George Lucas Educational Foundation
English Language Learners

Making Project-Based Learning More Accessible for Multilingual Students

With appropriate scaffolding, multilingual students can successfully engage in all phases of PBL.

August 15, 2023
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Project-based learning (PBL) is an engaging way to explore a topic that all students should be able to partake in, but some multilingual students don’t get a chance to experience it due to their developing English proficiency. However, when PBL units are effectively structured and scaffolded, all multilingual students (MLs) can participate in them successfully.

When multilingual students don’t get opportunities to participate in PBL, they miss out on authentic, content-based engagements to apply and refine their English skills. PBL provides opportunities to shift away from teaching language through memorization to creating opportunities to use English in meaningful ways. PBL makes learning meaningful for MLs because there’s a real audience, and it often presents a real problem for students to contribute a solution to. 

Planning PBL

Creating successful PBL units for MLs requires intentional planning and careful teaching. It’s encouraged that teachers plan backward from the end product of a long-term project. Simply asking students to “work on your project” is not a sufficiently clear learning experience. A clearer process would define the content that students need to communicate, the intended audience, and the mode of communication (e.g., podcast, pamphlet, website). 

Following this formula, a specific product could be one of these:

  • Content: Animal welfare 
  • Audience: People who buy puppies and kittens
  • Mode of communication: A pamphlet

With a clear end product, teachers can then identify the various phases of the project (e.g., introduction, investigation, planning, action, reflection). For each phase, teachers can plan the written instructions for students. This includes guiding questions and prompts that provide clear instructions for each phase. 

For example, if there is an investigative phase, multilingual students will be lost if the only instructions are to “go research your topic.” Instead, the following prompts would provide more meaningful supports during the investigative phase of the animal campaign:

  • Research neutering and spaying campaigns that have worked effectively.
  • Compare and contrast the campaigns for things that made them effective and ineffective. 
  • Summarize effective campaigns. 

When we identify the components of each phase, we are also laying out how we can help students. If we don’t clearly list our expectations, students don’t know what they should do, and MLs in particular are left grasping at straws. 

Teaching PBL 

The scaffolding that occurs during the planning phase is the halfway point to fully supporting MLs. The rest of the journey involves carefully scaffolding the teaching of each phase of PBL. Teaching each phase entails modeling what to do at each step, providing time for students to engage in the specific tasks, and offering differentiated supports during small group instruction.

Modeling helps MLs see what they are supposed to do in each phase. For example, teachers could first show students how to use specific search terms to find sources related to effective animal neutering and spaying campaigns. Then, they could model how to scan articles for their relevance by looking at headings. Finally, they could show how to take detailed notes using headings and listing essential facts. MLs benefit from this explicit modeling because they see the steps they have to take to be successful in each phase. 

As students are beginning their research, the teacher can pull a small group of students that also includes MLs to check the search terms they are using and support them as they determine which resource might provide the most beneficial information.

Once the teacher sees that this small group is successfully engaging in this step, the teacher can call in a different small group while the first one returns to work without direct teacher guidance. Small group instruction benefits MLs, as it provides for immediate feedback, quick clarifications of instruction, and differentiated guidance.

While this type of modeling and small group instruction is particularly helpful to MLs, it actually supports all students. As we conference with students during each phase of the project, we can offer differentiated and personalized suggestions. These brief meetings can immediately be applied to student work, nudging them to see connections or to think about a different approach.

Multilingual students are successful when instruction shifts from assigning tasks to meticulously teaching learning objectives. Since PBL is learning that happens over several phases, each phase builds on the next, and this type of intentional planning and clear teaching of each phase creates the conditions for MLs to be successful. When PBL is planned and instructed in this way, all multilingual students, regardless of their English proficiency, will be able to engage in this authentic form of learning.  

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Filed Under

  • English Language Learners
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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