How to use Project Based Learning to be Bilingual

shutterstock_130517294Last school year, my daughter’s English studies were based on Project Based Learning (PBL) whereas her Spanish studies were based on traditional methods.  Over the course of the academic year, I discovered that my daughter found the English project based work more challenging but much more rewarding.  She really felt she was learning a lot, and she was.  She still had activity sheets for practicing the basics that only can come with repetition. Yet with PBL as the key method for learning core curriculum, my daughter felt that she really understood and could articulate what it was she was learning.  Not only that, she was fully engaged in the learning process and thoroughly enjoyed it.   Over time, the skepticism I had originally harbored for PBL faded and I found myself becoming a full believer in PBL.  After all, what more can a parent want from their child’s education? – A child who absolutely loves school, loves learning, feels challenged, is a great team player, and is not afraid to explore unfamiliar subject areas.

shutterstock_184855025On the flip side, while she was flourishing in her English studies, a few months into the academic year, I noticed my daughter becoming more and more discontent with her Spanish studies.  She found them boring and irrelevant.  She would often tell me that she felt that she was not really learning anything.  She would also say, “Mommy, my teachers don’t realize that I know things.”  Of course the purpose for her Spanish language studies was to build vocabulary and to gain a better command of the language, both written and spoken.  The homework and exercises she did were intended to help her in that goal.  At home, I gave her all the parental support that I could.  I encouraged her and talked about how important her Spanish language studies are and  I always made her Spanish homework a priority.  Yet, her interest in studying and learning Spanish continued to decline.  Finally, I realized that if I wanted her to be engaged and actually succeed in her second language, we had to change course.

I took what I had learned from her amazing teachers in the PBL English program and began working with her teachers in the Spanish program to see if we could make changes to the curriculum, changes that would resemble more PBL.  Happily, her Spanish teachers were willing to make these changes.  When they began incorporating components of PBL, beginning with questions and problems for the children to answer and solve, the results were transformative.  Not only did my daughter do a 180 degree turn around in her attitude toward her Spanish studies, so did many of her classmates.  Talking to other parents, they expressed the positive change that this approach had on their children’s engagement in the learning Spanish.  The gain was not lost on the teachers.  They witnessed the enthusiasm and the extra work that the children were willing to do.  Importantly, they also saw a shift in the children’s willingness to converse and write in their second language.  Prior to the change, some children, including my daughter, became increasingly reluctant to speak much in their second language during class time.  Yet, after incorporating key concepts of PBL, all the students felt more confident and even gave presentations of their work not only to their fellow classmates but also to other classes in the Spanish school.  Now, thanks to using this approach, the days of Spanish school being boring are over.  Today, my daughter continues to learn Spanish in a more relevant and engaging way without sacrificing rigor and fundamental basics.

What exactly is Project Based Learning?

shutterstock_77123326Project Based Learning has several forms and names, such as inquiry based learning and problem based learning.  At its core is the importance of raising important questions of inquiry about real world situations that also engage the interests of the students and which also allow students to research and organize projects to address these questions and learn from them.  In the classroom, successful PBL implementation organizes students into groups of three to four students and fosters successful collaboration to work on projects that achieve desired goals.  Students must be given ample time to do research, complete project/s, receive constructive feedback from teachers and make necessary revisions.  The students then must have an opportunity to present their findings to peers and others to demonstrate what they have learned.

The studies on PBL show that the children who engage in PBL, when done properly, retain important content longer and have a deeper understanding of fundamental concepts than those who learn under traditional methods.  Not only that, they also have more opportunity to develop important life skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, negotiating and working as a team player.  So, if PBL can be useful for learning important content and developing important skills, can it also be a useful method in learning a second language?  I found the answer to be yes!

An example of applying PBL to learning Spanish

The content theme in this example was to learn Spanish vocabulary by learning about the rainforest.  Yet, this theme was a subset of the larger theme of study, the various ecosystems on our planet Earth.  Within this subset theme, the teachers devised questions according to contexts that are relevant to the real world.  Questions such as “What does the rainforest look like?  What types of animals live in the rainforest?  Why is the rainforest important for the planet?  What are the current threats to the rainforest? What can we do to protect it?”  By raising important questions about real word problems and allotting children sufficient amount of time to research and address these questions by using different skill sets, the children naturally became more actively interested and engaged in the learning process.

20150623_130911The projects for this theme were a collaborative effort with the parents, primarily due to the fact that our Spanish school is only one day per week.  (Full time bilingual educators would still rely on parent involvement for this age group, howbeit to a much lesser degree).  The teachers provided overarching questions of inquiry and led discussions in-class.  They did an in-class project as an introductory to the theme and they learned a song that went with the theme.

Parents found books in Spanish from the library on ecosystems and the rainforest that the children could read on their own.  Those of us parents who can read in Spanish also chose more advanced books in Spanish to read to our children about the subject matter.  Videos in Spanish on the rainforest and other programs available online also enriched the children’s knowledge.  Projects that the children did included making a diorama of the rainforest,  labeling the various layers of the rainforest; printing out and pasting animals in the diorama according 20150623_131058to the layer they inhabit; making a mini rainforest terrarium in a glass jar; using maps of the word’s rainforests in Spanish to learn where the rainforests reside and how much of the earth’s available land is made up of rainforests; making a book in Spanish about the rainforest; and finding out which food from your kitchen came from the rainforest.  Many of the parents also came together to take the children on a field trip to the Austin Botanical Garden where we talked about key features in Spanish that could also be found in a rainforest.

After reading and learning about the rainforest and engaging in multiple projects, the children had no problem answering the questions and talking in Spanish about the subject matter with their teachers in class.  In fact, I personally was amazed at how quickly my daughter wrote a whole paragraph in Spanish that answered the questions the teachers posed.  With the children so excited to share what they knew and to discuss more fully about their topic of inquiry, the teachers seized this opportunity to also encourage the students to share their presentations to other teachers and other classrooms.  I will never forget the day I picked up my daughter from Spanish school and how proud she felt about being able to demonstrate her knowledge to her teachers and classmates and other children in the school.

How can parents use PBL at home to foster learning in the second language?

shutterstock_123696667Start with a topic or theme that interests your child and that can be applied to the real world.  If your child has friends learning the same second language, make a small group so that they can learn about the topic of interest together.  To begin, keep topics simple but which also allow for greater depth of exploration. An example could be a social studies inquiry such as learning about a specific holiday or a science inquiry like how our body fight germs.

Develop questions to inquire more about the topic of interest?  Allow for the children to develop their own questions too.   Are the questions of inquiry relevant to the real world? Do they attempt to find out new information about the topic being studied?  Determine the vocabulary necessary to ask those questions in the second language?  Learn key terms in the subject matter that will allow for further inquiry.

Find resources in the second language that will allow for meaningful research.  The library is a wonderful resource and doesn’t cost anything.  Talk to your youth librarian to help you find age appropriate resources on the topic in the language you seek.  Search for free educational videos and charts online in the desired language.  For Spanish, I often search or to find what I need in Spanish.  For early elementary students, The Magic School Bus series is available in both English and Spanish and can be found in DVD at the public library and online via Netflix.  Brainpop and Brainpop Jr and Brainpop Spanish are great resources.  They are free to AISD parents (check with your school to find out how to access them) or available online with a paid subscription.

shutterstock_158009765Work with your child or children to develop projects that address some of the questions raised in the inquiry stage.  The great thing about the internet is that you can often find plenty of projects for a given topic.  Great resources include,, Brainpop/Brainpop Spanish, and  Take ideas you like and convert it into the language your child or children are learning.  Let them include artistic diagrams and other artwork or structures that help describe the material being learned. Make sure that the children have their input on their projects and take ownership of the outcome.  Be OK if the project does not turn out like it did on Pinterest per se.  Let it be original and a collaborative effort when possible.

Incorporate fun in the learning process.  Learn songs in the language that correspond with the theme of study and go on field trips where they can practice using their vocabulary about the topic of inquiry.  You can find great music is online.  For free children’s Spanish songs, visit and

shutterstock_151703981Have your children use their writing skills in the second language to answer the key questions raised through their inquiry and project based study.  Set time aside to provide constructive feedback. Make sure that the information is well understood and can be correctly articulated.  Check for correct vocabulary and for well formed sentences.  If you are not well versed in the language, then you may ask a friend or teacher for help or guidance.

shutterstock_102463487Create an opportunity for the children to present their work. Give them the opportunity to present their presentation in their second language along with their projects to family, friends and/or teachers.  Celebrate their work and make them feel proud!

To learn more about Project Based Learning, visit and Buck Institute for Education (BIE) at