between the parallel and sequential, but for the words to flow, these are the only two moves they need to learn. Here’s an example of parallel structure with the recurring topic in bold:

    I know the solution is a good one. I want my students to make moves that an English-speaking audience will understand. When I speak Arabic or Japanese, I think and arrange my thoughts in a different way—and research supports this. Thus, I believe teaching parallel structure helps to make the “code” of the English language clear.

    Next, here’s an instance of the sequential structure from 3b:

    They met on the train, where they had seats side by side. The ride was a peaceful one. The gentle rocking motion of the train lulled both of them into sleep. When they woke up, they realized they had fallen asleep while leaning against each other. First, each apologized. Then, she joked about not knowing her ticket included a human pillow. Both laughed, and the sound filled the train car.

    We use these structures not separately but in combination. As we read, I have students look for these moves in passages as well. Even for dense texts, students who know these two moves can, at minimum, read and follow a train of thought from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. In this way, teaching the art of clear writing will also make your students into better readers.

    5. Understand Topic Sentences

    Now, let’s define clear writing at the discourse level. Just like every sentence has a topic (subject) and a comment (verb), (5) each paragraph has a topic sentence (general) and a discussion (specific). Students are traditionally taught to put the topic sentence first, but it works in a number of places. The details in a paragraph could come first and then be summed up by a topic sentence at the end. A paragraph could start with a question, then the writer could flesh out the paragraph by addressing issues and exploring options. One dramatic structure is the turnabout paragraph, one in which the writer addresses details from the opposing view first before planting a topic sentence in mid-paragraph and supporting it with details to finish with a flourish.

    6. Add a Summative Sentence

    Finally, students need to know how to clarify the focus of a paragraph that is long or has many or complicated ideas. To do this, have students help the reader by (6) adding a summative sentence at the end. A student could make the paragraph circular by tying the topic at the end to the topic at the beginning. Alternately, that last sentence could sum up the main point in a simple subject-verb sentence. The writer can also give the reader a takeaway, to “put a bow” on the ideas previously discussed. These six guidelines set up your students for success—and knowing them will enhance a student’s reading and literacy as well.

    Helping Students Succeed

    For me, I teach these six all at once. Later, I follow up by having students submit a journal assignment in which they write to a topic and use the six guidelines. To reinforce them, I later guide students through editing for “flow” by looking at these same six items.

    Now comes the punchline. To make any piece of writing come alive, students need to communicate emotion (authentic) and narrative (story and audience). Those two are the spark and, alas, most often they come from inside. However, by teaching these six guidelines, you can make sure that your students will have a clear flow of language ready when inspiration strikes.


    American Rhetoric. (2020). Martin Luther King, Jr.: I have a dream. https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

    The National Constitution Center. (2020). The U.S. Constitution: Full text. https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/full-text

    Williams, J. M. (2006). Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace. Pearson Longman.

    Further Resources

    Connor, U. (1984). A study of cohesion and coherence in English as a second language students’ writing. Paper in Linguistics,17(3), 301–316. https://doi.org/10.1080/08351818409389208

    Hornby, P. A., Hass, W. A., & Feldman, C. F. (1970). A developmental analysis of the "psychological" subject and predicate of the sentence. Language and Speech, 13(3), 182–193. https://doi.org/10.1177/002383097001300304

    Kaplan, R. (1966). Cultural thought patterns in intercultural education. Language Learning, 16(1), 1–2.

    Klare, G. R., Rowe, P. P., John, M. G., & Stolurow, L. M. (1969). Automation of the Flesch reading ease readability formula, with various options. Reading Research Quarterly, 4(4), 550. https://doi.org/10.2307/747070

    Download this article (PDF)

    Erik Thornquist is a writing instructor and researcher who currently lives and works in the United Arab Emirates. He has presented at TESOL conferences around the world, has published journal articles and book chapters, is the cofounder of the comedy collective YallaLaughs Abu Dhabi, and is the cofounder of www.make-fire.com, a website that makes the fundamentals of writing accessible for students and teachers.

    Cultivating Advanced Integrated Skills With PBI

    by Shélynn Riel
    Project-based instruction (PBI) can transform classrooms into active learning environments. This e-newspaper project, used with university-level ELs, builds both language skills and confidence. 

    Project-based instruction (PBI) has gained popularity in both general and second-language (L2) education. Grounded in constructivist theory, PBI affords many possibilities for transforming classrooms into active learning environments (Krajcik et al., 1994). However, a review of the literature shows discrepancies between English language teachers’ and students’ evaluations of PBI. Although some teachers endorse PBI because it provides opportunities for comprehensible output and integrated language teaching, there is some evidence that students are frustrated by this form of instruction because it prevents them from learning from the teacher and textbooks and from focusing on language skills (Beckett, 2002). There is also discussion about whether PBI should be incorporated at the university level, as projects can seem juvenile in nature and design unless framed appropriately for an audience of adult learners.

    The project I present here was not only amenable to my university-level English learners, but it transformed our classroom into one in which students embraced the role of critical consumer, cultural observer, researcher, and journalist. Through the creation of a digital newspaper, students examined narrative, persuasive, and argumentative writing structures, noticing an overlap of skills needed for effective oral and written communication.

    Launching An Integrated Skills Project

    In spring of 2019, I set out to deliver advanced integrated skills through project-based learning for a group of nontraditional adult students. I feared the worst—a total lack of buy-in from the students—as I hoped for the best.

    Over the course of 15 weeks, students explored distinct rhetorical structures and purposes in writing as they developed individual digital newspapers. The project wasn’t without its challenges, though; the creation of a digital newspaper, particularly for students who may have been out of the classroom for several years or are unfamiliar with emerging tech tools, is no easy feat.

    This project encouraged recognizing the “beauty of the journey” just as much as it promised a unique outcome for each individual. Today I want to take you on this journey with the hope that you’ll be able to discover nuggets of inspiration to use in your own classroom.

    Learning and Language Objectives

    But first, a bit of context. The course, which ran for the first time in this format in spring 2019, was entitled “Advanced Integrated Skills: Journalism and Media Studies.” The learning and language objectives covered all language domains, the most important of which are outlined here. Together, we aimed to

    • sharpen note-taking skills and the ability to understand and infer the main ideas and details of readings and classroom discussions;

    • create and discuss original written pieces using various structures, including descriptive, compare/contrast, and problem/solution;

    • perform basic research to locate and later incorporate resources effectively in written work;

    • become familiar with newspaper formatting and terminology;

    • plan and execute well-organized and cohesive presentations on selected topics; and ultimately

    • create and publish a digital newspaper.

    The Project

    Part 1. Reflecting on Media Consumption and Bias

    We began the semester thinking about what it means to be a critical consumer of information, a skillset that has proven incredibly important in the age of widespread misinformation. Students reflected on bias, both as it exists in their own lives and across media, analyzing headlines of current events and attempting to understand political underpinnings. Students looked at the phenomenon that is targeted advertisement, and pinpointed marketing strategies as they appeal to distinct demographics.

    For their first major assignment, students created an advertising campaign for a product or service of their choice, offering two separate advertisement strategies, each lending itself to a different demographic. In the following samples, the student shows how she would advertise Trek brand mountain bikes for an “independent preteen” (Figure 1) and a “concerned parent” (Figure 2).

    Figure 1. Bike advertisement targeting “independent preteens.”
    (Click here to enlarge.)

    Figure 2. Bike advertisement targeting “concerned parents.”
    (Click here to enlarge.)

    Part 2. Considering Unique Experiences

    After recognizing the bias that exists around us, we started to reflect on how our unique experiences have shaped who we are. Students recalled moments, people, and things from their past that bring up feelings of joy. Naturally, the conversation shifted to food. Students chose recipes from their home countries and painted a picture of their experiences preparing or sharing that meal. Students used a personal narrative to introduce their special dish to their peers during a presentation, and some even brought samples to share. In their e-newspapers, students included the recipe. Figure 3 shows a students’ recipe for Jiuniang Yuanzi.

    Figure 3. Recipe for Jiuniang Yuanzi. (Click here to enlarge.)

    Part 3. Researching History and Historical Figures

    The next two segments in the students’ newspapers would emphasize key figures and moments in history. Students selected a day and individual that they believed to be of great importance in the history of the world. Students wrote expositions and biographies to include in their newspapers, and shared timelines that they created during presentations. In Figures 4 and 5, respectively, you’ll see a student’s biography of Steve Jobs and her main takeaways from the infamous Tiananmen Square protest.

    Figure 4. Steve Jobs biography. (Click here to enlarge.)

    Figure 5. Historical highlight: Tiananmen Square.
    (Click here to enlarge.)

    Part 4. Writing Travel Guides

    In the next segment, students selected one of their favorite places to share with their peers in the form of a travel guide, highlighting some of their go-to activities. This gave students another opportunity to work on building their descriptive language through narration; they shared how to spend 72 hours in their chosen locale. The student example in Figure 6 acts as a great tool for tourists in Shenzhen.

    Figure 6. Travel guide for 72 Hours in Shenzhen.
    (Click here to enlarge.)

    Part 5. Examining Advice Columns

    Another segment examined the history of advice columns, taking “Dear Abby” as an example. Students wrote letters soliciting advice and then worked in pairs to provide advice to one another; in this way, students were able to be featured in each other’s newspapers. This activity created a solid introduction to persuasive writing, and inspired students to create annotated bibliographies, in which they provided extension resources that directly correlated with the advice they gave to their peers. (E.g., a student who wrote about a challenge with weight received a list of resources related to mindful eating and breaking habits.)

    Part 6. Discussing Current Events Through Editorials

    The second to last piece of the puzzle, and perhaps my favorite, was the inclusion of an editorial. Throughout the semester we examined current events and held several discussions and debates about topics that resonated with students: abortion, same-sex marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and so on. The editorial portion of this e-newspaper project was an opportunity for students to select a topic that spoke to them on a personal level and craft an opinion piece, pulling from persuasive elements that we had seen in earlier segments. Students were responsible for sharing their thoughts and guiding conversation around their topic.

    Part 7. Recognizing Students

    The very last segment was the “Meet the Editor” autobiographical piece. During the construction of this section, students expressed discomfort in speaking about themselves and their accomplishments. I took this opportunity for students to share words of appreciation for their peers, highlighting what personality traits they’d noticed about one another that deserved recognition. This not only created a warm environment, but inspired individuals to see themselves as others see them, catapulting them into the autobiographical process with increased ease.

    The Final Project

    Students truly embraced each of the segments for its unique characteristics and opportunities for sharing with their peers, and witnessing the coalescence of their culminating artifacts proved more rewarding than we could have anticipated. What seemed like a lofty goal at the start of the semester came to fruition, and with it, a deep sense of pride and nostalgia. During one last presentation, individuals shared their final products, highlighting language and content objectives that presented themselves along the way, and reflected on insights gained throughout the process.

    Figure 7 provides a snapshot of the final product, the first page of two students’ newspapers. For entire compilations, see Appendix A and Appendix B.

    Figure 7. Examples final student project.
    (See Appendix A and Appendix B for the full sample projects.)

    Table 1 shows how each of the segments aligned with content and language objectives.

    Table 1. Project Segments Aligned With Objectives

    Newspaper Segment

    Content Themes

    Language Considerations


    Consumer tendencies

    Recognizing distinct demographics

    Persuasive language

    Recognizing bias in media

    Linguistic registers


    International cuisine

    Personal narrative

    Today in History

    Historical perspectives

    Creation of timelines

    Author’s purpose and tone

    Historical narrative/ exposition

    Who’s Who?

    Influential figures of our time


    72 Hours in...

    Tourist attractions

    Descriptive language

    Dear Abby

    History of advice columns

    Giving advice

    Annotated bibliography


    Synthesis of current events

    Language for debate


    Meet the Editor-in-Chief

    The role of an editor


    Reflections and Implementation Tips

      1. Take advantage of free tech tools.* There is so much out there, especially now that so many classrooms are online. Expect to spend some time orienting yourself before introducing these tools to your students, and allow time for a learning curve on their end, too. I relied heavily on the following resources and created an in-class tutorial for each, which allowed students to navigate these new tools in a supported way:

          • Padlet: Despite their work being primarily independent, students participated in a great deal of peer revision activities and brainstorming sessions. This tool (now quite familiar to most) allows for online collaboration and continuing the conversation outside of class.

          • Canva: A free design platform that offers a plethora of free images, icons, and layouts, Canva also offers the ability to create teams so students can share their work during the process.

          • Piktochart: Another design platform that allows students to create infographics with ease, Piktochart is particularly useful when relaying high-impact takeaways.

        *Students who didn’t feel comfortable working with these tools were permitted to rely on Microsoft tools (PowerPoint and Word) to create and present their work. They were required, however, to use the new tools for at least three of their submissions to ensure exposure for potential future use.

          2. Create ample opportunity for collaboration and peer feedback. These collaborative interactions are important, despite the outcome being individual. While this was the culminating project for the term, students were provided with class time to work through some of their segments. Some peer feedback was guided, but the most incredible exchanges occurred when students simply had a chance to share ideas and ask questions in an informal way.

          3. Choose segments based on the needs and interests of your group. Working with advanced students meant that I had predetermined structures and skills to incorporate, which is why I chose segments that lent themselves to our specific objectives. This is a project that could easily be pared down and scaffolded, incorporating fewer segments and language and content objectives that serve your unique purposes. And of course, beyond instructional and curricular design is the question of student engagement: The more students felt like they had a say in the segments we created, the more effort they put forth.

          4. Pair each segment with a short presentation. Although students often knew what their peers were planning, they were eager to see the “final products.” It was obvious that they felt proud of their processes and really reveled in seeing how their suggestions came to fruition in their peers’ creations.

          5. Be present and available throughout the process. I won’t sugarcoat it—from a planning perspective, this project presented a challenge. I tried to find a balance between encouraging student autonomy and celebrating our learning community working toward a common goal. During this first run, I worked with nine students. It was effective because I was available to guide them throughout the process.

          If you are attempting this with a larger group, I would definitely recommend setting up accountability partners within the group, so that students can use each other as resources in a more structured way. I would also recommend scheduling check-ins for each segment, and not waiting to see items until they are finalized.

          A year later, I find myself constantly looking for opportunities to facilitate the creation of another round of digital newspapers with my students. Despite my initial reticence to commit to PBI fully, I have since discovered that thoughtful PBI can be so enthralling that students forget that they are even learning.

          This project not only served as an excellent formative assessment tool of integrated skills in this particular class, but proved a class favorite. Students were proud of their work and called attention to how working toward the creation of a highly personal learning artifact bolstered not only their language skills throughout the process, but their confidence in their abilities as well. What more can an educator ask for?


          Beckett, G. (2002). Teacher and student evaluations of project-based instruction. TESL Canada Journal, 19(2), 52–66. https://doi.org/10.18806/tesl.v19i2.929

          Krajcik, J. S., Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W., & Soloway, E. (1994). A collaborative model for helping middle grade science teachers learn project-based instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 94(5), 483–497.https://doi.org/doi:10.1086/461779

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          Shélynn Riel holds a master’s of education in teaching English to speakers of other languages from Rhode Island College. In 2017, Shélynn served in Argentina as an English Language Fellow with the U.S. Department of State, facilitating the teacher training and professional development of in-service teachers. Shélynn has held roles in curricular design and administrative leadership, but always finds her way back to the classroom.