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Pairing Literacy Instruction With Project-Based Learning Is a Win for Students

By Miranda S. Fitzgerald
 | Jun 25, 2021
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During a hands-on, project-based science lesson, a group of third graders in Michigan excitedly worked on creating their own garden to grow food for their community. Along the way, they learned about biology, ecology, weather and climate science, and engineering design. But the learning didn’t stop there.

Opportunities for literacy instruction

During this project, students spent time developing essential literacy skills—reading, writing, and oral language—and using those skills as tools to build science knowledge and solve meaningful problems. They engaged with rich, accessible books such as In the Garden With Dr. Carver by Susan Grigsby, about the agricultural scientist George Washington Carver and his traveling educational wagon.

I was fortunate to spend time observing one of the third-grade classes that used the science curriculum Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning (ML-PBL), which was developed by higher education experts working closely with elementary teachers. Throughout the unit, students’ excitement about their garden planning and about making connections among text and firsthand experience was palpable.

Prior to reading In the Garden With Dr. Carver, the third graders shared observations they made around their school to determine the best location for their garden. Their teacher then used the book to help students compare their firsthand observations with the information in the text to refine criteria for their garden location.

In addition to reading high-quality children’s literature, students interpreted diagrams, tables, and maps, and they read and followed the instructions on seed packets. They studied an article about the impact of weather on fruit crops in Michigan and engaged with multimedia sources, including a video about Ron Finley, known as the Gangsta Gardener, who built community gardens in Los Angeles.

What the research says

In a recently released study, Michigan State University and University of Michigan researchers found that students who used the ML-PBL curriculum outperformed their peers experiencing traditional science instruction on a state science assessment. The results held for students performing below grade level in reading, which is notable because reading performance is highly correlated with success in other areas. The study was one of several released by Lucas Education Research, a division of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, which found that project-based learning positively impacts student achievement.

In another study, University of Michigan and Michigan State University researchers found that second-grade students who had access to a project-based social studies and literacy curriculum outperformed peers on measures of social studies knowledge and informational reading. And in yet another study, Stanford University researchers found that middle school students in California who used a project-based science curriculum outperformed peers on a science assessment and on the state’s end-of-year English language arts assessment. Furthermore, English learners with access to the project-based science curriculum outperformed their peers on the state’s English proficiency test.

Taken together, these studies provide compelling evidence that high-quality project-based learning can advance a school’s literacy and content area goals. Too often, schools that are highly focused on making gains in reading and math, the two subjects generally at the center of state accountability plans, shy away from interdisciplinary approaches like project-based learning. But these studies show there is no need for that practice and that students may see more improvement through literacy instruction that’s integrated into project-based learning even if the projects are rooted in other content areas.

Characteristics of high-quality project-based learning

Each of the curricular approaches featured in the studies puts projects at the center of the teaching and learning. In practice, projects are too often added to the end of a unit of instruction rather than being an instructional tool that drives the learning across a unit. Project-based learning, however, should not be used for every lesson. The approaches studied allowed for a balance of explicit, teacher-led instruction with student-directed learning.

The curricula studied also shared some other key characteristics. They included projects that were authentic and relevant to students’ lives, were closely aligned to core content standards, generally included driving questions to anchor the project and frame the lessons—such as how can we plan gardens for our community to grow plants for food?—and included sustained professional learning opportunities for teachers.

Giving it a try

If you want to try blending literacy instruction with a project-based approach, here are steps to get started:

  • Check out the free educational resources from the highlighted studies on the online portal Sprocket, hosted by Lucas Education Research.
  • Think about how you can enhance project-based units with a variety of texts to deepen students’ knowledge, support them to make connections to their firsthand experiences, and motivate them to ask new questions. Are there articles, books, or other texts that would help your students engage more deeply in the project?
  • As you identify texts, think about how students will use them and the supports they may need. Interactive read-alouds of informational text are great for supporting access to text that contains complex concepts and providing the grist for rich discussion. Other texts may be a good fit for students to read independently or with peers. If students are developing written or multimedia products to communicate information, you may consider incorporating mentor texts to support this work.
  • When organizing small groups, think about the various literacy-related expertise students bring to their group. Some students may have deep background knowledge about a particular topic, whereas others may be strong writers or videographers.
  • Check for resources in your community that could support student learning. Are there community members, family members, or disciplinary experts (e.g., scientists) who can share relevant expertise with the class? Students could write interview questions and document what they learn from others.
  • Don’t forget about the value of multimedia sources such as video clips, podcast episodes, simulations, or an art study to deepen student learning.

As we look to the fall and develop plans to accelerate learning after more than a year of virtual and hybrid learning in many parts of the world, schools should leverage project-based learning, which is an underused approach. It can help students build literacy and other critical thinking skills, deepen content knowledge, and spark the kind of joy that I think we all want to see more of in K–12 classrooms going forward.

Dr. Miranda S. Fitzgerald is an assistant professor of reading and literacy education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research focuses on reading and literacy instruction in the intermediate grades and the integration of literacy and science instruction, especially in the context of project-based learning. Her work has appeared in journals such as American Journal of Education, Review of Research in Education, and ILA’s Reading Research Quarterly.

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