Teaching English through PBL in Early Years

Our guest today is Cecilia Cabrera. Cecilia is an experienced educational leader who has worked in the field for more
than 20 years. She is a successful innovative leader who demonstrated to be an effective
team builder and project manager. She has been accredited by Cambridge as
Programme Leader for Educational Leadership Professional Development Qualifications.
She has delivered workshops on leadership in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and UK.
She holds several postgraduate and at the moment she is preparing her dissertation to
earn an MA in Professional Development for Language Education, through NILE, of the
University of Chichester.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and following a Project Based Learning method (PBL) in Early Childhood Education can generate outstanding results. I know it may sound quite challenging at early ages, but if the teacher has the adequate information and a wide range of teaching strategies, the results are inspiring.

PBL is a teaching method in which learners engage in a real-world research that is meaningful for the learners. In these classes, learners are as well developing fundamental skills as Higher Order Thinking skills, these include problem-solving, analysing, evaluating, imagining and making connections, amongst many other strategies and XXI century skills, such as Critical thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Information literacy, Media literacy, Technology literacy, Flexibility, Leadership, Initiative, Productivity, Social skills.

In the last 8 years, I had the honour to guide and support teachers to adopt PBL as their main approach to teach EFL.  As I expected, the outcomes were amazing and most of the children got involved in their learning, they were deeply motivated and actually were aware and fond of their progress.  In these courses, where PBL was adopted, the learners not only learnt the basic language in their syllabus, but also widen their lexis in the topics they chose to research on.  At the same time, the learners learnt structures beyond the ones required in the syllabi, due to the communication demands of the different stages of the Project Plan. As for example, they used conditionals when elaborating different hypothesis. They also used past tense where narrating the processes they went through when carrying out their research.

Grammar and lexis are taught on demand, which at the same time makes it much more effective to be remembered by the learners.

PBL lessons include:

  • Significant content: Check the content you need to address in your syllabus.
  • A need to know about a topic: How are you going to engage your students? How are you going to make your learners get interested on the topic and be willing to learn mor about it?
  • An essential question or driving question: This is an overarching question that will be pushing the research to be done by the learners. It may be only answered once the learners have gone through in-depth enquiry. According to Ervette (2015) “A good driving question will capture the project’s focus, be easy to understand, and provide a sense of challenge.”
  • Learners voice and choice:  To begin learning how to release some control, allow learners to decide on one item or two at a time. The leaners will have the freedom to choose what course of action to take on these issues, for example: what they want to know about the topic, choose the direction of the research, decide among a variety of options on what to do or even who to ask for help or information.
  • Include 21st Century Skills: In this case I mean, guide the learners to understand and communicate ideas, work with others, produce quality work, and solve problems. Each one of these life skills are key skills kids will need to work on and improve before and during project to be successful.
  • In-Depth Enquiry: I recommend here the use of a KWL-R chart. This chart helps teachers to check the learner’s previous knowledge, in first place. It also allows to record the many different questions that may arise as they design the essential question.  At the same time, as learners work on finding the answers, more questions emerge which are necessary to document. These constant questioning allows learners to define the research path and develop a sense of ownership on the task at hand. The chart as well allows learners to reflect on their progress, decide on new paths or resources so as to answer the questions they have recorded. Research takes time and the answers to the questions will not be linear.
  • Reflection and Revision: As I mentioned above, there has to be an opportunity for learners to review their work and the work of others, and their accomplishments. The KWL-R chart is one resource for reflection and revision, but at the same time it is advisable to use a marking scale, appropriate for Very Young Learners.

  • Public Presentation: This instance of making the research public in a way gives a sense of purpose to the work done. As in real life, once the researchers have their conclusions, they share them with the community. At the same time, sharing is inviting others to add on the work done.

There are some frequent questions that may arise when we talk about EFL through PBL in Early years:

  • How do teachers deal with the great amount of spontaneous participation that is expected in PBL and the restricted command of English the children may have?

As English Teacher and later as Coordinator, I adopted a non linear approach to grammar which enabled teachers to move freely along the syllabus. This change created room for the teachers to teach the aspects of the language systems mentioned in the syllabus as they find them necessary. One of the most remarkable aspects of working EFL and PBL together is the exposure of the learners to authentic language. They have the chance to use real world structures and lexis and avoid simplified and artificial input.

  • How does the teacher handle the enquiry process?

In this case, there are many aspects to take into consideration. For example, when working on the KWL Chart, the teacher will need to help the learners build up decodable phrases. This may involve drawings, words, short sentences or phrases, if we want the children to use the chart as a reference to their learning process.

  • Will the children be able to communicate their findings to an audience?

One of the last stages of a project is when children share their findings with a real audience, either parents, school board or other children. In this task, with the help of the teacher, the children will be expected to explain the enquiry process, the choices made and their conclusions. They may use drawings, flashcards, realia or any other device that may be of help to provide confidence and facilitate the use of lexis and structures.


Very young children are naturally curious and willing to enquire, reflect and find connections between objects and facts they discover in the world around them. As a result, if we invite those marvellous minds to fly high, they will unquestionably have the opportunity to shine.


Everette, M. (2015) . 8 Essential Elements of Project Based Learning. www.scholastic.com

Further reading

Lenz, B. (2015). Transforming Schools using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Patton, A. (2012) Work that matters. The teacher’s guide to project-based learning. United Kingdom: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.  www.phf.org.uk

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