Projects to try with teenagers

Election project

In the previous post, I set out why I think projects can work really well with teenage ESOL learners (as well as others). I also tried to lay down some guidelines for setting projects out and carrying them out. In this post I want to talk about the election, fundraising and product design projects I lead my learners through, telling you how I did it and reflecting on how successful, or otherwise they were.

Election project

For the election project, we started by doing some citizenship-type lessons on British democracy, exploring how political issues impact on learners’ lives. The first time we tried this project, we were able to tie it in to the 2015 general election, which was a nice link to current affairs. The second time we did this it tied in with this year’s London elections, which meant that those learners who were EU citizens and over 18 were allowed to actually vote (not sure how long that will last now….), but also there was a set of resources from Action for ESOL that we could use to start out the project.


Following the introductory sessions,  I grouped the learners into ‘parties’ and asked them to choose an issue that they wanted to work with. Grouping is a sensitive issue – it is important to try and group learners with people they can work with, but you also want to spread your most responsible learners around the group to ensure that each group has some leadership. While in a real election parties put forward policies on a range of issues, we felt that this would be too complex for this project; we wanted to keep things relatively simple.

The next stage was to ask learners to work in groups to write a survey about their issue to help them decide what policies they would implement. I had not realised how far outside learners’ comfort zones this was, they were very nervous about speaking to learners from another class. However, I think as long as you know your learners it is good to get them to practice in situations like this and helps to build their confidence. It is also a good opportunity for learners to get some controlled practice of question forms.

Summary writing

Once learners had carried out their surveys, I used an IT lesson to get them to collate their details. I took advantage of the situation to teach them how to create charts in Excel. I then asked them to paste these into a word document and write a summary underneath. This got learners to process the data that they had found and summarise it, which is a skills many will need in courses that they take in future. Obviously it also helped them to develop transferable IT skills.

I asked learners to produce these summaries individually, because I wanted to ensure that they all got the chance to produce written work, that I could assess and give feedback on. I also got learners to upload their work here into Moodle, partly so that I knew I would have a copy I could use in future lessons should some learners be absent.

I then asked learners to return to their ‘parties’ and to work together to use their summaries to produce a manifesto based on these results. This was another good activity for getting learners to process the information that they had found out. It was also a good opportunity for doing some practice of conditionals – “If you vote for us, we will……

Video production

The following lesson was for learners to create their own election broadcasts. The first year that I tried this project, I tried getting learners to look at authentic party political broadcasts. This was not particularly effective, as the concepts behind political advertising are a bit too complex and abstract for what I was trying to achieve – they tend to sell ideals rather than policies, so I think it was of limited use (at least at this level – there’s a fascinating higher level class in there somewhere). For the second year, I tried to give learners a structure to plan their manifestos and broadcasts:

  1. Describe a problem
  2. Explain why it is bad
  3. Say how you will fix it
  4. Describe how good everything will be once the problem is fixed

In order to produce the video, I asked learners to choose different roles – a really important part of team working. The roles I gave out were:

  • Presenter – They could choose how many people in the group appeared on camera, I also gave them the opportunity to make a voiceover for a slideshow of pictures and videos if none of them wanted be in front of the camera.
  • Producer – the team leader, making sure that everyone else was doing their jobs and making final decisions
  • Director – in charge of what was actually filmed
  • Scriptwriter/prompter – in charge of writing the script and helping the presenters stick to it.

I introduced learners to the idea of storyboarding as a way of planning their films and gave them a set of blank storyboards. Once this was set up, I gave learners a set amount of time to plan and film their broadcast (about 2 hours). I felt that it was important to give learners a strict deadline, as there is a danger that tasks like this can drag on, and some groups can get considerably left behind – this can make management of the project more challenging. Working to a deadline also adds an extra dimension to the task and represents an authentic challenge. Learners did need quite a lot of support in this part of the task, so as the teacher you do need to be prepared and got more engaged with some groups – as a teacher you have to strike a balance between giving learners autonomy and support.

In the following session, I asked learners to work in groups to edit the videos that they had produced, including any information slides or images. We used Windows Movie Maker to edit the videos, as it was the only programme that we had available. It is relatively simple to use and is perfectly capable of producing satisfactory results. However, the version that we had in college appeared to only work with a limited number of formats. I managed to work around that by having a laptop with a file-converter utility (I used Format Factory – it was free and worked, but there may be better alternatives).

Hustings and vote

Finally, we got three classes together and held hustings, where they could show their videos, and answer any questions. I helped my class groups come up with ‘difficult to answer’ questions that could be used on any want-to-be politicians in the groups. Any groups that had not managed to make a video were able to stand up and present their ideas – so they were not completely excluded from the activity.

After the hustings we gave out ballot papers, not allowing learners to vote for their own parties.  While that was not particularly authentic, it meant that learners had to engage with others’ ideas.


There were a number of benefits to this project:

  1. It gave learners an insight into how the political process worked and was good as citizenship education.
  2. Surveying other classes took learners outside their comfort zone and helped to build their confidence.
  3. Describing numerical data meant that there were no sources for learners to copy and paste from and so had to use language.
  4. Learners spent considerable time rehearsing and trying out the language they would use in their videos – video production was a motivation for learners to really engage with their language.

There were also challenges:

  1. While we did do some formal language practice before the project, especially in regard to conditional forms, I do not think that I have got a robust, systematic approach to working on language and language needs that emerge from the project. I was able to give on-the-spot support to learners as it became apparent that they needed a particular piece of language – but I think I need to develop a way of recording and recycling this language.
  2. Technical issues – there are a number of potential technical issues that can come from getting learners to make videos – the biggest two that I’ve found were a) sound recording – this was a particular issue for a group of learners who wanted to film outside and b) file formats – the videos from learners’s phones were not compatible with the editing software available in the college. The way I managed to fix this was to bring a laptop with file conversion software already installed. There were also some issues getting files from learners’ devices on to college computers so having spare cables, etc is very useful if you are working with video.


Fundraising project

The second project that I want to consider was a fundraising project. It was partly inspired by the Ruth Hayman Trust’s fundraising competition (if you haven’t heard of the trust, do read up on them – they are fantastic!). The introductory stage of a fundraising project presents lots of opportunities for interesting research and planning. Learners could research and choose a charity to support. There is also wide scope for learners to work together and plan what fundraising activities they want to try.

However, as I mentioned above, sometimes you need to restrict learners’ autonomy to make projects work, and so for a range of different reasons, we chose a charity and fundraising activity for the class.

While I had wanted to get the class to raise money for the Ruth Hayman Trust, it was proving difficult to organise. At the same time the college was organising its own activities to raise money for Sport Relief – it proved much easier to join with this, rather than arrange something separately. This mean that learners did not get to choose what the fundraising activity would be, as a sponsored walk around the common outside the college had already been organised. As a teacher you will have to decide how much autonomy is appropriate both for your learners and for the institution that you work in.


Having made decisions for my learners did not mean that I was not going to get them to do some research, however. Sports/Comic relief is a good charity for this, as it helps a range of different organisations across the UK and internationally. They have a useful page on their website with a map of the different projects they work with. This meant that I could get learners to do some internet research and find organisations, supported by Comic Relief, that they were interested in. I asked them to complete an information grid (Charity research), and then use the information in the grid to make an advertising poster for the campaign. This was to be used to help them talk about charities when they were trying to raise money.

Raising funds

In order to raise funds, learners had to ask for sponsorship money. In order to keep this simple, and to make sure there was a linguistic product for the project, I arranged ‘stations’ for them around college, where they could display their leaflets and posters and ask passers-by for sponsorship. As it was in the college, there were few safeguarding issues to consider – it could potentially have been more interesting if I had arranged for learners to have a stall in the high street, but there are a number of issues around doing this with learners under 18 which make it more complex.

To prepare for this, I did some practice beforehand with learners to help them plan the tone and content of their pitch. We highlighted what things they could say about the charity, and how they could best phrase it in a positive way.

During the task, I circulated around the different stations, checking on learners and giving them support where needed. I asked learners to think about how they were working as a team. As the college had been running a number of Sport Relief activities, we were able to get the marketing team to come and take some pictures (with learners’ permission), which they shared on social media.

One team was able to raise around £20, just by stopping people and talking to them, we had a debrief part of the lesson at the end to discuss and consider what made some groups more successful than others; we considered how well the most successful group had prepared as a team (using this worksheet: Evaluation).


Real money!

Due to circumstances, the amount of autonomy that I gave learners in this task was limited – this did make it easier to do institutionally, but it did take away some possibilities for learning, and possibly some ownership of the project for learners. Also the choice of the sponsored walk as an activity was based on us not having resources to provide ingredients for things like a cake sale, etc. With other groups, this might be easier to organise.

What I think made the task very powerful in terms of confidence-building, was that it was completely authentic – learners were using their language skills to persuade real people to give real money to a real cause. The communicative needs of the task were all genuine. I felt that it was a very good way to raise learners’ confidence by clearly demonstrating what they were capable of doing in English.

Product design/advertising project

This project was inspired by TV programmes like Dragons Den and the Apprentice and aimed to give learners a good idea of how advertising and industry work, as well as providing a wide range of opportunities for them to practice and develop their language skills. In terms of structure it was very similar to the election project above.

The topic was introduced by looking at some themed lessons on advertising and some clips of ‘The Apprentice’. As before, I split learners into groups and asked them to choose one product category (food and drink, electronics, health and beauty, sports equipment, etc.). I then asked them to do some ‘market research’, one year I did this by taking the learners to the Westfield shopping centre in East London, which was less enthusiastically received than I had expected. The second time that I tried the project, learners just used online stores to carry out their research.

After they had found out what was already available, I asked learners to think what ‘design decisions’ they would have to make about their project (price range, target market, colour, etc.) and to make a survey to ask learners from other groups. As before, this was a great confidence-building exercise as my group of slightly nervous learners went into other classes, spoke to everyone there and got the information that they needed. As before, I asked learners to collate the information they had found, using Excel and to write a summary.

For the next part of the project, I asked learners to use their summaries to come up with a very simple project brief, and to prepare advertising materials. Learners did find this quite tricky, as it requires a lot of creativity. I had to engage quite closely with groups to help them through the process of deciding what they wanted to say in their adverts. Slowly and surely they came up with a script. This time learners chose not to record a video, and just recorded a voice-over for a slide show – this was done using a laptop and a free audio editing program called Audacity. While learners practised reading out their scripts I was able to do some work on sentence stress and intonation with them. As in the election project, the recording process encouraged learners to rehearse and practise the language they were going to use. Learners then worked in groups, some sourcing images for the videos and others editing them together to produce the finished clips.

We rant the final stage  as a competition between 3 groups – we brought the learners together and asked them to present their product and advert; They were then scored by other learners on a range of criteria.


This project seem to be lesson engaging for learners, when compared with the other two. If I had to guess why that was, I’d suggest that the highly inauthentic nature of the task made it less attractive to learners – there were no real products to promote, and so there was a relatively high element of role play in the activity.

Another barrier to the success of this project was that good advertising is difficult to produce – it requires a high degree of creativity, and learners initially struggled to get their ideas together.

While this meant that it took a while (and a lot of effort from the teacher) to get this project moving, once they had come up with scripts learners were able to get a lot of spoken language practice from repeating and refining their audio recordings. The final advert produced was an attractive linguistic product that they could be proud of.


Making projects work with teenage learners


Students playing board games
photo taken from by Marjorie Rosenberg used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,


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.


“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



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.