student reading

Project Based Learning goes hand-in-hand with reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

A well-designed project offers multiple opportunities for students to research using primary and secondary sources, to interview experts, to discuss new ideas with peers and others, and to write, perhaps for an audience outside of school.

An authentic project creates a real need for students to use their literacy skills.

But the literacy skills required for PBL can also present a challenge, especially to those students who aren’t yet independent when reading challenging text.

Here are a few tips that can help you support students while ensuring they continue to develop.


1. Save the most challenging text for last.

In the 1980s, researchers Donna R. Recht and Lauren Leslie designed an experiment to determine the relationship between reading comprehension and prior knowledge of a topic. Their experiment involved 64 middle schoolers who had been assessed for their reading ability and their knowledge of baseball.

Each student was asked to read a description of a fictional baseball inning and then show what they had read on a model baseball field using miniature baseball figures.  (For example: “Churniak swings and hits a slow bouncing ball toward the shortstop. Haley comes in, fields it, and throws to first, but too late. Churniak is on first with a single, Johnson stayed on third. The next batter is Whitcomb, the Cougars’ left-fielder.”)

The kids who knew little about baseball, including students who had high reading ability, did poorly on the assessment. And all those who knew a lot about baseball — regardless of reading skill — did well. In fact, the poor readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed the good readers who didn’t.

Pause and think of that a second... Students with low reading skills who had a lot of knowledge about a topic outperformed those with strong skills and little knowledge.

So, what does this have to do with PBL? In most projects, students learn a great deal about a topic over time, often through multiple texts. Based on Recht and Leslie’s “Baseball Study,” it stands to reason that students, even students with less developed reading skills, will be better able to understand texts related to the project once they have built some background knowledge.

Take a look at the texts that are at the heart of your project and determine which are the simplest and which are the most complex. Then use them in a strategic order, helping students to use what they already know to make sense of the most challenging texts.

2. Help your students get to know their audience for writing. 

When students have the opportunity to write for an audience other than their teacher — especially when their writing might make a difference in the world — their motivation for writing well increases. But that motivation doesn’t automatically lead to improved skill or the ability to write in a way that impacts that audience. 

A key here is to ensure that students understand the kind of writing their intended audience expects. This can happen in a couple of ways. Students could interview members of their audience or their experts, asking questions not only about the content they are trying to discover, but the genre or tone that expected in the field of study at hand. Even better if the expert or audience member shares and talks about examples of the kind of writing that’s real in their worlds.

Those examples are helpful to teachers as well — analyze them for the variety of mini-lessons your students may need. What do you notice about the vocabulary needed? That’s an anchor chart or word wall. How about the tone? Are the descriptions technical or beautiful? Is it emotional or logical? How does the writing start or end? Analyzing the writing their audience expects and making those writing moves visible to your developing writers teaches them the techniques that help take them to the next level. 

3. Use protocols to help your students speak and listen. 

Protocols provide a structure for speaking and listening that can help students better process their thinking, learn from one another, and express thoughts clearly. To maximize the effectiveness of protocols, match the protocol to your purpose for using them. 

For example, if you hope that students will learn to debate respectfully, protocols like Four Corners or Take a Stand can be helpful, especially if you make time for students to reflect on how the protocol helps them listen and learn from each other. (Thanks to The Teacher Toolkit and EL Education for those videos.) 

On the other hand, if your purpose is for students to build knowledge or understand the multiple aspects of topic, a fishbowl might be the right choice. Learn more about the fishbowl from Facing History and Ourselves.

By carefully selecting protocols and surfacing with students how those structures are helping them to speak, listen, and think, you are sharpening their skills. Furthermore, you are deepening their knowledge, which circles us back to meeting the challenge of complex text as described at the beginning of this post.

Teachers often tell me that they avoid asking students to read and write during projects, because they’re concerned that students don’t have the necessary skills.

Don’t miss this incredible opportunity to help students continue to practice and develop. A few strategic moves on your part will make literacy less of a challenge and more of an opportunity for learning and success.

Cheryl Dobbertin, National Faculty
Cheryl is a teacher, coach, and administrator who became passionate about PBL when she saw the impact of an authentic audience on the quality of the work of her high school English students.