What is PBL?

Project-based learning (PBL) is an approach to teaching that highlights the use of problem-solving and collaboration in the design of authentic, real-life projects. In this post, we’ll provide a definition for PBL and discuss its characteristic and classroom implications.

What is PBL?

The aim of PBL is to allow students to learn about one or more subjects through research and investigation over a certain period of time. The process that students go through is supposed to help them develop not only the knowledge on the subject, but also other soft skills, such as creativity, resilience, team work and adaptability. The outcome of the investigation is a project that can be presented, shared and displayed in the community learners are inserted in (their classroom, school, neighbourhood). Mainstream schools that adopt a project-based curriculum are able to pose interdisciplinary projects and expect teachers to work together, thinking about questions and issues that lead to investigation and expansion of knowledge in the different subject areas.

In the context of English Language Teaching, the rise of the Communicative approach (or Communicative Language Teaching - CLT) in the 1980s made language teachers rethink how language was taught and used in the classroom, switching the focus on language forms to the use of language as a means of communication. This triggered the development of other approaches that emphasise the importance of meaning and content, such as Content-based instruction (CBI) and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). PBL figures as an alternative to syllabi that have English as the centre of instruction, and facilitates the integration of the subject with other fields of knowledge.

PBL proponents defend that this approach leads to more student-centred instruction, relying on learners’ interests, observations and insight to build knowledge. This has shown to engage and motivate learners – children, teenagers and adults. However, if projects are not structured and language learning aims are not visible, project work might be deemed pointless and counterproductive. In the next section, we’ll describe the characteristics of project work and how it can be used to enhance language learning in the context of ELT.

Characteristics of PBL

The inclusion of projects in the syllabus of a course is not enough to claim that project-based pedagogy is in place. The project should not be seen as another classroom activity, but rather as a trigger to enable cognitive engagement, learning of concepts and development of skills. In this sense, the completion or outcome ends up being less important than the process students go through to get the project done.

In order to reach these goals, some aspects are essential in PBL:

Group cohesiveness and an atmosphere of collaboration are vital for a PBL programme to be successful. Students will be working together most of the time, and each of them should feel comfortable to bring their knowledge and contribute with what they know or have researched. Although the end result is a product of group work, PBL also allows individual students to “shine”: teachers can identify or help students understand their strengths and how they can contribute positively to the project. This also helps teachers to differentiate roles and activities within the group, catering for mixed ability classes.

Projects should have a real-life question, issue or challenge as a starting point. This question should lead to the investigation (and later, broader understanding) of the areas with which it is concerned. For example, if learners are working on a project to suggest ways of reducing electricity waste, they need to develop an understanding of sources of energy, electricity distribution, the population’s habits, the city’s legislation, amongst other things. The scope of the project and the depth required will depend on students’ age, level and time for project completion.

Projects should be phased. Similarly to Task-based learning (TBL), that means that one of the teacher’s roles is to organise the different stages in which the project will be completed, and facilitate instruction by breaking down the challenge, helping students develop strategies and monitoring the development of the project. Assigning a project and checking if it is ready at the end of the term is not PBL!

The development of 21st century skills and literacies is a common subproduct of project work. Although it is hard to measure whether a specific skill or literacy is being developed, proponents of PBL assert that skills such as critical thinking, creativity and self-efficacy can be improved through the use of PBL. Again, the teacher has a vital role in instilling a need for inquiry, provoking debate and discussion and helping learners assess and reflect upon the process as well as the final project.

Students are seen as agents throughout the whole process. PBL programmes usually rely heavily on activities that enable students to organise, select, choose and lead the projects that they are involved in. They also foster the interaction of learners from different backgrounds and experiences to ensure that a range of different perspectives is considered before learners reach a conclusion

The final product needs to be tangible and should be shared or presented with other students and the local community. Bearing this in mind might help learners who are prone to getting sidetracked and serve as real motivation.


The question of whether PBL is a feasible approach for the ELT classroom has sparked debate in the teaching community. It seems that schools and language centres that adopt communicative approaches to teaching might have more opportunities to implement PBL or PBL elements in the classroom. And as with communicative approaches to teaching and learning, language development many times come from the emergent needs of learners: this is why monitoring, giving feedback and identifying linguistic areas that learners need help with is vital for the successful implementation of PBL in the language classroom. Being acquainted with principles of approaches such as Dogme and TBL might be helpful.

Classroom ideas

Suggesting project ideas is a nearly impossible task - each project will depend very much on the local context, the profile of the learners, the time available and the course objectives. The classroom teacher or course designer are the people who can make a responsible choice of which project to use. Here are some guiding questions that might help you:

- How does this project relate to students' real lives?

- Does this project allow learners to carry out thorough investigation? How much support do they need to do so?

- Is there room for all learners to thrive?

- What language skills do students need to carry out this project? How much support do they need?

- How much time do I have in class for students to work on the project? Does it fit my course timetable?

- When and how will feedback be given?

- How will I assess learners?

I hope this post was useful and we look forward to knowing about the projects you implemented in class. Remember to leave a comment and give us feedback and suggestions for future posts!





Andreia Zakime is an Academic Coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo, a CELTA tutor and one of the co-founders of What is ELT?

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