Making projects work with teenage learners

 

Students playing board games
photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Marjorie Rosenberg used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

 

I recently gave a presentation about using projects with teenage ESOL learners at this year’s NATECLA National conference. I signed up to do the presentation, as it is an area that I have been trying to develop over the last couple of years. I thought it would be worth blogging about as well as it is an area I want to share. This post ended up rather longer that I’d planned, so I’ll post a follow-up with more details of the projects themselves.

Before I start, I have to add that none of this would have happened without my colleagues Clare Hanrahan and Amy Cook, who came up with a lot of the ideas here and to whom a lot of credit is due.

What is a project

I have tried to think of a definition for what I want to think of projects to be – and what I’ve come up with is this:

“Learners working together towards a task with a degree of autonomy”

While it would be perfectly possible to run individual projects, I think that the group aspect (if well managed) is a really important part of making projects an effective language learning tool. This is partly because of the amount of language that learners need to use to produce something together, but also because it allows learners to develop their team working skills; this is particularly useful for teenage learners who may have little or no work experience.

The degree of autonomy is key here, projects will always have learners working autonomously, but  with teenage learners the amount of autonomy that you allow learners is key to the success of the project.

What could a project be

There are lots of possible projects, some of which are suggested in this book: Fried-Booth, Diana. Project Work, OUP (Oxford, 2002) Some ideas could be:

I have tried the first three of these ideas with my classes and will detail them in an upcoming blog post.

When designing projects, the factors that I have considered have included:

  1. Linguistic ‘product’ – is there a type of ‘text’ (spoken or written) that learners will produce at the end of the project. Will there be opportunities to develop language skills as part of the project.
  2. Using information – will learners have to engage with and actively use information from the project – how can you avoid learners just cutting and pasting words, without thinking about them.
  3. Practicality – what will your learners be able to produce? What resources do you have? How independent can you let your learners be?
  4. Engagement – how likely are your learners to be engaged by the project?

Why use projects?

Communicative approaches to language teaching hold that learners need to actually use language for a genuine purpose to be able to develop their language use. Theories of task-based learning come from this idea. Projects of the sort described here give learners both the opportunity to produce a ‘linguistic product’, and create opportunities for authentic language use in their own management of the project. In many cases, while the product may seem to be the apparent goal, the process is just as important, providing opportunities for many different kinds of language practice.

Depending on the nature of the project, it can be very easy to tie projects into the world outside the classroom and examine issues resulting from this. There is the potential for projects to support participatory approaches to ESOL teaching. (For more on participatory approaches, I recommend looking at English for Action and Reflect ESOL from Action Aid). How genuinely participatory a project is will depend on how strongly it links to learners’ genuine context.

What I think is particularly useful for teenage learners is the way that projects can help develop a range of ‘soft’ skills that they will need in further study or employment. The projects I have carried out with learners have required them to use/develop the following skills:

  • Communication skills – as well as having an authentic/semi-authentic linguistic product, which may be different to what learners are used to producing, there are a range of communication skills that can be used in the process of creating the linguistic product – explaining, persuading, clarifying understanding, listening in detail, discussing, etc.
  • Team working skills – this is the skill that I have tended to emphasise above the others when I have been carrying out projects. I have given learners tutorials on teamwork before starting and then elicited how they can work as a team together. I have also given led them through a reflective self-assessment at the end of the project, so that they can consider how they have developed their interpersonal skills and how they could be improved further. It is a good idea to give learners explicit roles and get them to reflect on how this affected their projects.
  • Time management skills – Learners may not be used to ‘hard’ deadlines, so projects can be a good way to introduce them. This has the added benefit of making projects more easy to manage as a teacher. To support learners you should give them regular time checks, and encourage them to question whether the tasks they are carrying out can be realistically completed within their deadlines. Having some flexibility around the final linguistic product can be useful here i.e. if the original intention is for learners to produce a video, those who do not finish could record a voiceover for a slideshow – or just prepare a presentation.
  • IT skills – there is no requirement for projects to use any IT skills at all, but they are a good opportunity to give learners some applied practice of different packages. In the projects I have done with learners I have supported them to do the following: use email, Dropbox and Google docs to co-ordinate group work and share files; use excel to collate and present data; use Word to design simple posters and leaflets; use Audacity to record audio; use PowerPoint to prepare slideshows and use Windows Moviemaker to edit videos. Many of these were new to learners, which gave me the opportunity to teach them new skills.

The authentic nature of at least some of the sections of projects means that they can also be very validating and demonstrate to learners what they can achieve with their English.  Depending on how you structure the project, you can create opportunities for learners to take language outside the classroom and use it to achieve a goal. This is clearly very motivating and can build learners’ confidence significantly.

Challenges

“For many teachers, a task-based approach represents a management challenge. How do you set up and monitor tasks in large classes of unmotivated adolescents, for example? And how do you deal appropriately with language problems that emerge spontaneously from the task performance?”

Thornbury, S An A-Z of ELT: A Dictionary of Terms and Concepts Macmillan (London, 2006)

A project-based approach can be complex. Using them with teenagers can be even more complex. There are a number of potential issues.

  • Motivation – there will be some learners who are just not in to the project. If not managed well, group projects can become an opportunity for learners to hide from the lesson and not to do much work. It does mean that you need to consider how much autonomy it is appropriate to give learners.
  • Attention span – if a project takes too long, or one of the stages is particularly drawn-out, there is a risk that learners will get bored and disengage.
  • Teamwork skills – for younger learners who may not have employment experience, the idea and skills required in working in teams may not come naturally to them. While this does mean that teamwork activities can be very beneficial as there is a lot to be developed, it does mean that you may have to pay a lot of attention to this in order to get projects to work.
  • Safeguarding, one of the great things about projects is how they are closely linked to the real world, however with teenage learners there are a number of safety issues, both online and in real life that can limit what you can do.
  • Managing language development – this has always been a concern around task-based approaches. They are great for encouraging language production, but it can be difficult to find the most appropriate time and method to pull out language issues to address. It can be difficult to fit this language with a more formal approach that includes structured opportunities to recycle language.

None of these challenges are insurmountable but they do need careful consideration before starting on a project. Below I have suggested some guidelines to make projects run smoothly

Guidelines

Planning

Projects need careful planning to work well, you should think about what learners will need to do before each stage that you want to do. Consider how much time you will need: you need to allow sufficient time, but be careful not to let projects drag on for too long.

If there is information input into the project, consider where it will come from; if the answer is ‘the internet’ how are you going to stop learners copying and pasting information without reading it. Is there specific software that you will need (ie. file conversion/video editing, etc.)? Consider how language development will be captured, are there any language functions that you need to revise before starting the topic?

Safeguarding issues need to be considered: are there any risks for your learners? Will you be able to supervise them sufficiently?

Grouping & managing absence

Consider how you group learners very carefully. You need to ensure that your mature leadership-ready learners are spread around the class. Be aware of likely personality clashes and how you will manage them. It is vital that English is the working language of the project, so consider splitting up learners with the same first language, if possible.

Learner absence is likely to make the project more complicated, so you may want to spread any learners with a patchy attendance record around the groups. On a related point, you should consider where you will store work between lessons – it may not be a good idea to give learners work to take home, in case they do not bring it back. I asked learners to submit most of their written work to Moodle, that way I could access a copy of their work in future sessions, whether they were present or not.

Allocating roles is important in group work – you want to make sure that all learners have a clear idea of what task they should be doing, there should always be something for them to do.

Classroom management

You may need to play a very active role at times and really get stuck in. While you may have nominated a learner to be a team leader, you need to assess when it is not working and lead learners through a difficult patch. Remember to create space to hand back to learners as soon as possible.

You need to be flexible in how the project works, you might need to change the final product – assess what is likely to be possible for your learners, if your original plan was too challenging, consider how you can best support learners and what is most likely to develop the skills that you aim to develop. Likewise, if a project is really not working, you may want to decide to cancel it. There’s no point seeing it through to the end if it is not developing or engaging learners enough.

This post has got rather long, so I’ll post a follow-up post with more details of the projects that I carried out with my learners. I hope these suggestions and guidelines can help you in your teaching, and I’d love to read your comments below.

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