Project work captures better than any other activity the two principal elements of a communicative approach. These are a concern for motivation, that is, how the learners relate to the task; and a concern for relevance, that is, how the learners relate to the language. We could add to these a third element: a concern for educational values, that is, how the language curriculum relates to the general educational development of the learner. Let's look at these elements in a bit more detail.
Positive motivation is the key to successful language learning and project work is particularly useful as a means of generating this positive motivation. Why is this so? There are three reasons. First, project work is very personal. The students are writing about their own lives; they are being given the opportunity to tell the world about themselves. Second, project work is a very active medium. Students aren't just receiving and producing words; project work is "learning through doing." Last, project work gives a clear sense of achievement. It enables aII students to produce a worthwhile product.
A foreign language can often seem a remote and unreal thing. This inevitably has a negative effect on motivation, because the students don't see the language as relevant to their own lives. If learners are going to become real language users, they must learn that English can be used to talk about their own world.
Project work helps to bridge this relevance gap in three ways. First, project work helps to integrate the foreign language into the network of the learner's own communicative competence. Second, project work helps to make the language more relevant to learners' actual needs, because they are learning how to communicate about their own world -- about their house, their family, their town, and so forth. Third, project work establishes a sounder relationship between language and culture. With project work the language acts as a bridge, enabling two cultures to communicate with each other.
There is a growing awareness among language teachers that the process and content of the language class should contribute towards the general educational development of the learner. Project work encourages initiative, independence, imagination, self-discipline and co-operation together with cross-curricular skills development where knowledge gained in other subjects may be used in the English class.
Project work thus brings considerable benefits to the language classroom, but it is important to be aware of the implications of this way of working.
Noise -- Teachers are often afraid that the project classroom will be noisier than the traditional classroom. But project work does not have to be noisier than any other activity. Remember that the traditional classroom has quite a lot of noise in it, too. There is usually at least one person talking (and teachers usually talk rather loudly!) and there may be a tape recorder playing, possibly with the whole class doing a drill. There is no reason why project work should be any noisier than forty students giving a choral response - quite the opposite, in fact.
Time -- It takes longer to prepare, make and present a project than it does to do more traditional activities. But two points are worth bearing in mind. First, not all project work needs to be done in class time. Projects about "Your lifestyle," for example, can be done at home. Second, when choosing to do project work, you need to recognize that you are making a philosophical choice in favour of the quality of the learning experience over the quantity of time required. Project work provides rich learning experiences - rich in colour, movement, interaction and, most of all, involvement.
Use of L1 -- It is likely that most students will speak in their mother tongue while they are working on their projects. However, rather than seeing this as a problem, we should consider its merits. First, it is a natural way of working. It is a mistake to think of L1 and L2 as completely separate domains. Learners in fact operate in both domains, constantly switching from one to the other, so it is perfectly natural for learners to use L1 while working on an L2 product. As long as the final product is in English, it doesn't matter if the work is done in L1. Second, project work can provide some good opportunities for realistic translation work.
The key to successful project work is good preparation. You'Il need some basic materials and equipment: scissors, rulers, glue, large sheets of paper or card. It's a good idea to have some reference books available: a dictionary, a grammar book, an atlas. Try to keep a stock of magazines, maps and leaflets in the class. You need to develop squirrel habits. Collect any material you can find. It's amazing how much printed material is available free from shops, travel agents, banks and so forth.
Teach your learners how to do project work. Before starting any project, discuss with the students how they will tackle it. What materials will they need? Where will they get them? If the project requires a particular kind of activity, such as an interview, a graph or a chart, make sure students know how to do it. Use each project not only to learn and practise language but also to help your students to learn a bit more about project work.
One of the most important features of project work is presentation. The form of presentation you choose will depend on the topic. Projects can be presented as a poster: students arrange their pictures and written texts on a large sheet of paper or card. The poster can then be displayed on the classroom walls. Projects can also be presented in the form of a book. Students keep their own project book. This is the best format for individual projects.
Do remember that the value of project work is greatly increased if students display their work. Public display gives students an added incentive to do their best work.
There are two basic principles for assessing project work. The most obvious point to note about project work is that language is only a part of the total project. Consequently, it is not very appropriate to assess a project only on the basis of linguistic accuracy. Credit must be given for the overall impact of the project, the level of creativity it displays, the neatness and clarity of presentation, and, most of all, the effort that has gone into its production. So a wide ranging "profile" kind of assessment that evaluates the whole project is needed. The second principle is that, if at all possible, don't correct mistakes on the final project itself - or at least not in ink. It goes against the whole spirit of project work.
So, what do you do about errors? There are two useful techniques. First, encourage the students to do a rough draft of their project first. Correct this in your normal way. The students can then incorporate corrections in the final product. Second, if errors occur in the final product, correct it in pencil, on a separate sheet of paper or on a photocopy. It is then up to the students whether they wish to correct the finished piece of work. But fundamentally, the most important thing to do about errors is to stop worrying about them. Projects are real communication. When we communicate, all we can do is the best we can with what we know. And because we usually concentrate on getting the meaning right, errors in form will naturally occur. It's a normal part of using and learning language.
Project work is one of the most exciting developments in language teaching. It combines in practical form both the fundamental principles of a communicative approach and the values of good education.
Tom Hutchinson's workshop is sponsored by Oxford University Press. Tom Hutchinson is Associate Director of the Institute for English Language Education at Lancaster University, England. He is the author of numerous textbooks for Oxford University Press including Project English (1985), Hotline (1991), and American Hotline (1996). Apart from textbook writing, his main interest lies in the management of change.