Integrating PBL into your Syllabus: Another ‘headache’ or an opportunity to boost your learners' performance?

A guest blog post By Dimitris Primalis

Special thanks to Christina Martidou for the feedback (Dimitris Primalis:)

At first it was the Communicative Approach, then the multiple intelligences theory, then the Multiple Intelligence theory, Learning Technology, 21st Century Skills and now the final straw , PBL - an exotic acronym for Project Based Learning.

It simply makes you wonder: Is it another fad I have to introduce and implement in my daily teaching or a flexible tool that can help me exploit all the aforementioned theories, and teaching methodology?

Time and practice will tell for sure but in the meantime, let me share a few thoughts and some useful tips and hints with you drawing upon my personal experience.

What's PBL?

Quoting verbatim from Edutechwiki: " Project Based Learning is a teaching and learning model 
( curriculum development and instructional approach) that emphasizes student-centred  instruction by assigning projects. It allws students to work more autonomously to construct their own learning, and culminates in realistic, student-generated products." 

The right approach or not? 

" How much can I cram into my syllabus?" " When will I have time to do some real teaching?" Is this another show off? " These are just a few initial reactions to PBL and they only seem reasonable since overburdening  your syllabus with extra project work doesn't usually sound appealing to anybody.

                                             Graphs created by Dimitris Primalis 

But is PBL really an extra feature? Project work is surely not new in ELT. It has always been part of the syllabus to a lesser or a greater extent. The crucial question here seems to be how do we approach it effectively?

If projects are superimposed or chosen from a series of ready-made projects that cater little or not at all for your students' needs, then they are undoubtedly a burden. However, what if the projects were designed to serve your learners' needs and individual styles while reflecting the curriculum?

Synergy: forming an alliance to achieve learning goals:

Instead of devoting time to using technology, teaching literature, skills development , etc., separately, why not combine everything to achieve your class or even individual students' learning goals?

Graphs created by Dimitris Primalis 

Learning technology devices such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones facilitate surveys, quests and anable students to take photos . share, store and present their work using PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi - to name only some of the numerous software and Web 2.0 tools  available. Still feeling that this is not enough?

What's more?  Learners will see their critical thinking skills stretched to their limits when dealing with a huge amount of data and asked to select the most important snippets to include in their projects.

Well designed communicative activities - incorporated in the project - can help students develop their reading, listening, speaking and writing skills especially if the project involves joining forces with another school from another country. With PBL  your students' accuracy and fluency will be given a crash test in stimulated-authentic tasks instead of "sterilized" and often decontextualized drills.  Additionally, it's more likely that the teachers' feedback will receive more attention than the gap-fill exercises. A variety of delegated tasks can cater for different learning styles e.g. audio types can search for interviews or radio programmes related to the topic. Finally, chances are that research  will motivate students who may not be keen on language learning but are into maths and science.

In the project described at the end of the post, the initial stimulus was provided by the coursebook. The linguistic aims ( describing/ presenting figures)were achieved while allowing for ICT skills building and - equally important - 21st century  skills practice ( communication, collaboration, critical thinking, presentations). All these were integrated in the project work instead of assigning different tasks with little or no relevance to the syllabus as is often the case.

Planning and Integrating:

One of the most crucial stages of this process is careful planning and wise integration of the project(s) into the syllabus at the beginning of the school year. The closest simile I can think of, is that of  an army general's, planning his campaign. Before launching it, he would have to take the factors given below into account:

  • the strategic goals
  • the logistics (equipment , allocated time in class and at home, resources)
  • his ´troops`current skills strengths and weaknesses
  • existing and potential allies ( in this case , teachers of other subjects or EFL teachers from other schools abroad.   

In other words, no matter how tempting some fancy projects may seem/sound, always consider :

  • What are the learning goals for the class? 
  • How many of these goals can the project serve?
  • How can it cater for different learning styles? 
  • What means (learning technologies) are available and in working order?
  • How close is it to the students' interest /reality? (personalization)
  • To what extent are students expected to be involved? 
  • Which aspects of the existing syllabus ( grammatical, lexical, functional) can blend in with the project? 
  • How much time can  your students devote at school and at home?
  • To what extent can your students develop their own initiative and creativity? 

A project with my 6th graders (aged 11-12):

Photo taken from Access 4 - Interactive Coursebook (courtesy of Express Publishing) 

Based on the text shown in the photo above,  students were asked to carry out a survey on the most popular gadgets among family and friends. A the time, internet-based survey tools such as surveymonkey were not widespread so learners had to create questionnaires  by themselves. In groups of four, they decided on the questionnaire ( which gadget to include and the questions they wanted to ask). Then, each student had to fill in 8 questionnaires asking family or friends - preferably in English. After that, they were asked to figure out percentages and transfer data on a PowerPoint  graph ( I showed them how to enter data but it could easily have been done by an ICT teacher at school. Finally , students had to present their findings in class and attempt to exploit to the maximum the school's and learners' newly acquired equipment ( 1 tablet per student , IWB). Even though we overestimated the learners' ICT skills, the project stimulated their interest and their presentations sparked a discussion in class about data presentation.

To see some projects from Douka School in Greece click here


It would be misleading to claim that introducing and implementing PBL in class is a breeze. Very often, what seems to work on paper wonderfully, fails in practice miserably and your initial estimate for the degree of your learners' autonomy (how much guidance they need) falls spectacularly short of the original prediction. Eventually, it all comes to a critical dilemma:

  1. Should I pretend that I apply PBL to abide by what the Director of Studies has asked me to do and impress parents or 
  2. Do I use it as a tool - combining the technological and methodological means available- to give my students the opportunity to further develop their skills? 

To my mind, it can be just another PeBLe swept by the tide or - paraphrasing the lyrics of the song " Make a Wave"  - "you can throw a PBL in the class waters and make a wave".

The choice is yours!

Dimitris Primalis

Useful link:

The author of this post: 

Dimitris Primalis has been anEFL teacher for more than 20 years and is an examiner for the Cambridge English Language Assessment. He is also a materials designer and has published 5 test books for Macmillan.
Dimitris is particularly interested in innovation and change in the syllabus. He likes to share his experiences in the EFL field with colleagues at conferences ( IATEFL, TESOL France, TESOL Macedonia-Thrace, Nothern Greece), in his column in the BELTA bulletin and through articles (IATEFL Voices, ELT News) and blogposts. He is currently working at Doukas primary school in Athens , Greece.

The Power of Image and the Moving image on students learning and projects

The following post is the result of what I presented on THE IMAGE CONFERENCE in Brasilia on
25th October

"A picture worths a thousand words "

Chilean Patagonia

                   Photo by Roseli Serra

As an avid reader , cinema fan and a teacher for over twenty five years, I have recently started to play closer attention to the power of images, films and short videos more than ever in my life.  Of course it hasn't happened out of the blue. Actually it has to do with the fact that for the last few years I have taught different age groups and I have discovered that they are all more visual than I could expect, not to mention that I am  a highly visual learner and teacher.

Having said that , I would like to reflect upon the power of image and its impact both on teaching and learning.

" At early education books are richly illustrated , but later on images give way to greater and greater proportion of of verbal written text "  ( Ben Goldstein )

                             Photo extracted from

Later on pictures are usually treated as simply decoration or as a background for important texts. Text has been prioritized over image, which, many times, cause a "negative impact"on the learner who has suddenly  made the transition from lots of images to lots of texts without, most of the times, being prepared to face such change. Consequently and unfortunately,  texts cause an opposite effect on our SS because, sometimes they are not interesting at all .

                                 Photo extracted from

Although words and pictures can signify the same thing, the effect they produce can be quite different.
Have a look at the image below. What effect does it cause? Would words provoke the same emotional charge?

                               Photo extracted from

Likewise, we recognize one another through an array of visual codes . By looking at the image below, it is easy to identify what this person likes, isn't it?   

                               Photo by Roseli Serra

The concept of visual literacy is that it is easier and quicker  to communicate a message with an image. It means that the importance of fostering a visual literacy has been taken seriously 

                                                                                   Photo by ELT Pics

Identity construction from images on the internet :

According to Richard Gresswell  images have all to do with the way we construct our personal and professional network, for example, within our PLN.  In addition, image-based communication has largely influenced our lives in all senses , especially with the recent shift to mobile technologies. Images have become part of our everyday life in a way people construct multiple identities.  It seems that "successful " social networking  depends on the construction of many identities to some extent. Identity regarding images has more to do with "what to do "rather than "who you are". You choose your public mask. And through our lives this is a constantly shifting as we take many different roles. 

                                          Photo by ELT Pics

We conclude then that the digital technology and social networks have empowered the use of images and changed teaching and learning. There's no way back.

"Knowledge is on the web"     Carla Arena - IATEFL -Liverpool 2013 )
Some ideas I have experienced with my students using multimedia: 

I've used multimedia for teaching and learning for two main reasons 
  1. The use of multimedia in teaching and learning leads to higher teaching. 
  2. When we think about images nowadays we actually include videos, pictures, games, etc. Multimedia then refers to any computer- mediated software or interactive application that integrate text, colour, graphical images, animation, audio sound, and full motion video in a single application. 
My goals:

  1. To make my teaching more interesting
  2. To motivate my students by: 
  • Raising interest in the target language they are supposed to learn 
  • Working on different projects along the semester and create an electronic portfolio on wikispaces 
  • making my SS more skilled once they have learned to use different and images to produce language ( both written and spoken ) 
  • Leading them to a better sense of achievement once they produce and work with not only texts , but also images and different medias to present , produce and share ideas:
Some Activities using images, videos and other multimedia tools: 

                                 Photo by Roseli Serra

Actvity 1: Working with pictures: 

Have a look at 5 simple activities at the Power Point Below

Working with pictures from Roseli Serra

Actvity 2: A video  music project suggested by Jonathan Reinaux:

Click the Power Point below  to see the steps for this activity:
A music video – Level Upper Int
View more presentations or Upload your own.

To listen to the original video and song , click on the image below

Daylight Project

The worksheet for the students is available below:

Actvity 3: A video activity. Theme:Stereotypes - The Simpsons in Brazil 

To see the steps for this activity click the Power Point below

To watch the video click below:

The worksheet to be used with the students is available below:
My students' electronic portfolio:

These projects are related to readers, movies, short stories and songs.

  • All the choices are negotiated with the teacher
  • Guidelines are posted on Edmodo. 
  • They do some of them at the school lab , some in the classroom with their mobile devices and sOme at home. 
  • Oral presentations  in class. 
  • All the projects stored in a Wikispaces by the teacher. 
A Photo book: 
SS create an electronic book to talk about their daily routines, things they like and don't like.
Target language: Daily routines, likes and dislikes, frequency adverbs and school subjects; 

A Glogster Poster and a Smore flyer about a book and a movie:



  • SS choose a book to read and a film related to the book 
  • They choose songs that have to do with the film, book and characters
  • Gudelines posted on our groups on Edmodo
  • Presentation in class 
  • Web tool/ App : SMORE


Working with images, films , songs , apps and web tools have completely changed my teaching style because: 
  • I fell teaching and learning have become much more interesting. 
  • The projects raised interest in the target language and in the English language itself. 
  • Working on different projects along the semester and creating an electronic portfolio not only motivated my students but also made them sure I am at their side helping them learn and build up knowledge rather than correcting or assessing them only.  
  • My students have learned to work with different medias and consequently they are more skilled and able to vary their learning strategies and use of tools. 
  • Having a higher sense of achievement my students have also improved their critical thinking skills as well as the use of self -evaluation. 

Enjoy your teaching!

References: Available on  Livebinders