Project-Based Learning in ESOL Teaching

Project-Based Learning (PBL) has a long history, beginning with educational philosopher John Dewey, who called the practice “learning by doing.” I started introducing PBL in English classes several years ago and recently, in 2011, incorporated PBL into ESOL classes in Moscow. I found special success in student motivation and collaboration. Students especially enjoyed integrating technology into their projects and interacting with people in English; they asked if they could do more projects in the future. While I had students do one project in each course last year, I am now framing all of their work in terms of a semester project. This means that they will turn in work in “segments,” with the goal of integrating these segments into one large project.

PBL focuses on real-world problems and encourages students to explore issues outside the classroom. A question is formulated that forms the basis of an exploration, resulting in the production of, in ESOL:

  • a PowerPoint presentation;
  • a play;
  • a script;
  • a simulation;
  • a cartoon;
  • interviews, either translated or in English;
  • an adaptation of a work;
  • a video; or
  • an original idea.

Unlike with a research paper or other assignment, in PBL students produce something that can best be termed authentic. While there is a reliable body of research supporting the effects of PBL in science, math, and social studies, until 2006 there was a lack of empirical data to support PBL for nonnative English speakers, according to Beckett and Miller (2006).

One of the major values of PBL is learner self-determination. Students feel empowered when they can decide a major part of their learning. In ESOL, this direction can lead learners to discover new vocabulary, actively engage others in non-rehearsed dialogue, and generally improve cognitive skills. Munby (1978) describes 14 language skill types that contain 54 distinct skills. Students engaged in PBL exhibit more of these skill types than in other types of instruction. To mention a few, they plan and organize, summarize, and relate textual to extra-textual information. In addition, they ask questions in interviews, design questionnaires and surveys, and interpret meaning as they narrow down their topic.

Students also show pride when they produce something they can share or present to their peers. The element of creativity in a project they have designed themselves creates more pride. Many students are themselves surprised to see how well they can manipulate English to produce something interesting and creative. I have heard several students excitedly telling others about their projects, both in and out of the classroom.

Proficiency Levels
PBL can be assigned at any proficiency level, as students will find their own level of proficiency and comfort. One way of adapting proficiency levels to PBL is to use Bloom’s Taxonomy, which consists of six levels, from lowest to highest: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

At the knowledge level, students can explore the (real) world of signs and directions. The knowledge level involves rote memorization, recognition, or recall of facts. At this level, students might develop a poster or PowerPoint presentation with facts about the local area. At the higher levels, students are encouraged to produce more complicated projects. For example, at the application level, students can develop a simulation that reflects a situation of returning an item purchased that either they do not want or that does not work properly. The type and scope of the project is limited only by the combined imagination of students and teacher.

With PBL, encouraging collaboration can help students learn to work together effectively. You can also require students to make a structured, oral presentation of their project to the class. I emphasize two elements: English itself and course content. Emphasizing course content can have a positive effect on English language skills, no matter what the proficiency level.

Following are the three phases for projects, though you can customize them to suit your students.

Student Planning Phase

  • Work on projects
  • Identify a topic
  • Ask questions that highlight material
  • Respond to issues raised
  • Determine RAFT: role, audience, format and topic (RAFT is normally used with writing prompts, but can also play a role in PBL. See this Learn NC RAFT resource)

Project Planning Phase

  • Work on projects; students should use a PBL Log (.docx) to track their activity.
  • Add or subtract elements from basic rubric to match project goals. Basic rubric components are Content, Organization, Presentation, Creativity/Originality and Conventions. (Download sample rubrics: Basic [.docx], Interview and Surveys [.docx], or Multimedia [.docx])

Project Completion Phase

  • Teacher receives and reviews project (could be first draft, depending on course)
  • Assign grade based on rubric
  • Students present projects

A rubric with a maximum 20-point per item scoring system serves as a basic assessment model. You can add extra weight to each category by simply doubling the scores. To obtain the final grade, multiply the number of elements by 20 and then divide the result with the appropriate number (of categories) to equal 100. The final number is the final student grade for the project.

Project Examples
Students in three different courses, College Composition, The Sixties: a Decade of Change, and Fiction and Writing, were given the option of writing a traditional research paper or designing a project for their major grade in each course. Over 90% chose the latter option. Most students chose to incorporate some form of digital technology, and about half chose to collaborate when given the opportunity. Once proposals were accepted, students were not allowed to change the topic.

Following are sample projects from each of the three classes. The topics ranged from surveys (supported by interviews, both translated from Russian into English and conducted in English) to podcasts and DVDs with original material and music.

Are Cell Phones Dangerous?
(Introduction to Non-Fiction) (intermediate high)
The student designed a survey, conducted interviews among friends and strangers, examined research on the topic, and prepared a 12-page paper. In the paper, the student compared available data from cell phone use and research in the United States and Russia; she also summarized the results of the survey she conducted and showed video on the topic.

Mind Playground: A Mad Podcast
(Introduction to Fiction) (intermediate high)
The student designed a series of interviews and profiles using different electronic voices based on characters from the novels and short stories read during the course. One of the questions asked by the student was, “how can technology be integrated into the study of fiction and English for nonnative speakers?”

The USA and the USSR: The Truth in the Arts and Cinema of the Sixties
(The Sixties: a Decade of Change) (advanced level)
The student doing this project asked questions about U.S. and Soviet relations at a dark period in their history. The project contained original video footage from the two countries, a survey of people who lived during the time as well as some humorous anecdotes and movie footage connected to the topic.

It is clear to me that students value PBL. They have asked for an expanded role for PBL in this year’s curriculum. If the recommended steps are incorporated into developing projects, then PBL can be an effective part of ESOL teaching.


Beckett, G. H. (2006). Project-based second and foreign language education: Theory, research, and practice. In G. H. Beckett & P. Miller (Eds.), Project-based second and foreign language education: Past, present, and future (pp. 3–18). Greenwich, Connecticut: Information Age Publishing.

Munby, J. (1978). Communicative syllabus design. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Boss, S. (2012). Blog posts. Retrieved from

Boss, S. (2012). Twenty ideas for engaging projects. Retrieved from

Bost, K., & Webb, L. (2012). Focus activity using RAFT. Retrieved from

Herrington, A., & Moran, C. (2012). English language learners, digital tools, authentic audiences. Retrieved from

Lin, F. (2005). Knowledge base of English as a second language teachers (Dissertation Proposal). Retrieved from


Stephen V. Hoyt, PhD, has more than 20 years’ experience in language education and has taught in the United States and abroad. He was a curriculum director, teacher, university professor, language software designer, and journalist. Hoyt has integrated PBL into urban classrooms and developed a program for 300 Russian English teachers. He speaks fluent German and is proficient in French, Spanish, and Russian. He currently teaches English at the New Economic School in Moscow.


Previous Article Next Article
Table of Contents
TC Homepage
The 2013 Teacher of the Year
Project-Based Learning
Lesson Plan: Stereotyping
Quick Tip: Collaboration
Advocacy Update
Association News
Job Link
Lecturers in Writing, Kean University, Wenzhou, China

Assistant/Associate Professor (Faculty), Nagoya University of Commerce & Business, Japan

English Teachers, Shantou University, Shantou, Guangdong, China

Intensive English Program Faculty (Full Time), Spring Int'l Language Center, University of Arkansas, Arkansas, USA

Fellowships (Worldwide), English Language Fellow Program, USA

Want to post your open positions to Job Link? Click here.

To browse all of TESOL's job postings, check out the TESOL Career Center.



Register Today!

TESOL 2013
International Convention
& English Language Expo
20–23 March 2013
Dallas, Texas, USA 

Check out the online
Advance Program

Or go to the
Convention website
for full details and
to check out sessions

TESOL Community

TC Monthly Giveaway


TESOL Bookstore
Newsletter Tools
Forward to a Friend

RSS Feeds


Follow us on Twitter Like us on Facebook Follow us on LinkedIn