PBL in ELL Pull-Out? Yes, it’s possible!

This post was contributed by Sarah Forbes, K-1 ELL Teacher at John F. Kennedy Elementary, Vermont, and NNETESOL President-Elect. For more information, check out her website here.
I have long been a proponent of project-based learning (PBL), but have struggled to incorporate it in my limited time with my students in ELL pullout groups. PBL involves framing learning within units of study that build skills and knowledge to be put to use in solving a real world problem or creating an authentic product that is shared with a public audience. The work is collaborativestudent-centeredreflective, and often perceived as time consuming. I only have students for 25 to 30 minutes a day or even on alternate days, which hardly seemed like enough time to carry out a high-quality project. However, after delving deeper in PBL professional development that was offered to us as a teaching staff through 2 Revolutions, I was able to wrap my head around what it might look like, and to carry out a successful project with my first grade ELLs in just 25 minutes at the end of the day!  After going through this process, I’m confident I can do PBL with more of my classes. I’m also convinced that like with most classroom practices and techniques, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. To learn more about high-quality PBL in ELL, read on or, check out the journey map below that outlines the process I used to create my pilot project. 


We began our professional development by looking at what we were already doing, the curriculum we were using and themes we were incorporating, to see where we might rework the classroom experience to include PBL. In ELL pull-out, I work with students on a combination of skills that reflect what’s happening in the mainstream classrooms and help students build the needed background knowledge and language to have greater participation and deeper understanding in their classrooms.  In first grade, my students would take part in a project that centered around a Lucy Calkin’s non-fiction unit, in which they would collaboratively create non-fiction big books about their favorite animal.

Student voice and choice is a key component of high-quality PBL. It is important to think about our learners, and what will inspire them to learn when designing a project. Around the time I was brainstorming ideas for my pull-out project, a first grader, who lacked confidence in his academic skills, came to me to read the book What Am I? from the Fountas & Pinnell leveled readers program. The book contains animal riddles that rely heavily on habitat keywords. As he read each page, he hid the picture from me so that I had to guess the animal. He was so proud of being able to read that book. As I reflected on this, I thought that having students create their own riddles would be a perfect complement to the classroom PBL, and would allow continued exploration of nonfiction text features and content that would help students build much needed academic vocabulary and discussion skills. This would also help them be more engaged when they were working with peers in their classrooms on their non-fiction big books.

After I had decided my direction, I focused on my driving questionHow are animals suited to their habitats? This content focused question would allow for engaged exploration and a plethora of language in context. Next, I determined my measurable student outcomes, and pulled from the WIDA Language Development standards to see what language use and production would look like for my multi-level first grade group.



Having established my project goals, I was able to plan out activities that would scaffold student work and build background knowledge in the content area, while encouraging language development in listening, reading, writing and speaking. My class was a multi-level and multi-lingual group of students, who I knew would need explicit models and expectations throughout our work. I built on students’ own excitement and knowledge of animals by extending their thinking to include animal habitats and adaptations. I used the student-read text as a mentor text.

Interacting with students in class provided me with more information to shape the day-to-day activities. We began to look at nonfiction texts on habitats using students’ questions from a KWL as a springboard. I highlighted some of the nonfiction features as we read. In order to draw students into the research work, we watched the real life video clips in The Planet Earth Season II Trailer. They were transported into this world of animal habitats through the dramatic music and shots. We followed this with a animal habitat sort I created using photographs. Students first labeled the pictures of different animal habitats using nonfiction texts to help them find and spell words. I then had these laminated along with a number of animal pictures that corresponded to each habitat. Through this categorizing activity, some students could see that animals had physical markers that hinted at how they survived in their habitats, and others were able to ask more interesting questions, like “Why does this frog have such bright colors on it?” or, “Where does a flamingo live?” When asked where we could look to find out, we inevitably went back to our store of nonfiction books and students began to search for pictures and words that might lead them to answers. We learned some cool new facts. Background building and discussion meant students were well prepared to embark on their own authorship.

The mentor text was also used to help us create a rubric of expectations for students’ own animal riddle pages and illustrations. I provided the categories for us to consider on the rubric, but students defined what high quality writing, illustrations and riddles that gave key details about the animal would be like. I provided a model of how you might do a first draft of writing and illustrating using my own chosen animal. I knew that students had watched “Austin’s Butterfly” in their classrooms, and encouraged them to give me feedback on my draft using what they’d learned. This allowed me to see if they were able to transfer that learning. We set the norms that students should provide one complement (notice something they like about another’s drawing) and one idea for improving their work. When students had trouble with specificity, I pulled in a resource video suggested by my PBL coach where other students give specific feedback to each other on their snake drawings. This was a huge help for learners who were struggling with giving feedback and improving their own work.


As students progressed through writing and illustrating, I really let them drive their own work. If I noticed a student was getting stuck, I stepped in to suggest resources for continuing. This often meant returning to the books we’d read in the research stage, or finding a new book we could turn to to find features of an animal. Students were able to choose what aspects of habitat and adaptations they included in their riddles, but we used the model text to find sentence frames with sight words. After everyone had a first draft, students were paired up for feedback, everyone had that experience at least once. However, I worked with individual students as needed to provide additional feedback to help them improve their drafts until they were meeting their own set expectations.

After students had their final drafts completed, I photographed their work and had them work on reading their writing fluently. We recorded their voices reading, and created an online audio book that we could present to each of their classrooms and share with the school community. Students did a fantastic job presenting to their classmates and it was so fun to see them share their excitement over the mystery of their riddles with everyone. I had students complete a short self-assessment of the their project work and I used the collaboratively created rubric to score their riddles.

Working through such a detailed plan for this project was helpful in highlighting elements of high quality PBL, and more importantly following the plan, adjusting as needed, helped me facilitate in a way that honored those elements and kept students engaged throughout the work. I was wary of completing a project in a pull-out group, but now I feel like it’s not only doable, but complementary to the thematic work I already do in class.

​Students finished ebook is below.

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