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by Erica Fischer on Dec 14, 2013

5 Ways to Incorporate Comprehensible Input into Project-Based Learning

Project-based Learning (PBL) has become a new area of interest to educators everywhere, including world language teachers. Many #langchat participants have heard of the value of using this method to teach, so we spent last week’s discussion focusing on how to ensure that comprehensible input is integral to this inquiry-based process.

5 Ways to Incorporate Comprehensible Input into Project-Based LearningDefining Comprehensible Input and PBL

What is Comprehensible Input?

Comprehensible input seems like a given to most World Language teachers, so we were not very surprised by the in-depth responses many teachers shared about this question. Comprehensible input is “language that the listener understands.” This was the generally accepted definition, although @dr_dmd went even further. He said, “Comprehensible input is an absolute essential component of a world language class. Students need to have the second language modeled to make sense of it.”

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What is Project-Based Learning (PBL)?

Some language teachers might confuse true PBL with unit projects. These two ideas, while slightly connected, are not the same at all. In a traditional world language classroom, students are given direct instruction about a concept, theme or learning goal. Then, students may do projects which allow them to show their newly acquired skills (such as a project assessment).

Project-based learning relies on inquiry as the main motivation for learning. There are 8 main components of true PBL. The motivation to inquiry is guided with a driving question which allows students to gain in-depth information about a particular topic. The 8 main areas of PBL are:

1. Significant Content
2. 21st Century Skills
3. In-Depth Inquiry
4. A Driving Question
5. A Need to Know
6. Student Voice and Choice
7. Revision and Reflection
8. A Public Audience

Without each of these 8 elements, any project, no matter how interesting or creative it seems, cannot really be said to be a PBL-aligned project that addresses all the educational benefits of PBL.

Why is Comprehensible Input So Important for PBL?

Since PBL is a more in-depth, inquiry-based way of having students learn the target language, making sure that input is comprehensible is vital to the overall process. @SraSpanglish said, “I’d say comprehensible input is ESPECIALLY essential in a #PBL course, to make sure students feel they are capable of success!”

Because of the reliance of PBL on a student engagement, incorporating the right levels of comprehensible input at every stage of the process allows students to be more prepared later and more confident with their final product. @senoraCMT said, “They have so much more confidence when they have the language and experience to do the final project.”

Still, in order to teach with comprehensible input, you don’t HAVE to use PBL. Comprehensible input is a vital part of every world language course, and can be shared through many different ways. At the same time, you can’t have a good PBL unit without a healthy dose of comprehensible input. @dr_dmd said, “We need not teach PBL-style units to include comprehensible input, but comprehensible input is mandatory in any PBL world language unit. Got to have it!”

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Ways to Incorporate Comprehensible Input in PBL


As @senoraCMT mentioned, when students have a good grasp on the language that they will be using during the PBL process, they are much more confident as they are completing it. One way to do this is by “front-loading” the language that they will need to learn during their inquiry.

Still, not everyone chooses to front-load their comprehensible input. Some world language teachers prefer to allow the inquiry process to prompt students to seek new vocabulary and to acquire language structures as they investigate. @senoralopez said, “CI should not be front loaded. PBL gives students a reason to want comprehensible input.” Teachers respond to the students’ need to know by offering short ‘workshops’ to support students in their learning.


Rather than plan every element of the PBL process, many #langchat teachers talked about providing scaffolding structures to help students learn. This scaffolding can be done daily or in the weeks leading up to the project, but must be in place so that students know how to learn the things they need to know in order to be successful.

@dr_dmd said, “One key to providing CI in a PBL context is to offer scaffolding, sentence starters, tied to stories, etc. When students ask “How do you say…,” I provide sentence frames and coach them to use them, or have them write in response to a prompt.”

Schedule It

For teachers who are limited on time, scheduling and planning for ways to incorporate comprehensible input is a possible solution. There are many ways of doing this, from setting time aside each day for learning new language, to planning the whole PBL unit in advance. @SraSpanglish said, “I’m working on a routine schedule: breakdown written comprehensible input sources, then audiovisual comprehensible input, then sprinkle in interpersonal reflection.”

Teachers may feel a little uncomfortable in a PBL environment, especially at first. Since the emphasis is not on specific planning of grammar, vocabulary and structural elements, there is a tendency for newcomers to PBL to over-teach. In PBL, it may be better to have a good daily structure with a lot of freedom over what kinds of vocabulary and grammatical structures the students feel that they need in order to be successful. @dr_dmd said, “We do still teach, but in response to the inquiry / need to know.”

Driving Question

True PBL starts with a question embedded in an ‘entry event’: one that has a distinctive “Need to Know” for the students. This is one of the key elements of this style of teaching, and guarantees more “buy-in” from students. They are learning about the things that really interest them, and are given the freedom to complete their inquiry in a number of ways. @SraSpanglish suggests starting the inquiry process with, “audience and issue.”

As students understand that they have the ability to learn what interests them, they will begin to drive other aspects of the learning process in the world language classroom. @suzieboss said, “The driving question is intended to ‘drive’ students to action.” @SraSpanglish said, “I’d say the nature of the question and texts students will need to use for research, as well as what they’re producing, drives the desire to learn the language.”


Another area that essential to providing comprehensible input is in frequent reflection. As the class discusses what is being learned in class, everyone can respond to the questions raised with more comprehensible input to clarify language forms, syntax, vocabulary, and appropriate ways to express ideas in the target language. @dr_dmd said, “Reflection is essential to great learning! In PBL it is even more so. Provide opportunities to do so regularly and in the target language!”

This can also be an excellent way to incorporate teaching 21st century skills. There are many ways to have students practice reflection, including GeniusHour. @SraSpanglish said, “My kids blog or discuss their progress with conversation cards.” @dr_dmd said, “21st Cent skills are natural to the world language PBL class. We are all about collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication skills!”

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Assessment in PBL

Since the PBL learning style is so reliant on student-driven inquiry, assessment needs to be incorporated into the practice of the learning community. Unlike traditional projects, not everyone will have the same product. The outcomes are guided by the elements of the rubrics, so everyone can determine if a given product demonstrates learning to the degree of proficiency. Feedback an revision by all supports more students to success. Many world language teachers who teach PBL-aligned units feel that the benefits far outweigh the extra investment of time to plan and prepare the units.

Some teachers see the variety of projects as a deterrent to teacher burnout. @cforchini said “the PBL process is for teachers and students. I’m constantly reflecting and inquiring.”

Assessments should still be both formative and summative, and must align with the ACTFL proficiency outcomes. @senoralopez said, “The products will demonstrate their learning. All 3 modes should be included and assessed in PBL.”

@dr_dmd mentions that he finds the PBL-aligned units offer students deeper and more meaningful opportunities to acquire meaningful communication skills in the target language. He asserts that the product is evidence of inquiry, and important to the process, but he also still includes summative proficiency assessments of oral and written language, in all three modes of communication once the units are complete. These assessments take many varied forms, and need not necessarily be an exam of one kind or another.

PBL: A Beautiful “Mess”

Not everyone will immediately fall in love with the PBL model, but even skeptics can’t deny that, when it is done correctly, students gain a deeper level of learning than with other traditional methods. Not everyone is comfortable with this, including students. There are many who would much rather stick to “surface” learning where they don’t have to engage with other students or with the language as much. @profetech115 was not alone when she said, “I find that students with low intent to learn prefer grammar. It is easier to do the grammar. The comprehensible input requires some engagement.”

Other teachers believed that students are naturally inclined to want to work in a PBL-style classroom. Since “voice and choice” are given to learners, they have more options to decide how to demonstrate what they learn. @dr_dmd said, “I have not had much resistance from students to #PBL. The whole point is ENGAGEMENT. Students love to work collaboratively.”

This collaboration can make a PBL-aligned classroom feel “messy”. It’s not the easiest method of teaching, but the messiness is joyful when students are getting the benefit of deeper learning. @cocamanar said, “That’s the heart of it. It’s not pretty and it’s not quick. Requires lots of trust and patience, but learning runs deeper.”

@cforchini said, “I love my beautiful messy masterpiece, even if I’m not doing it 100% right.”

Thank You

A big “thank you” to @dr_dmd and @placido for helping to guide this spirited conversation. We were having so much fun talking about PBL, we went over time and barely even noticed!

There were some amazing comments and ideas that we didn’t get to include in our summary, and encourage you to read on the full transcript. We’d also love to have you share your ideas with us. It’s always good to know what is happening in your classrooms and how we can work together to build our language teaching skills.

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Additional Resources

@dr_dmd’s PBL-WL website
@BIEPBL’s website (Buck Institute for Education)
PBL Essential Elements Checklist from
@TeachThought article:The Difference between PBL and Projects
@SraSpanglish PBL tips for TL Teaching
@SraSpanglish’s Genius Hour blog piece
@SraSpanglish PBL while tied to the textbook
@SraSpanglish My Class PBL Projects
@SraSpanglish’s LiveBinder: PBL in the TL
@SraSpanglish Establish PBL Vocab in the Target Language
#LangCamp wiki page – problem-based learning
Spanish Proficiency Exercices, U of Austin
AudioLingua mp3 site
Group conversation template

Special thanks to Don Doehla for his contributions and oversight on this “PBL #Langchat Summary!


Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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