Projects – how and why to use them with students

Where projects go wrong

Many teachers will attempt projects with their classes but give up on them because of the students’ inability to work as a team, an over-reliance on the teacher: and often due to bad time management and conflict, a resulting poor product and a pervasive feeling of time wasted, which motivates no one to go through the process again.

In addition, with access to the internet even young children find it easy to merely cut and paste some information and visuals they find onto a sheet of paper and present this as a project. It is not. These so-called projects have little or no value and encourage laziness and ultimately an acceptance of plagiarism that will do students no good whatsoever when they enter higher education.

So, what defines a project and what gives it value in the learning of languages?

Projects are student-generated and led. They are topic-based e.g. food in my country; rock bands; the world in 2080. They involve research and lead to a final product. Students are encouraged to work as teams and make decisions for themselves, with the teacher acting as monitor and consultant. There is always a final tangible product, which is individual and can be surprising and extremely satisfying to students and teachers alike.

Products can include:

·         posters and wall displays, which can be presented and/or exhibited to the entire school. They can also be presented to the class in a Power Point or similar format

·         a book or magazine based on a topic that they are passionate about and designed to express their individuality and artistic talents. This could be printed or shared on an online platform

·         a (recorded) radio programme, for example a current affairs programme with different segments on topics of interest, done seriously or with humour

·         a video, which could be drama, documentary, interview or news. The video would have added layers to the radio as costumes, backgrounds and props would have to be sourced or created (there are many apps for making short videos e.g. iMovie, educreation and AdobeVoice)

·         a song, poem or rap

·         a web site or blog

·         an advert or commercial created for the radio, TV, magazine or online

In fact, the product is anything that uses the medium of language and can include any artistic, creative, individualised content.

Because students are allowed to make their own choices and are free to employ thei talents and explore their interests, they are often the only way that our English language lessons can offer opportunities for students to use, what according to Bloom’ taxonomy are, the higher order thinking skills: analysis, evaluation and creativity. By engaging in the creation of projects students can prove to themselves that they can use English for a purpose and use and develop many other skills too.

What skills are applied when working on projects?

Engaging in projects allows students to practise not only language skills, but also intellectual skills, physical/motor skills, social and life skills

Life skills are a hot topic these days. According to the Cambridge University Press classification they are:

·         Creativity and innovation

·         Critical thinking and problem solving

·         Computer literacy

·         Learning to learn

·         Communication

·         Collaboration

·         Emotional skills

·         Social responsibilities

Projects allow for a free range of creativity and innovation, as students can chose the form and content of the final product, but importantly are motivated to play with language with a purpose. They need to mine their linguistic resources and find words and combinations of words that will fulfil the needs of the project.

Critical thinking and problem solving are employed to map out the project in terms of participants, time and resources and planning how they will achieve the objectives they set themselves.

Research is often done using computers and students may well use a digital medium to present their project.

As students face problems while creating their project, they may be helped by the teacher or their team mates to find solutions, thus engaging in the process of learning to learn.

Working well as a team demands good communication. If students are still at a lower English language level, the discussions they have can, of course, be in L1. That’s fine. They are still developing communication skills per se.

In an age when we are told that young people are becoming increasing more isolated and depend on social media and phones to communicate, collaboration is probably the most important skill, in my opinion, to focus on. Working closely, listening to others, accepting other view points, making concessions, finding compromises that everyone can be happy with – these are all crucial to facing an adult world.

Before embarking on project work, I think it’s vital to discuss with students why group work is important, how the group work is undertaken and agree norms and practices, such as, who does what, how much each student will do and what is fair. Sometimes doing some research may seem like an easy task to the student writing up a long text or creating a design, so it is good to clarify the value of each student’s contribution.

It could also be helpful to teach phrases like ‘Why don’t I do XX’, ‘Maybe you can do XX’, ‘I volunteer to XX’ and build on these, as collaborative work is increased in the classroom.

I don’t think collaboration comes very easily to us, especially when school environments stress working independently, often competitively, so it is worth spending time discussing its value in the world and how students can use it in class.

Understanding one’s own emotions and being sensitive to others are key skills and there will be ample opportunities during project work to practice these and well worth discussing this prior to starting.

Taking responsibility for the way we live and what we do, especially in light of the focus on the environment at the moment, is also a good topic to explore with students. I start with just stressing the importance of being responsible for all the material they have (no moaning, if parts of their project are lost because they leave it lying around in a classroom) and tidying away craft materials and rubbish at the end of a lesson. Also, being aware of how others are doing and suggesting ways of helping; being a supportive member of your team – this something else I discuss.

Focussing on all these life skills has great value in the greater education of students but also supports their language development.

Why else do projects?

Projects cater for the diverse range of students we may find in any class, as they can make different contributions according to their talents, building their confidence and motivation. So, the musical student can play background music in a drama, chose or write songs and then teach the team to sing them. There is potential for everyone to get involved and feel challenged and fulfilled.

I want to stress that in doing projects language is used communicatively and as a skill in order to achieve the aim of producing the final product. So, the process of creating the project is, in my mind, more important than what is the final product.

Projects encourage learner autonomy as students have to make their own make choices, take responsibility for their work and begin to develop research and study skills.

Stages of a project

I suggest presenting the stages to the students and talking through them, as well as establishing a time line for each stage, so that there isn’t a final panic towards the end or the project only being half-completed, which is such a disappointment for the whole class.

1.    PLAN

·         Objective – what do they want to achieve e.g. find out more about X, use the language they have studied in the last 2 units

·         Final product – what will they present to the class

·         Resources – what do they need to achieve their goal

·         Roles and tasks – who does what

·         Phases and timings - deadlines

·         Presentation – how and when will they present their project


·         This can be online or they may need to interview people, send out questionnaires etc


·         It is valuable to teach note taking skills, as these do not come naturally. Read through texts together (ideally projected on a board) with your class, pause at important parts and ask if the students think they are important and why, then highlight them

·         Teach students how to rephrase, summarise


·         With support from teacher


·         Using the chosen medium


·         Decide who (the students involved, the rest of the class, the teacher) and how the projects are evaluated

·         Those involved may consider not just the product but also have a checklist of how well they practised life skills

Top tips for integrating projects in class

·         Teach the skills needed

·         Link projects to a topic in the course book or a topic the students are particularly interested in e.g. a major local sporting event / festival

·         Do them at the end of term/year after exams as consolidation or relaxation or regularly after each unit of the book

·         Guide your students gently and initially set some of the parameters

·         Monitor students, offer help and keep them on track

·         Ensure learners understand their value

Good luck and enjoy project work!

This article was also published in the HUPE (Croatian Teachers of English) newsletter.


Balloon Tennis

Balloon Tennis

This game is suitable for all ages and levels

·       Blow up one balloon

·       Divide your class into two teams (once the students have got used to the game, you can organise them into smaller groups of 2 teams each, each group needs a balloon – but consider the space you have available. You could use the playground for this).

·       e.g. with younger learners explain that they have to remember vocabulary for food

·       One team starts with a member hitting the balloon across to the opposition team and at the same time shouting (so all can hear) one word for an example of food e.g. chocolate

·       Next a member of the opposition team has to hit the balloon back shouting a different food word

·       If no one can think of a new word or repeats a word – that team loses the point (this encourages the learners to listen carefully)

·       If the balloon drops to the floor – the receiving team loses the point

·       You can score the game like tennis

·       You can change the lexical set whenever necessary

·       With older learners you can review a topic prior to a writing task e.g. the advantages and disadvantages of the internet

·       Nominate which team should shout advantages and which disadvantages

·       Play as above

This game has a number of advantages

·       It is kinaesthetic and can energise the class

·       It’s a team game and promotes a sense of community

·       The focus is on the balloon and shyer students feel relaxed and more likely to participate

·       You can change/play with the rules to suit your class and any language you want to practise

·       The balloon is quite slow and easier to keep in the air than a ball


Life Skills

Life Skills – that’s the latest buzz word/phrase you are probably hearing now. But what are life skills and how are English teachers expected to teach them?

More students than ever are going to University in the UK (over a third of 18 year olds), so we could assume that we are creating a very able work force equipped to deal with the challenges of life in the 21st Century. Yet we read about companies complaining that graduates come for job interviews without the basic skills needed to succeed in challenging and fast-changing work environments where team work and creativity are prized more highly than exam results and the acquisition of knowledge. This is not new. In 1990, Robert Fisher said the following in his book: Teaching Children to Think.

Skills that were appropriate 20 years ago no longer prepare children for the world beyond school. Changes in society are accelerating so rapidly that it is difficult to assess what factual knowledge will be needed for the future.

We need to be teaching children and young people knowledge and skills that become part of the way they grow, learn and create relationships with people throughout their lives.

These life skills have been mapped out with corresponding competencies and clearly aligned to the different age groups by Cambridge University Press. I won’t repeat it all here but have a look at their website, where they are clearly laid out and explained:

The life skills delineated by CUP are:

1. Creativity and innovation

2. Critical thinking and problem solving

3. Computer literacy

4. Learning to learn

5. Communication

6. Collaboration

7. Emotional skills

8. Social responsibilities

The Big Question I get from teachers is ‘How can we add this to our teaching as we don’t have enough time to cover the syllabus anyway?’

The good thing is there are two answers to this:

a.   Teachers already include life skills in ELT and b. by focussing on them more directly could get even more done more efficiently.

How do we already focus on life skills? And how can that be improved? Here are a few examples.

(1)                reading comprehension

It encourages Critical Thinking & Problem solving. We lead students to

      Understand key points

      Evaluate texts

      Evaluate opinions

      And, hopefully, ask effective questions

A really effective reading (or listening) task I use with all ages is the KWL approach. Which stands for:

What do you know?

What do you want to know?

What have you learnt?

Step K

So, before reading a text, for example, about The Destruction of the Amazon Forest, students share everything they already know about the Amazon and what they have learnt/picked up about deforestation in the news or in other school subjects etc.

Step W

Then the teacher asks students to think about what they would like to learn from the text and write up questions either individually, in groups or as a class.  They then read the text, looking for the answers to their own questions and underline any parts of the text which answer them.

Step L

Students share information from the text which has answered their questions, collating what they have learnt.

If there are still outstanding unanswered questions, they can research the topic online or by asking others like family members and bring those answers to the next class.

This simple technique (there is NO teacher preparation involved) not only puts information into context by activating schemata and previous knowledge, but also helps them see connections (ie what we learn from the TV can be applied and helpful in other contexts like the classroom – avoiding compartmentalisation of knowledge), personalises the process and encourages students to approach reading critically and authentically. This is how I read (and listen to) newspapers and articles and talks on subjects that interest me. It’s a real-life skill.

(2)                Reading stories with our young learners is a great way to develop emotional skills.

These are two of the competencies for Emotional Skills:

·         Identifying and talking about own emotions

·         Empathy & relationship skills: recognising & responding appropriately to other’s emotional state

Any teacher of children, reading stories with them will be asking their students questions like: Is the forest scary? Do you like bears? Why is the little girl scared? Are you scared in the dark?

If the children then act out the stories, they can do so with the appropriate emotions, too.

(3)                Project work

Have you tried doing project work with students and it’s all gone horribly wrong? Students arguing? Some students doing all the work and some little or none? Time running out and nothing concrete achieved? All the work done in L1 and little English practised? That has certainly happened with some of my classes in the past.

Now here is a perfect opportunity for putting the development of Collaboration Skills into practice.

Collaboration includes: sharing, listening to others, team work, and competing in teams. In order to ensure that project work is successful for all involved and that English and Collaboration skills are practised and developed the following guidelines need to be followed, teachers should:

  • Ensure that the language, collaboration and other goals* and steps of the project are clearly set up and agreed by students
  • Pre-teach the English that is needed to communicate during the project, beginning with such simple language as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ with pre-primary students
  • Explain and discuss the need for collaboration with their students
  • Set out clearly how the success of the task is the responsibility of each member of the group
  • Closely monitor group work and give timely feedback
  • Encourage the teams to celebrate work well done

*If students are aware that one of the aims of the project is to develop their collaboration skills and how that is important for them in the future, they will appreciate the value of the task and not feel that group work is a waste of time and not of any help in passing exams, as is unfortunately often the case with teen classes.

We really cannot just say: ‘Now work together.’

(4)                Learning to learn

Finally, a skill that is not necessarily focussed on in all lessons, particularly with young leaners: learning to learn.  

The competencies for this skill include

·         Practical skills for participating in learning

·         Reflecting on and evaluating own learning success

·         Identifying & articulating learning goals

·         Identifying & using effective learning techniques

Nyar Ibrahim at the British Council in Paris has done some excellent research with children as young as 6 or 7, asking them at the end of lessons to reflect on and explain what they learnt and how in today’s lesson, proving it’s never too young to start this reflective process. Spending just 4 or 5 minutes at the end of each lesson to allow students to consider what and how they have learnt seems to be time well spent if they can account for their own language development and understand the teaching/learning methods that work best for them as well as seeing beneath the ‘smoke screen’ of the lesson at the methodology that lies beneath.

Why not ask students to consider some key questions like:

·         What do I want to learn this week and why?

·         What techniques help me understand and remember English words?

·         How can I help myself improve my English at home?

Or allow them to

·         choose their own homework task after a lesson

·         set their own learning goals for a term

·         tell you what kind of activities they prefer to do in lessons and why

So, Life Skills in the English Language classroom? We already help develop life skills to certain extents, but we can be more systematic. By being more aware of which skills we are developing and why and allowing students to recognise this we can do a lot more to help our students develop not only their English proficiency but also skills that will help them throughout their lives.


High Frequency Spoken Expressions

I was in Austria earlier this week presenting a session about Developing Oral Communication. Although we may know 60-75,000 words in our mother tongue, we don't actually use anywhere near that many in our day-to-day exchanges. In fact, a lot of our spoken language consists of formulaic chunks, which can easily be taught, practised and used.

I presented the following activity for classroom practice. Cut up the cards and distribute one to each student, then ask students to mingle, read out their phrase and see if they can create an exchange with the two utterances.

Once they have a partner, the students can expand on their dialogue by adding a few more lines to create more of a story.

You must be joking!

That’s not my fault.

Wow. That’s amazing!

I can’t believe it!

That’s very kind of you.


I’m so sorry.

No, thank you.

Yes, of course.

That’s so sad.

That’s interesting.

That’s wrong.

That’s ridiculous.
I have ten children.

Would you like a coffee?

I’m getting married next week.

You’re welcome.

I’ve won the lottery.

Superman just flew in the window.

Can you help me?

I’ve met Barack Obama.

Can I help you?

My dog died.

I collect stamps.

There are more people in Austria than China.

I’m 21 years old.


Homework for busy teens and adults

In a previous post (Is Homework a Waste of Time?) I argued that homework is a great opportunity for independent learning. In a classroom it’s difficult to differentiate tasks and ensure that everyone is doing what they need and/or want.

I was recently chatting to by dear friend Anna Miller in Athens. She teaches a lot of adult students online and they have very little spare time to dedicate to homework and I started thinking about ways they could practise and develop their English easily, focussing on language that was relevant to themselves. Below are some of the ideas I came up with. I have indicated what skills they particularly focus on for teachers and students alike need to know.

1.       Shopping lists / to do lists

·         Writing

·         Vocabulary

·         Grammar

Most of us write lists on a regular basis – what we need to buy or things we need to do. I suggest that students get into the habit of writing these in English. The things we buy and do relate directly to our own lives and this is vocabulary that we would use to talk about ourselves, order food in restaurants and even include in a CV.

The shopping list would be basically vocabulary (nouns) but can be expanded to include adjectives, numbers and types of containers. Mine would look something like this:

A kilo of new potatoes

A small organic chicken

Salad ingredients

A bottle of dry French wine

The ‘to do’ list might be more complex and include verbs and imperatives, e.g.

Phone dentist and make an appointment

Invite Jane and Peter to dinner on the 26th

E-mail Tony about holiday dates

Students would be writing such lists anyway, but writing them in English will be (a) good practice (b) meaningful (c) helpful for memory and (d) hopefully, a fun habit.

2.       Texting friends

·         Writing

·         Reading

·         Various vocabulary and grammar

It won’t be that unusual for a student of English to have friends who are also studying English. Suggest that instead of texting each other in their mother tongue, they do so in English. Again, they will be using English for a purpose, practising language of personal significance and writing regularly.

3.       Join on-line forums

·         Reading

·         Writing

There are many on-line forums, some specifically for English language learning like those on the British Council websites, where students can exchange messages with students of English around the world.

https:// learnenglishteens.britishcouncil.org

Plus, there are many different forums for exchanging ideas and information which are job or interest specific e.g. pinterest.

4.      Reading online

·         Reading

·         Developing vocabulary

·         Learning about topics of interest

The internet has revolutionized the way we do so many things including reading. It’s hard to encourage students to read in English if they don’t read in their own language, but DO encourage them as it’s a great way to practise and develop language.

Students can read absolutely anything that is of interest to them personally and professionally from online newspapers e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/uk, to short stories, to recipes, to academic papers.

What I would stress here is that it is NOT necessary to ask students to write about what they have read. This is not an authentic response to most reading we do in real life. If anything, it will put them off reading, if they have a summary to write afterwards!!

Reading online can be done anywhere on a smart phone, so they could read for 5 minutes a day on the bus, if that is the only opportunity they have.

5.      Watching TV or films

·         Listening

In many countries it’s possible to find English language TV programmes and films which have not been dubbed into the language of the country they are shown in. Suggest to students that they watch at least one hour of English language TV a week. To get them to pay more attention to the words spoken, they can play this game: spot the difference between what is said and what is written in the sub-titles. This can be a lot of fun!

Students may feel that watching English language TV is too difficult, but once they get into the habit it and they are enjoying the programme, it will feel less like a chore.

All of the above can become habits rather than chores!