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Setting up projects for young learners

May 24, 2021 by Maria Cleary

Setting up creative projects for young learners is an essential part of all language teaching at primary school. Research, observation, reading, science, and arts and crafts-based projects are engaging activities for younger students, however, they need to be designed well. Apart from assigning an appropriate workload, it is also important to provide enough scaffolding and a meaningful purpose so students know how and why they are doing a certain activity. We have collected some guidelines to help you with setting up projects for young learners. We also suggest some initial steps that you can expand on or alter to your specific needs.

1 Different types of young learner projects

When you think about projects, you need to decide if you would like to set up an individual, a pair, a group, or a class project.

  • If you would like students to work independently or in pairs, you need to prepare them for the tasks in class. 
  • Would you like students to complete the project together as a class? You will need to assign different roles to different students. You can start preparatory discussions in class, guiding students as they complete micro-tasks on their own. Then, going back to the classroom (either virtual or real), students need to know exactly what to share.

Apart from the number of participants, you should also define the focus of the project. Here are some suggestions:

  • ask students to observe a phenomenon in their environment:
  • do a creative or artistic arts and crafts project; 
  • do a scientific project (this could include an experiment or ‘building’/creating something);
  • get students to interview people in their environment.

2 Have a meaningful purpose

You do not need to get into detailed explanations, but it is important that students understand what is expected from them as they carry out each stage of the project. Plus, they should be aware of how their language will improve. For example, they could:

  • learn new words;
  • use new structures;
  • use words and structures they already know in a personal and communicative way;
  • hear and use simple instructional language;
  • learn about a given topic;
  • develop research skills;
  • practise their presentation skills.

3 Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding

Scaffolding is one of the most relevant and important aspects of any pedagogical process. The term originates from cognitive and educational psychologist Jerome Bruner in 1976. His work was inspired by Lev Vygotsky’s psychological research into how children learn and it is based on his Zone of Proximal Development theory. Basically, scaffolding describes an instructional process in which teachers guide their students through a learning process with the help of modelling, instructions and questions. In this process, the teacher gradually reduces the amount of scaffolding.

When we set up projects, it is important to remember that young learners might not have had previous experience in doing research, project work, or designing a project sequence. Make sure that they understand the expected outcome of the project, and that you explain what they need to do step by step, giving guidance for every step of the way. It is better to give more guidance at the beginning than leave students wondering what is expected from them and what the teacher was thinking when they set up the project.

4 Go offline but also think digital

Recently we have had to integrate both online and offline learning into our practice. When working on projects with young learners, it is important to engage students in small tasks which do not necessarily depend on online access and activities. Integrate tasks which:

  • motivate them to use print materials in their home;
  • observe a plant, a pet, an area around their home;
  • talk to people close to their family (family members, neighbours);
  • involve arts and crafts activities.

If each project has at least one major offline element, students can concentrate more on that aspect of the project and consequently enjoy a more personalized experience.

Of course, digital components seem inevitable today. It is crucial to remember that while we think of our students as digital natives as they feel comfortable using digital devices, they still need to learn and improve their digital literacy skills. Being able to use a mobile phone or a tablet does not mean they are able to create a slideshow presentation or poster on their own. Teach them how to create any documents you expect them to use. Remind them:

  • They should have about ten slides for a 5-minute presentation.
  • They should not write everything on the slide they want to say. A title and keywords will be enough.
  • They should ask for permission before they use someone else’s photographs.
  • They should not believe and copy anything they find on the internet.

A combination of online and offline activities contributes to different aspects of literacy development.

5 Time is of the essence

Always give a final deadline, and if the project is longer, give milestones the students need to reach. It is important that they are able to show you the first draft of their project and after having received feedback, they can correct and proceed. This helps students organize themselves and learn the basics of planning a task. Think about short, 3-day projects as well as 2-week or 1-month ones.

Project tips for the holidays

1 Tiny, happy things

This project idea is inspired by the illustrated children’s book Tiny, Perfect Things by M.H. Clark and artist Madeline Kloepper. Ask students to collect small things that make them feel good and write them down in a diary (offline) or in a document/on Padlet/Google doc (online). 

Very young learners can collect simple words, sentences and or even images with captions. More advanced children can write simple diary entries, descriptions or nonsense rhymes using the words they collect. 

Ask students to pay attention to tiny details. For example, what are the names of the flowers that grow in their gardens or in the nearest park? What is their favourite moment of the day? Encourage them to use a dictionary to check words they don’t know.

This activity is good for practising observation skills, creative writing and vocabulary development. It also helps students focus on good things and develop a sense of their own personal taste.

2 Arts and crafts projects 

Each reader in both the Helbling Young Readers series and The Thinking Train series has a project page at the end of the book. These Play Station (Helbling Young Readers) and Make and Do (The Thinking Train) projects are great extensions to the stories. Select a collection of stories for the holidays and remind students to do the projects. These projects will be memorable experiences because they are linked to a story.

You can check out some examples here:

3 Scientific projects

If your young learners are into scientific topics such as the natural world, space or history, it is a great idea to pick one and design activities for it which will keep your students busy for a longer time.

For example, you can ask students to:

  • take notes about the habits of their pets;
  • observe how the natural world changes in their garden (photo or written diary);
  • grow a plant and observe how it changes (for this activity, you can check out these young reader projects: Grow cress, Potato heads, Grow beans).

Browse our series 'Reading for the environment' for more ideas which will connect students with their natural environment.