In the early 1900s, educator and philosopher John Dewey proposed the concept of “learning by doing,” the idea that active engagement produces better learning outcomes. Over the last hundred years or so, Dewey’s foundational ideas have developed into what we now call project-based learning.

Popular with teachers and students today, project-based learning is an effective way to drive student motivation in the classroom and put their critical thinking skills to the test. But what exactly is this teaching methodology, and how might you use it in the English language arts classroom? Let’s take a look.

What is Project-Based Learning?

Like the name suggests, project-based learning (PBL) generally involves students completing a project over an extended period of time, similar to traditional assignments. However, PBL focuses more on the process of learning rather than the end product.

At its core, PBL is an educational methodology in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world, complex challenges or problems. Often, these problems are open ended, requiring students to creatively apply their skills and knowledge to find a solution. This hands-on approach to learning provides a number of benefits for students, including:

  • Increased engagement: PBL puts students at the center of their studies, giving them the opportunity to explore, question, and construct their own understanding of the content.
  • Knowledge retention: Compared to more passive means of study, PBL increases the likelihood that students will remember the material they learn.
  • Relevance: By connecting their work with real-world problems, students develop a sense of purpose and relevance toward what they’re learning.
  • Improved critical thinking skills: PBL requires students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information in order to produce an appropriate end product.
  • Life skills development: PBL helps students build major soft skills such as collaboration, communication, and creativity. These “21st century skills” are required for success in school and beyond.

PBL can be especially helpful for students who may struggle with conventional forms of instruction such as lectures or textbook-based study. Some students might have trouble connecting with the material, retaining information, and keeping up with the rest of the class. The idea behind project-based learning is to give students more control over how they meet the educational goals of your classroom, thereby increasing their engagement—if they're allowed to explore questions in their own way, they may develop insights that might not happen with traditional techniques.

The Elements of Project-Based Learning

Although PBL projects can look very different depending on the needs and goals of a particular course or subject, they all share some common elements that separate them from traditional assignments.

A Driving Question

All PBL projects are built upon a driving question, the problem that students are tasked with answering. A driving question should be specific enough to provide a clear direction for the project but open-ended enough so students can explore multiple perspectives and come up with their own solutions.

An Entry Event

An entry event is an activity that serves to spark students’ curiosity about the problem they will try to solve. Sharing a video or presentation about the problem, bringing in a guest speaker to talk about the topic, hosting a class discussion, and taking field trips are all examples of entry events.

Sustained Inquiry

Throughout the project, students must conduct research to gain a deep understanding of the problem or question. This includes asking questions, collecting and analyzing information from various resources, and drawing conclusions based on their findings.


A successful PBL project should be relevant to students’ lives and the real world in an obvious way. Students should be able to make connections between what they’re learning and their experiences in each stage of the unit.

Student Voice and Choice

In PBL, students should have space to express their opinions, interests, and ideas, and to have some control over the direction of the project. Taking an active role in their learning can increase their overall engagement and motivation.

Reflection and Revision

Students should periodically reflect on what they’re learning throughout the project and self-evaluate their progress. Peer feedback is crucial, too, as other students may offer suggestions for improvement that may be missed in a self-review. Reflecting and revising ensures that students produce their best possible work.

A Tangible Product

PBL ultimately ends with a tangible product, a final deliverable that aligns with the project's objectives. Depending on the project, tangible products can take on many forms, such as a report, presentation, video, podcast, art piece, event, performance, and more. No matter the type of product, it should clearly demonstrate that students understood the subject matter and discovered a valid answer to the driving question.

What’s the Teacher’s Role?

Just because project-based learning is student-driven doesn’t mean teachers are out of the picture! In PBL, your primary role as a teacher is facilitator. You guide your students to questions that are worth answering. In the course of answering these questions, your students will develop skills and learn information that you have identified as essential.

Though student choice is a big part of project-based learning, the questions they choose to tackle must always serve one or more of the learning objectives of your classroom. You'll also need to evaluate your students' progress at several points throughout the project, giving them feedback and letting them know which parts of the project are on the right track and which parts could use a bit of revision.

“Real-World” PBL Examples for English Language Arts Classes

Now that we’ve covered the basics of project-based learning, it’s time to see the practice in action. Below are a few “real-world” examples of PBL units that teachers have successfully used in the English language arts classroom.

Over at Edutopia, teacher Andrew Miller designed a PBL unit around banned books and censorship with the goal of creating authentic reasons for students to read. Through media research and sample readings of banned literature, students were asked to answer the question: “Should we ban books and other literature in schools?” By the end of the unit, Miller’s students had written and presented their arguments to a real audience: school leaders, parents, and teachers.

High school teacher Junius Wright built a PBL unit in which older students explore storytelling by creating their own children’s picture books. In this project, students not only work through the stages of the writing process, but also practice literary analysis and build presentation skills. The full plan is available to review at NCTE’s Read Write Think resource library.

Some teachers use PBL all year long, like Veronica Buckler, an English teacher in Indiana. Buckler created four PBL projects for her school’s Global Science Perspectives course, a combination of 9th-grade English and Environmental Studies. All four units incorporated English standards for reading and writing as part of their framework, though the final goals were different. By the end of the year, Buckler’s students had written memoirs, performed short skits, held a mock trial, and hosted a community dining event. Read more about her experiences at Magnify Learning.

Are you ready to start your own journey with project-based learning in the English language arts classroom, or are you a PBL pro? Let us know on Facebook!