Project Based Learning, or PBL, is so literacy intensive that it can be overwhelming. Just because PBL is literacy intensive doesn’t mean learners will automatically pick up key literacy skills in a project (or problem) based context. So what do you do? Read below for a few key strategies.
1) Authentic Literacy is Vital
Make sure learners are engaged in the same kinds of reading, writing, listening, and speaking as professionals, experts, activists, and community members. And, as much as possible, try to ensure that students will have a real audience for their work. Learners will be much more likely to work hard on an Op-Ed they’ll actually be sending to a newspaper than an essay they’ll be turning in to their teacher.
2) Build Literacy “Need-to-Knows” Into Your Project
PBL is literacy intensive- but students may do very little grappling with ideas in texts or trying new forms of writing unless there’s a strong literacy component to the student product. When I say “literacy component,” I mean specifically Common Core Literacy Standards (or other key literacy standards, such as disciplinary literacy skills). While I agree that literacy can be very broadly defined, I think we need to be purposeful about the literacy skills and standards we choose to include in a project. If literacy is an afterthought- like a random journal, or a stand-alone vocabulary exercise, it won’t feel genuine to students and won’t drive their ‘need-to-knows.’ Consequently, I encourage literacy-infused final products for projects. Have students write scripts or technical manuals, or prepare presentations where they deliver arguments using evidence from their research.
3) Teach Literacy Skills in Chunks Over Time
It takes a long time to become a proficient writer, or reader, or speaker. Focusing on a key component of skillful writing, e.g. organization, or effective conclusions, rather than attempting to teach and assess multiple components takes the pressure off you and students. It allows learners to master an aspect of their craft and gives you a break when you’re grading.
4) Support, Support, Support
Sometimes we think that simply speaking, or reading, or writing, is enough for students’ skills to improve. While that may be true, I believe they’ll improve more if they engage in deep practice, with support and feedback. Modeling, consciousness raising activities, and discussion make students aware of the characteristics and techniques of good reading or speaking, and help them begin to use those techniques themselves. Wondering what to support and how to do it? Try writing out or creating a final product yourself. What did you do, as an accomplished reader and writer? How did you organize the piece? What kinds of language did you use? What kinds of evidence did you include? Pick a key feature or two, and think about how you’ll support students in developing the necessary skills. And, of course, ask others for help!
What do you do to support the development of literacy skills in your PBL classroom? And how do you support learners in a literacy intensive environment?