Worlds apart
It’s amazing how different an upper primary English class can be to a lower secondary class. Not only is there a lot more movement, songs and play in the primary class, there also seems much more time for extended tasks like projects. Secondary classes in my experience in various contexts are places where students need to be ‘serious’, prepare for upcoming exams and not ‘waste precious time’. So, during lesson observations, we rarely see project work taking place. In this blog post, I argue that teenagers can benefit significantly from project work, not only for motivation and variety, but also to develop important skills that they need to succeed in exams and in their future lives.

What is NOT a project
I visit a lot of classrooms around the world where teachers proudly point to posters on the walls and say, ‘look at my students’ projects’. Although the work looks very attractive, most of what I see is really not a project. This display work is usually a piece of writing with a picture. What worries me is that the text often seems to be directly copied or cut and pasted from the internet. This may have some merits (encouraging students to look things up online and designing the final product) but I have two real concerns. One is that students should be discouraged from what is in fact plagiarism, and for me most importantly, is that they aren’t getting opportunities to experience the challenges and satisfaction of what a full-blown project comprises – it’s just not very interesting for them!

So, what makes a project a project?
Most importantly, projects:

  1. are student-generated and led
  2. are topic-based
  3. involve research
  4. lead to a final product
  5. integrate language skills and other skills
  6. are as much, if not more, about process than product

1. student-generated and led

Students have to make choices and take responsibility for their work when doing projects. It’s during this particular life stage when we as teachers need to give teenagers more autonomy, as this is at this time that they want it most. They also need these skills as they move to upper secondary and on to further or higher education, where they have to be successful independent learners.

Doing projects enables them to develop essential study skills such as decision making, time management and perseverance. Plus, crucially, a project is ideally something created by more than student – at least two, if not three or four students working together. And the rationale behind that should become clearer as you read this post

2. topic-based

Projects are a great way to review, practise and bring to life (thus, internalising) language introduced in a secondary coursebook unit, which has a specific topic. Rather than moving on to the next unit without any consolidation, a project helps make key language, sub skills and strategies more memorable, which aids retention and future recall inside and outside the classroom context.

3. research

Projects require research, this is another skill which is useful for teenagers in their further studies as well as enabling them to learn more about subjects that interest them. Students need to:

  • find valid sources
  • differentiate fact from opinion
  • extract key points
  • take notes
  • rephrase / put things they have read into their own words
  • avoid plagiarism
  • form, express and justify their own opinions

4. a final product

All real projects produce something tangible at the end. Something to share, experience and often keep over time, unlike a lot of traditional class work that is not only lost but also forgotten too quickly. A final product could be:

  • an interactive poster presentation
  • an e-book / an e-zine
  • a social media ‘live’ for the group
  • a video clip
  • a motivational speech
  • a play, song, spoken-word poem, or rap
  • a blog post / landing page
  • an advert – for radio, television or online
  • a podcast interview (e.g. with different people on an up-to-date topic)

5. integrating language skills and other skills

Projects enable teenage students to use other skills such as their artistic or musical talents or knowledge of particular subjects, at the same time as English. This increases motivation and makes the language more relevant to secondary learners.

6. process over product

The actual process of planning and creating a project has huge value for teenagers. They have to consider how they use language, what it actually means e.g. what words and phrases best convey their feelings. Working as a group will teach them a lot about themselves, ways they can communicate better and also appreciate the skills of their classmates.

Projects are teen-friendly
Teenagers need:

  • autonomy

They are at a stage when they are pushing boundaries and may resent always being told what to do in lessons.

  • a voice

They have a lot of ideas and opinions and should be given a variety of outlets for these.

  • motivation

It’s much more motivating to make your own choices and to have room to express yourself.

  • different things

People are all different – teenage students are also all different. They should have space to learn, create and share in ways that suit them and enable freedom of expression in a safe environment.

Projects and exams

While a focus on exams is necessary for many teenagers studying English around the globe, the learning of that language should be effective i.e. it needs to be both meaningful and memorable. What is the point of hours of lessons which are immediately forgotten? So, language needs to be practised in context, internalised and personalised. Projects are such a great vehicle for meeting these essential conditions for language learning.

Life skills

These are sometimes referred to as ‘core competencies’ and are being given lots of attention in secondary learning today. For example, Cambridge University Press has created a framework for these and linked them to aspects of learning language learning for different ages.

All of these competencies can be readily developed through project work:

Communication – not just when groups work together and need to discuss and negotiate how to create their projects, but also when they have to present their projects to the rest of the class.

Collaboration – group work can be challenging and learning to listen and respect each other, as well as appreciate others’ strengths are both key to self-development.

Critical Thinking – problem solving is a central part of many stages of project work, from deciding what to focus on for the project to how it can be achieved.

Social Responsibility – leadership skills will be fine-tuned and also the exploration of intercultural understanding can be incorporated into a project.

Creativity – projects allow for and in fact, necessitate, creative thinking skills.

Learning to Learn – developing strategies for ways to achieve goals and how to use language in the learning processed are fostered via projects.

Practical Takeaways for Projects

1. Make project work SMART

They should be:

Specific – not vague, so e.g. a five minute, vlog about our favourite singers.

Measurable – will the students know when they have completed the project and when they are half-way through?

Achievable – some teenagers may be very ambitious, but they have to consider what they can reasonably do in the time given with the resources they have e.g. can they really manage to get an interview with a real life celebrity?

Relevant – personalised, of interest to the project group and to the class as a whole.

Timebound – give teenagers a set time to finish the project and have them break it down into stages, so they do not run out of time.

2. Discuss role allocation and fair workloads

Too often during project work, students may complain that they are doing more than others in their group. They should discuss first what everyone in the group will do and ensure they are all happy with that.

3. Explore rationales, problems, revelations and successes

To overcome initial frustrations and challenges of working collaboratively, it’s important to allow students to discuss any problems they encounter and for you, the teacher, to help them talk about the process – the ups and the downs – so that future project work gets better and goes more smoothly.

4. Guide gently and set parameters

Yes, teenagers should be autonomous, but they are developing these skills and sometimes need your guidance and prompting. So, monitor students, offer help and keep them on task.

5. Integrate projects with regular class work

Link projects to a topic in the coursebook or a topic that students are particularly interested in. Think about doing project work at the end of term / academic year after exams as consolidation / relaxation or regularly linked to each unit of the coursebook.

In a nutshell…

Projects allow for synthesis of knowledge about language and authentic use of language in a highly teen-relevant and motivating way.