Project Work in the Young Learner Classroom

Projects on jobs and occupations

Teaching Young Learners

Teaching English to young learners can be considered more challenging and rewarding than any other form of language teaching.  However, a lot of what works and what doesn’t involves reflecting on lessons and considering what is successful and what is less successful.  I remember when I first started my teaching career in South Korea, with little knowledge of language teaching and learning, methodology and preparing courses for young learners.  I suppose I would be considered, in most respects, a backpacker teacher with little more than a degree to my name and no teaching experience.  I was shown the classroom by directors of a small private language school in the middle of nowhere and told “You are the teacher, so teach!” and was pointed to the classroom.  If only it was as simple as this.
I learnt very quickly what would be more appropriate to very young learners (aged between 4 and 7 years), young learners (aged between 8 and 11 years), teenagers (12 to 16 years) and young adults.  Throughout this blog post, I will be referring more with young learners and teenagers.  However, some of these ideas could be developed and incorporated into the very young learner and young adult classroom.  In order to learn more about what motivates young learners and why teachers should try to incorporate projects into lessons, we need to consider what young learners and adolescence students dislike from their lessons.
 

What Young Learners Dislike

Young learners and adolescence students, in reference to a recent ELT Chat on young learner motivation and project work, dislike:
  • Any form of grammar or vocabulary exercises;
  • Having no control over their learning;
  • Having to read alone and quietly;
  • Studying about topics with no immediate or necessary interest; and
  • Being told what to do.
I suppose when this is considered, young learners appear to dislike any form of control or anything which constrains their ability to make informed and autonomous decisions over their continuous guided learning of English.  It is natural: if you push an object, it causes friction and is destined to move against you.  The same could be said for any young learner or child: if you force them to complete activities, they will find any reason to not complete them.  Therefore, but why is project so important for young learners?
 

Project Work

Students creating a poem for the class
Project work in the classroom, is related to a Task Based Learning (TBL), which evolved from Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), and is encourages learners to work cooperatively in groups to solve a dilemma or problem.  The focus on delivering a solution will inspire learners to use English when focusing on the ‘task’ at hand.  There are many advantages to TBL such as:
  • The students have total autonomy over language production and must use all their linguistic resources to communicate their ideas or solutions to team-members.
  • The natural context for TBL develops personalised and more immediate language learning for the students.
  • Exposure to language will be more varied with language emerging naturally from the context rather than students being told what they are or will study in the coursebook.
However, we are focusing on Project Work with Young Learners, so what do projects offer that tasks don’t?
 

Project Based Vs Task Based

Although a task based approach focuses on learners completing and finding a solution to a natural problem, it can often be quite demotivating if young learners are unable to or unwilling to complete tasks just to get them talking.  What task is decided?  Who decides the task?  Why does this approach depend on a mechanism to evoke natural speaking?  Is it suitable for young learners?  These are a few questions that teachers should consider when deciding to incorporate a task based approach for language teaching in the classroom, especially for younger learners.  I have often found that the under the guise of TBL, there is no real aim for the young learners and has the potential to spark chaos.  Although, as stated earlier, young learners enjoy autonomy and having some voice within the classroom, the teacher should guide the lesson and overall curriculum to suit the individuals in the classroom.  I have often taught young learners through a task based approach and the learners end up asking “Why are we doing this?” to which I have replied “I want to get you speaking English.”  Unfortunately, young learners don’t have the maturity and are also unsuitable for TBL, which is where Project Based Learning (PBL) fills the gap.
There are quite a few differences between TBL and PBL, with TBL focusing on the solution and communication of the task, while PBL focuses on the end project (either with a presentation or showing off their projects to the class or school).  I propose young learner teachers to incorporate a project based approach for future classes to develop communication (in a natural as possible setting) and also motivating young learners to develop personal and immediate interest in a topic that they are studying.  The Project Based Approach would:
  • Encourage learners to use L2 as and when required.  However, there is understanding that to negotiate the task some learners will revert to their L1 to develop meta-knowledge and ideas of the project;
  • Be completed either a shorter or longer period of time;
  • Integrate language and develop social skills (a must for any young learner developing their L1 or L2);
  • Personalise the learning for the students and encourage a sense of achievement unmatched by any other pedagogical approach for language teaching for young learners; and
  • Have a specific outcome so that learners are able to ‘show-off’ their final products to class, school or parents.

Developing Project Based Lessons

Students created a poster about their country
The key to successfully delivering a Project Based lesson is preparation.  To prepare for lessons it is important to do the following (so that you get the creative juices flowing):
  • Develop ideas by brainstorming ideas on a piece of paper;
  • Try to supplement daily or weekly themes (which could supplement young learner coursebooks);
  • Get ideas by speaking to other teachers in your staffroom or via other Web 2.0 tools (Twitter, Facebook, etc.);
  • Allocate a specific time for the project (last lesson of the day, last lesson of the week, etc.); or
  • Just ask the learners what they want to do!
It is important on deciding activities which teenagers would find interesting.  However, it is one thing to guess what teenagers would be engaged with and another to develop a lesson whereby learners hate their project.  We have all done a lesson on the theme of shopping with teenager language learners, but I am sure not every young learners love shopping as much as you would expect.  So it is advisable that teachers quiz their learners on what they like in their ‘day-to-day’ life as well as what they would like to cover (topic-wise) in their lessons.
A sample questionnaire/survey could be handed out to learners at the start of their course to cover the following:
  • What do you like talking about with your friends and family?
  • Do you have any hobbies that you like to do in your freetime?
  • What do you like or dislike about English study?
  • Do you like listening to music? What was the last thing you listened to?
  • Do you enjoy shopping? What was the last thing you bought?
  • Do you like watching movies? What was the last thing you watched?
  • Do you like reading magazines? What was the last thing you read in a magazine?
  • What would you like to study during the course?
These questions will inform any teacher with what makes learners ‘tick’.  It will encourage the teacher to view the student(s) as a person rather than somebody in the classroom which needs to be fed constant language with the occasional language game to boot (a.k.a. hangman).  Try to develop a more reactive and reflective approach when adopting PBL.
 

The Project Toolkit For Teachers

Used toilet roll is important for projects (wickedreport.com © 2013)
Whenever preparing lessons for the classroom, no matter the method or approach, it is very important to ensure that you are fully prepared to deliver for the classroom.  The toolkit is vital so that students are equipped to create their own products during the lesson.  Therefore, I would encourage any teacher to include any of the following suggestions for their box of tricks:
  • Photographs – Young learners are usually kinaesthetic learners and as such react very well to any pictures introduced during the lesson.  With photographs, students could cut them out for their projects, stick them to card, create their own flashcards, etc.
  • Flashcards – Flashcards are very important, as are pictures, to introduce vocabulary, so why not get learners to create their own box of flashcards for lessons.
  • Blutack & Pins – When students have completed their pictures, magazines, etc., it is important to make their contribution visible for the class and Blutack as well as Pins serve this purpose.
  • Folders/Portfolios – If you are developing a project over a long period of time, it would be necessary to store ongoing contributions in a student folder/portfolio within the classroom.  Should you classroom not be as secure as you expect, you could always lock away student folders/portfolios in a cabinet at the school.
  • Coloured Pencils & Crayons – When you get students working projects which involve some sort of drawing, you should have all the coloured pencils and crayons.  I have often found young learners not having their own coloured pencils or crayons and constantly asking for these.  You can pick these up quite cheaply via many stationary stores.
  • Coloured Card & Paper – The most important object of all is paper and card (of various colours) which will be used by learners when they are developing projects in the classroom (such as making a poster about animal farms).
  • Toilet Roll – When teaching kids, you need a healthy quota of toilet roll with the amounts of crafts they produce during the lesson.  Before throwing away that empty roll, put it in a plastic bag and then put it to good use in the project classroom.  Young learners could create various objects: http://www.dltk-kids.com/type/tp_roll.htm 
  • Scissors, Glue & Glitter – When incorporating any form of arts and craft in the classroom, it is best to have a collection of safety scissors, glue sticks and glitter.  With most schools that I have worked with, there is usually a huge battle among the every disappearing scissors and glue.  Therefore, I would recommend that you get your own personal collection to add to your toolkit.
 

Digital & Online Tools

Most young learners these days are ‘digital natives’ and as such expect to naturally see some form of technology being used in the classroom.  Technology could be exploited particularly for PBL.  So try to get your hands on various tablets or cameras so the young learners are able to develop online projects.  There are numerous applications or software which could enhance and motivate learners.  When they are back in their country, they could look at the website or watch the video to show to their parents and gets the language classroom to the students no matter where they are.
With cameras, you could get students to compile photographs of their projects:
  • So that it could developed towards a School Yearbook (a great marketing tool also);
  • Dedicate a section in the school, classroom or on the school website/blog to share projects;
  • Develop online student portfolios to compile projects, art work and crafts.  Websites could include Tumblr.com, Blogger.com, Glogster.com or WordPress.com; and
  • Keep a collection of projects and take photos so that they could be used as a demonstration tool for future learners.
You could use dedicated video recorders or recorders from tablets or smartphones to develop video projects, such as:
  • Making a School Tour, Movie Trailer, School News Story, Introducing Our Class, etc.;
  • Get learners to record objects for one second, every day and create a montage of their stay in the UK or at their school in their home-country; and
  • Use video editing tools (such as iMovie or equivalent) to edit and share via various platforms such as YouTube.

Recommended Resources

I would recommend a number of books that you purchase to assist in the development and incorporation of PBL in your classroom.  These books include:
These books and materials with you give you all the ideas and resources required for generating projects in the classroom.  It is important to have photocopiable material which could be included so the “Timesaver Project Work” and “Imaginative Projects” are a must have.  Should you want to incorporate technology into future projects, I would recommend “Language Learning with Technology“.

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