InterCom, a customizable weekly newsletter for language professionals, is provided by the Center for Applied Second Language Studies (CASLS) at the University of Oregon. InterCom is sponsored through a Title VI Language Resource Center grant.

Topic of the Week: What is project-based language learning (PBLL)?

Julio C Rodríguez, Director, Center for Language & Technology and National Foreign Language Resource Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Julio Rodriguez joined the faculty of the College of Languages, Linguistics and Literature at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa as Director of the Center for Language & Technology (CLT), formerly Language Learning Center, and associate director of the National Foreign Language Resource Center (NFLRC) in 2011.

Before you read this, take a minute to make a list of what you think are the essential qualities of a project designed to optimize second language acquisition. For example, “a project should result in a product.” Keep reading after you finish your list.

When thinking about projects, an idea that often comes to mind is learners engaging in an extended task or series of tasks that require meaningful use of language and result in a product. Although this depiction highlights important aspects of a project, it does not reveal the potential that project-based learning (PBL) offers to immerse language learners in highly engaging learning experiences. The purpose of this brief article is to summarize key aspects of quality project-based language learning (PBLL) and how attention to those aspects can help foster conditions that have the potential to enable second language acquisition.

In recent years, the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) has been a leading advocate for what is described as rigorous PBL, a model composed of essential elements that characterize a quality project. This model is captured in a document entitled Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements (BIE, 2015). Building on the foundations laid out by the BIE, language professionals at the Hawaii National Foreign Language Resource Center (NFLRC) have worked with a broad community of language education professionals around the nation. Their goal is to craft projects that can serve as workable PBLL models and inspire other language teachers to learn more about and implement PBLL. An important aspect of this process has been the definition of exemplary language learning projects. The table below presents the key criteria for PBLL (left column) and a synopsis of how they relate to the context of language learning and teaching (right column).

Key Knowledge, Understanding and Success Skills

In quality PBLL, learners acquire the language through the use of their language skills in the real world with the purpose of creating a product, solving a problem or understanding a complex issue or question of relevance to the target culture. Two types of guidelines are useful to identify key knowledge, understanding, and success skills: (a) guidelines that help teachers identify content and (b) guidelines that help teachers align content with proficiency levels. The former are best represented by the World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages, ACTFL’s 21st Century Skills Map, or institutional outcomes (student learning objectives or SLOs). The latter type of guideline is represented by proficiency scales such as the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines or the ILR Proficiency Scale.

The Challenge

Projects are built around a challenge, which may be in the form of an open-ended problem or question or the creation of a product. The challenge should be meaningful, in the sense that it should be informed by learners’ interests and needs.

Sustained Inquiry

Projects that support sustained inquiry encourage learners a) to generate questions that target both form and meaning and promote language and cultural comparisons, and b) to learn how to find and use resources that will help them answer those questions, become curious about more complex questions, and produce their own answers.


Authenticity has long been discussed in second language acquisition, in particular with reference to materials and contexts of language use. In PBLL, authenticity also applies to language learning materials and contexts of language use but reaches beyond to include the tools (for example, using Wechat for a Chinese language project rather than a social media outlet that is not used in the target culture), and the products that are created through the experience. The extent to which the project produces an impact in the real world and connects with the learners’ own concerns, interests, and identities is also a measure of a projects’ authenticity.  

Learner voice & choice

Research in second language acquisition has shown that motivation is a factor deeply linked to success in acquiring a language. Projects that build in opportunities for learner input in the choice of topic and in the evolution of the process are likely to increase learners’ instrumental and integrative motivation (Gardner & Lambert, 1972). Instrumental motivation refers to practical reasons to learn a language. Projects that meet learners’ needs are more likely to awaken this type of motivation. Integrative motivation refers to the learners’ interest in learning a language in order to connect with the people and the culture. Although both types of motivation are important, integrative motivation is a better predictor of success in language acquisition. Well-designed projects offer multiple opportunities to awaken a learner’s integrative motivation by creating the need to interact with the target culture in the target language. Achieving success in this regard attests to the transformative impact of the experience.


The impact of learners’ and teachers’ beliefs in second language acquisition has long been documented and explored in SLA research and instructional technology. Quality project designs build in opportunities for participant reflection (both learners and instructors) thus providing ways for participants to discover and possibly revise beliefs about language learning and teaching that might impact acquisition.

Critique and revision

This element of a project design refers to both the importance to build in opportunities for corrective feedback in a general sense (from instructor, peers, and native speakers) and for the revision of ideas and products throughout the project. Critique and revisions in PBLL may include an intercultural dimension where members of the target culture are involved in this process.

Public product

Quality projects result in a public product presented to an authentic audience. According to the BIE Gold Standards (2015), a product can be a tangible artefact that showcases the learner’s knowledge or a presentation of a solution to the project challenge. An authentic audience ensures that learners receive meaningful feedback on the final product. Authentic audiences are considered  those which are made up of speakers of the target language who have real stakes in the solution of the challenge.

Adapted from Essential Project Design Elements by the Buck Institute for Education (

Designing projects that meet all these criteria is a challenging project itself. However, a group of language professionals have taken up the challenge of conceptualizing and designing projects that illustrate these qualities and that might help their colleagues in the exploration of this exciting approach to language instruction. These are highlighted in the Activity of the Week section below.

Buck Institute for Education (BIE). (2015). Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements. Available:
Gardner, R. C., & Lambert, W. E. (1972). Attitudes and motivation in second language learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Activity of the Week

CASLS Spotlight: F-LAN Annual Retreat

The Flagship-Language Acquisition Network (F-LAN) held its 5th annual retreat in Park City, Utah from Thursday, July 14 to Friday, July 15. During the retreat, Chinese and Portuguese educators from around the United States focused their efforts on building infrastructure for K-12 Immersion and Secondary Chinese & Portuguese.

To begin the retreat, participants were provided with an overview of the consortium and the state of the language flagship. Then, participants broke out into groups to discuss questions regarding the critical components of F-LAN to maintain overtime. After that, participants were treated to discussions and presentations regarding developing language proficiency as part of the K-12 continuum and instructional strategies related to both secondary language learners and dual language immersion learners.

The end of the retreat was just as robust as the beginning. Retreat participants had the opportunity to learn about the various K-12 pathways that exist for dual language immersion nationwide and the systems that are being developed in order to ensure the fidelity of said pathways. As part of this presentation, the Bridging Project, a CASLS and Portland Public Schools partner project designed to address the attrition rates of secondary dual immersion students, was featured. After this discussion came to a close, a panel offered ways to authentically embed culture into the language curriculum and given an overview of the F-LAN materials that are available online.

CASLS would like to extend its gratitude to all of the people who planned such a successful and worthwhile retreat!

Language Corner

Book Clubs as Assessment for Silent Sustained Reading

Source: Catlin Tucker Back to Quick Links


Catlin Tucker wondered what to do as an “assessment” for the 15 minutes that her students spend each period reading material of their choice. She hit on the idea of a book club, where students chat about books they have read in different creative ways. Read how she does it and access a Google Doc with a detailed explanation of the assignment here:

Transitioning to Proficiency-Based Teaching and Learning

Source: Maris Hawkins Back to Quick Links

From https://marishawkins

In a wonderful three-part series, teacher Maris Hawkins describes how to begin teaching to proficiency across the three modes: interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational. The target audience is teachers who are textbook-dependent, especially those whose departments and curricula focus on grammatical structures and vocabulary, and those who feel they don’t have time to re-invent the way they teach. Each article includes abundant links to more resources and examples.

Part 1 deals with the interpretive modes:
Part 2 deals with the interpersonal mode:
Part 3 deals with the presentational modes:

Finding Authentic Resources

Source: Maris Hawkins Back to Quick Links


In this extremely useful blog post, Maris Hawkins lists her favorite sources of and methods for finding authentic resources:

Writing/Discussion Activity: Looking 10X2

Source: Art Least Back to Quick Links


Here is an activity, adaptable into any language, that gets students to slow down and reflect on a work of art or on a particular topic:

Free Lesson: How a Book Changed My Life

Source: elt-resourceful Back to Quick Links


Teacher Rachael Roberts shares a free downloadable lesson based on a StoryCorps video about Storm Reyes, who “grew up poor in a migrant camp in Washington State” in this blog post:

Party Games

Source: BuzzFeed Back to Quick Links

Here are 14 party games, many of which can be adapted to a language classroom to practice interpersonal communication in a meaningful, goal-oriented way:

Playing and Adapting the Game “Mafia” for Language Learning

Source: The Comprehensible Classroom Back to Quick Links


Martina Bex describes a recent experience she had playing the game “Mafia” in Mandarin (of which she is a beginner learner), facilitated by Ben Wang. In her blog post, she links to a description of the traditional game and then lists Mr. Wang’s adaptations that made the game comprehensible to her, along with other possible adaptations (such as a non-violent version). Read her post here:

Post-Reading Activity: Story Quilting

Source: CI Peek Back to Quick Links


Nelly Hughes describes a wonderful post-reading activity that gets students drawing, writing, moving around the room, responding to each other, and improving their comprehension of what they have read. Read her post here:

Organizing an Immersion Weekend

Source: PBL in the TL Back to Quick Links


French teacher Jeff Pageau describes how he and his colleague Franca Gilbert organized a weekend immersion program that has grown to include 9 high schools and 2 middle schools in this blog post:

Blog Post: Points of Agreement in Language Teaching

Source: Musicuentos Back to Quick Links


Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell writes, “When I graduated from my master’s program in Linguistics with an emphasis on Second Language Acquisition, I suffered from a fundamental misunderstanding. I thought that there was a consensus on the general principles guiding how language acquisition works, what that means the second time around, and what that understanding ought to mean for the classroom teacher.

“I was wrong. I have since come to understand that differences exist on everything from why and how to implement ACTFL Can Do statements to how and why to assess students in their skills.”

Ms. Cottrell goes on to list six points of what she believes are general points of agreement among language teachers regardless of methodological approach, along with different perspectives on each one in this thought-provoking post on best practice in language teaching:

Know Your ELLs’ Rights: A Quick Federal Law Review

Source: TESOL Blog Back to Quick Links


Nathan Hall summarizes some important legislation, rulings, and organizations that impact English language learners in the United States: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lau v. Nichols, Plyler v. Doe, and the Office of Civil Rights. Read his summary here:

Professional Development

American Association for Corpus Linguistics 2016 Conference and 14th Annual Technology for Second Language Learning Conference

Source: Iowa State University Back to Quick Links


The 14th Annual Technology for Second Language Learning (TSLL) Conference will be held jointly with the American Association for Corpus Linguistics (AACL) 2016 Conference. The conference will take place September 16-18, 2016.

Visit both conference websites at and at

Call for Papers: Symposium: Language Away from the Homeland

Source: LINGUIST List Back to Quick Links


The Ohio State University's Slavic Linguistics Forum and Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures is happy to announce the first annual DSEELC Linguistics Symposium, a conference which will feature work by scholars at different career points working on language as it is spoken outside what it is traditionally considered its ''homeland''. The symposium will take place February 18, 2017.

It is often taken for granted that national boundaries delineate linguistic boundaries. However, languages are not circumscribed by political borders. The symposium organizers therefore invite scholars working in contact linguistics, bilingualism, heritage language, immigrant language, sociolinguistics, dialectology, historical linguistics, second language acquisition, and related fields to submit abstracts pertaining to the study of language as spoken elsewhere than what is considered its traditional “homeland.”

Call Deadline: 01-Nov-2016

View the full call for papers at

7th Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition North America Conference

Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Back to Quick Links


The 7th Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition North America Conference will be held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from September 8-10, 2016.

The conference aims to bring together a range of researchers from around the world, with a focus on linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects of first language acquisition, second language acquisition, and bilingualism.

Visit the conference website at


Book: Feature Films in English Language Teaching

Source: Narr Studienbücher Back to Quick Links


Feature Films in English Language Teaching
By Britta Viebrock
Published by Narr Studienbücher

Feature Films in English Language Teaching deals with the use of motion pictures in the advanced EFL (English as a foreign language) classroom. It provides a general introduction to film literacy and explains the rationale, methods, and objectives of working with feature films. In addition, the book contains in-depth considerations on sixteen selected films, which are grouped regionally (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Great Britain). Each chapter describes the topical focus of the film and its central theme and provides background information on social, historical, political, and geographical issues. A profound analysis of selected scenes lays the foundation for considerations on the teaching potential of the film. In a download section, the chapters are complemented with ready-to-use teaching materials on film-specific aspects (narrative, dramatic and cinematographic dimensions), which are organized as pre-/while-/post-viewing activities. A glossary on technical terms for film analysis completes the volume.

Visit the publisher’s website at

Book: Vers une approche intégrée en immersion

Source: Les Editions CEC Back to Quick Links


By Roy Lyster
Published by Les Editions CEC

Summary: Intègre l’enseignement de la langue et l’enseignement du contenu disciplinaire.

Fruit de 25 ans de réflexion et de recherches.

•    Explique les principales difficultés langagières des élèves en immersion ;
•    Présente le modèle de l’approche intégrée et une démarche pour l’appliquer ;
•    Fournit de nombreux exemples ;
•    Propose des outils et des stratégies efficaces pour aider les élèves à atteindre des niveaux de compétence langagière plus élevés ;
•    Inclut un DVD-ROM avec de courtes vidéos réalisées en salle de classe.

Visit the publisher’s website for more information about this French-language book:

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