Teaching literacy is an ongoing task. It isn’t a wham-bam-and-you’re-done one-shot lesson where kids can show their learning and you move on. Teaching literacy is as much about creating a culture of reading as it is about using targeted strategies to ensure that students are interacting with texts, sometimes really challenging ones that make them stretch far beyond their reach.

That productive struggle is also a part of a PBL mindset. It’s vital to stretch and push these students so they don't fear brain sweat in the future. But we must, all of us, use scaffolds to teach literacy behind every door.

a book highlighted

How Does Literacy Come Into Play in a PBL Unit?

PBL is entrenched in the concept of the elements being “ongoing.” Building a PBL culture in the classroom isn’t just about doing a project every quarter. It’s about using the Design Elements as often as possible. It’s about offering Choice in different assignments, rubrics, deadlines, or partnerships on an everyday basis. It’s about training students to ask great questions not just when creating a Need to Know list, but when using Google, when asking for feedback, or to even develop their own peer-to-peer assessments. The need to teach literacy is also ongoing.

Teaching literacy begins on day one of any classroom. For instance, take the ongoing literacy of text structures:

On the first day of class, many of us send out a letter home to parents asking for a signature of some kind. As teachers, we often instinctively use different text structures to chunk these letters. We use subheadings, a bulleted list, or numbering to help explain the rules and policies of our classroom. These are literacy strategies we use to help break down informational text. Bring them to your students’ attention on day one.

When next we see text structures, it could be on a cover letter (like this example) or check list that we hand out to students when we launch our first PBL unit of the school year. This list gives the big picture overview of what’s to come and makes our methodology transparent.  These checklists can also be broken down into chunks like Driving Question, Major Products, Standards, etc.

Throughout the unit, students will also encounter text structures as they read articles in newspapers, magazines, and online. Pull in the parallels they saw in your own documentation, and have them begin to recognize that authors and journalists use text structures to help readers find and comprehend information.

When students write, also have them mimic text structures in their own writing. I, for instance, never use the term “Five-paragraph essay” in my middle school class. I also never answer questions about the quantity of paragraphs to achieve “done”—instead, I say “sections.” When my students have to write an executive summary to pitch their solution to a committee of funders, it isn’t about a magic number of paragraphs to write persuasively. It’s about these three sections: Background Information, Evidence, Recommendations.

All of these are offset by subheadings. All of these might use paragraphs, but they also might use bulleted lists or links to videos with student-written captions underneath in a different font. By first recognizing text structures used in the research they are reading, students can then mimic those formats in their own work. That brings more authenticity to their project, another goal of PBL.

So, What Strategies Can Be Used to Teach Literacy in Every PBL Classroom?

As I said, teaching literacy can begin on Day One. In fact, I would make the argument that along with your content area, the one concept you are ALWAYS teaching, on a daily basis, is literacy. Here are some ways to teach literacy and where they might appear in a PBL unit:

1. Leveled texts.  Students are constantly looking for research on their topics. But don’t wait for the project to begin. Start to seed the way you want them to read texts from the get-go. Teach math? Find a great post from Newsela related to the math in the world around us and assign it based on a student’s reading level. This program can be adjusted to meet the levels of the learners, giving all students access to the same content.
Use in a PBL unit: Prior to the research stage to build content knowledge and during the research stage to help students learn independently.

2. Graphic Organizers.  Graphic organizers aren’t just to organize thoughts before writing. They can be used to help analyze text being read. There are different graphic organizers for argument, narrative, and informative writing. Having said that, remember to give students choice; not all graphic organizers work for all students.
Use in a PBL unit: Graphic organizers can be used as students take notes, draft, and give critique.

3. Transition Words.  Another part of understanding text structures is in learning about which words mark a shift in the author’s message. Words like however, consequently, first, in conclusion, etc. create a shift in the meaning of the writing.
Use in a PBL unit: During direct instruction time (yes, PBL allows for that!), read whole-class articles with students to help them recognize those words or phrases that mark a shift in an author’s thought process. Gradually release them to read articles they’ve found themselves and have them make note of the transition words.

4. Text annotation.  While students are reading, have them mark up the text. For younger kids, have them use simple symbols like question marks to denote confusion or stars to denote facts or phrases that they like. For older students, have them use the symbols as well as key words and comments.
Use in a PBL unit: Encourage students to get down and dirty with literacy by annotating all of their research during small group collaboration time. Use a program like Scrible so students can share their research and pass their annotations between them, circling, highlighting, and commentating on shared articles and pdfs.

5. Just let ‘em read.  Want to really help teach literacy? Give students time to read. Let them read anything that interests them and then discuss what they are reading. Be a part of that conversation so that your enthusiasm trickles down to them and vice versa.
Use in a PBL unit: PBL is all about student choice and student-propelled inquiry. What better way to have them be a part of their own literacy than to allow students the chance  to choose their own topics or points of view and read about issues that interest them?

Teaching literacy comes down to being the voice in their head as they read. Give students the chance to read and be a part of that inner discussion going on in their heads. Make the writing process transparent in your content area, and their literacy will improve. PBL is a journey and giving students access to strategies in literacy keeps them jogging along their learning path.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron, National Faculty – West
Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and district PBL/21st Century Instructional coach.