Maximizing the Benefits of Project Work in Foreign Language Classrooms

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Maximizing the Benefits of Project Work in Foreign Language Classrooms Bülent Alan and Fredricka L. Stoller
The implentation of project work differs greatly from on instructional setting to another. In some settings, fairly non-elaborated tasks, confined to a single class session, are labeled as projects. In other settings, elaborate sets of tasks establish the process for completing the project and span an entire instructional unit; in settings like these, the benefits of project work are maximized because students are actively engaged in information gathering, processing, and reporting over a period of time, and the outcome is increased content knowledge and language mastery. In addition, students experience increased motivation, autonomy, engagement, and a more positive attitude toward English. Although project-based learning presents challenges for teachers and students (Beckett 2002; Eyring 1997), most project-work proponents assert that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. In this article, we focus on how English language teachers can capitalize on the content and language learning benefits of project work. To explore the topic, we examine the characteristics of under-exploited project work, outline the features that maximize the potential benefits of project work, and present a case study of project-based learning. We conclude with recommendations for English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers and materials writers who want to integrate project-based learning into their own curricula.

Under-exploited project work

Numerous language educators incorporate what they call “project work” into their classrooms, even though the lessons do not maximize the full potential of project work. For example, in some settings, basic communicative activities used to help students get to know one another better and to promote conversation have been labeled as projects. What often occurs in such settings is that students, when given the chance, join groups with their friends. They complete their non-elaborated tasks in a superficial way without much collaboration. Studentssocialize, but rarely assist each other with the language and information-gathering demands of the task (if there are any demands). In some settings, project work is merely a source of entertainment and a break from routine classroom activities. Though projects often focus on challenging, real-world subject matter, students are often solely concerned with the visual attractiveness of their projects, paying little attention to content and language learning. In these settings, teachers often reinforce this misdirected attention by assessing student projects according to their visual appeal, ignoring students’ gains in language and content learning. In other settings, students are constrained in their ability to grow from their projects, either because of excessive teacher control or because of the absence of teacher feedback and guidance during the process. In settings characterized by too much teacher control, we find instructors who dictate each step of the process without giving students any voice in defining the project. Generally, such excessive control inhibits students from taking responsibility for their own learning and developing a sense of ownership toward the project. In these settings, students are rarely asked to provide feedback on the project experience; thus, often the same project is incorporated into future instruction, with no modification, which usually results in the same lack of student engagement. Another problem occurs when repeating students influence new students with their negative attitudes toward the project, further undermining the potential of the project. Project work can be more effective when teachers relax their control, when students regard the teacher as a guide (Sheppard and Stoller 1995), and when students provide feedback on the experience so that projects can be improved each year. A total relaxation of teacher...
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