Tuesday / June 25

PBL and ELs: An Essential Practice for Equity and Digital-Age Teaching

The pandemic’s impact on teaching and learning environments has made us rethink our best teaching practices and adapt our traditional approaches to new digital-age learning options. As we enter the new year, I’d like to invite all educators to take a closer look at an essential best practice for English learners (ELs) that meets the needs of the moment. Whether you are teaching in-person, virtually, or in a hybrid setting, project-based learning (PBL) provides authentic learning experiences that help ELs acquire content knowledge while also developing their language and literacy skills. Why is PBL so effective for ELs? First, it is grounded in concrete inquiry-based activities that are student-led. Next, PBL develops multiliteracy skills through the use of the 5C’s for 21st century learning: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and culture. Finally, when designed with intention, it promotes educational equity and inclusion for ELs at all English language proficiency levels.

So how can you get started? To begin, you’ll need to identify how your classroom’s digital-age learning ecosystem supports ELs.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. In what ways do I differentiate content and target linguistic demands for my ELs?
  2. How do I scaffold academic tasks so that ELs can participate successfully?
  3. Which digital learning resources (DLRs) do my ELs regularly use to create content that demonstrates mastery?

Design PBL Experiences for ELs

The answers to these three questions will help you as you design a PBL experience adapted for ELs. If you are new to PBL, choose one of your favorite student assignments and consider how you might build that into a project-based learning experience. If you are already using PBL, you can scaffold a favorite project to help ELs think critically and collaborate with peers. When designing a project, it is always best to start with the end in mind. First, carefully consider the learning goals and ways these goals may be assessed. Then, design the learning activities to support ELs throughout the process.

Promote Student Agency and Problem Solving

Once you have the general outline of the project, you are ready to dive into the details. The following chart illustrates how you can design your own digital-age learning ecosystem for PBL and ELs in order to foster student agency. The chart includes seven elements of PBL, strategies to support ELs along the way, and examples of DLRs that enhance academic tasks related to the project-based learning experience. Consider which DLRs will help your students share information, brainstorm, self-reflect, and provide feedback to others, as well as collaboratively create content. Identifying your own digital-age learning ecosystem and selecting DLRs in advance will enhance productivity and leave more time, energy, and freedom for student-centered tasks.

A Digital-Age Learning Ecosystem for PBL and ELs
PBL Element Strategies for ELs Sample DLRs
1. Identify a Problem or Driving Question Capitalize on ELs’ funds of knowledge and unique prior experience. Question Formulation Technique


2. Find a Real-World Challenge Address authentic concerns.

Incorporate multiple perspectives, communities, and student backgrounds.

Global Oneness Project

Learning for Justice


3. Provide Voice and Choice Provide sentence starters and question frames for academic discussions and brainstorming activities.

Provide opportunities for translation.

Tier tasks for each proficiency level.

Include a variety of multimodal options for ELs to choose from.



Google Translate

Microsoft Translator



4. Promote In-Depth Inquiry Curate multilevel and multilingual texts and resources when researching topics.

Use social annotation for reading and writing to build in  feedback and encourage collaborative research.






5. Develop Multiliteracies and 21st Century Skills Select DLRs that support the six literacy skills: speaking, listening, reading, writing, viewing, and visually representing.

Include the 5C’s for 21st century learning.

Book Creator





6. Publish Student Products for Authentic Audiences Prepare ELs to present their products using a variety of media, formats, and languages.

Select an appropriate audience for the project presentations: families, school community, or a public audience.






7. Use Feedback Loops & Authentic Assessments


Align rubrics to linguistic demands for ELs at different levels of proficiency.

Incorporate multiple modalities into assessment tasks.

Use student portfolios.

Critical Thinking Rubrics (from PBLWorks)



Source: Adapted from Rubin, H., Estrada, L., & Honigsfeld, A. (2022). Digital-age teaching for English learners: a guide to equitable learning for all students. Corwin.


Tap into Creativity and Sociocultural Awareness

Now that you have the “how to” for PBL and ELs, think about ways you can capitalize on PBL to foster creativity and sociocultural awareness.  This requires an understanding of the local community and a consideration of past and present global concerns. Provide your ELs with culturally relevant resources appropriate to the project topic. When you embrace the cultural background and previous educational experience of each student you can personalize instruction, making learning culturally responsive and sustaining. In this context, the PBL experience can produce work that showcases each student’s unique contribution.  The result will be a welcoming and affirming learning environment that is asset-based and focused on the strengths of every student.

As you work with your ELs, leverage the use of their home languages and cultural experiences every step of the way. Challenge students to generate project ideas that are authentic and important to them and their local community. Or, ask students to reflect on an authentic need in a nearby community or elsewhere around the world and then create a product or service to address that concern. In this way, you create a sense of belonging for ELs and empower them by connecting PBL to their lives, interests and their surroundings.

Include Multimodalities and Develop Multiliteracies Through Differentiated Instruction

To ensure equitable access for ELs, differentiate the content, the process, and the product for the PBL experience. Differentiation includes the use of multiliteracies and multimodalities. For example, tiering tasks for different language proficiency levels can include visual and auditory support for content. You can provide student choice and various multimodal options for tiered assessments.

Empowering students to create and publish multimedia, such as videos, podcasts, e-books, and blogs helps them to organize and communicate their ideas more clearly and effectively. For ELs, the use of images, audio, and video assets not only facilitates the acquisition of content area knowledge but also accelerates the language learning process by providing a multisensory, multimedia experience for the student, thereby building strong associations between language and content.


Project-based learning is a powerful way to increase student engagement and creativity. When designed appropriately, it provides ELs with equitable access to challenging content and promotes the use of authentic language. It opens the door to active learning for all ELs regardless of proficiency level.  PBL includes ELs in a learning environment that enables all students to shift from being passive consumers of information to critical thinkers and problem solvers. You can see how PBL can be a pathway to school success for ELs! Let’s make this shift in digital-age teaching and transform learning experiences for all of our students.

Written by

Heather Rubin is the Administrative Coordinator for the New York State Education Department’s Long Island Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network (LIRBERN) at Eastern Suffolk BOCES. She present regularly on topics related to instructional design and technology integration for English Learners and provides school districts with professional learning and guidance in order to support the needs of English Learners and their families. She has over 20 years of experience as a teacher, administrator, and education consultant. Her career as an ESOL professional began as a high school teacher for the NYC Board of Education and for Roosevelt UFSD in Long Island, NY. She has worked as an adjunct professor for Queens College, Molloy College Graduate School of Education, Hofstra University, and at Mercy College. Her combined expertise on ELs and the use of technology to support learning developed while working for the Board of Cooperative Educational Services of Nassau County (Nassau BOCES) where she was first an ESOL Program Specialist for the NYSED Bilingual/ESL Technical Assistance Center and then the Program Coordinator of Model Schools/Digital Age Teaching and Education. She holds a master’s of science in education degree for teaching English to speakers of other languages from Queens College, City University of New York, and a professional diploma in school district leadership from Fordham University. She co-authored ELL Frontiers: Using Technology to Enhance Instruction for English Learners (2017), with Lisa Estrada and Dr. Andrea Honigsfeld, published by Corwin. She is also the co-author of Digital Age Teaching for English Learners: A Guide to Equitable Learning for All Students.

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