During a project-based hands-on science lesson, a group of Michigan third-graders enthusiastically worked on creating their own garden to grow food for their community. Along the way, they learned about biology, ecology, weather and climate science, and engineering design. But the learning didn’t stop there.

Literacy opportunities

During this project, students spent time developing essential literacy skills – reading, writing and oral language – and using these skills as tools to gain scientific knowledge and solve meaningful problems. They indulged in rich and accessible books such as In the Garden with Dr Carver by Susan Grigsby, about agronomist George Washington Carver and his traveling educational cart.

I was fortunate enough to spend time observing one of the third grade classes that used the science curriculum Multiple literacies in project-based learning (ML-PBL), which was developed by higher education experts working closely with primary teachers. Throughout the unit, the students’ enthusiasm for planning their garden and for making connections between text and first-hand experience was palpable.

Before reading In the garden with Dr Carver, the third graders shared their observations around their school to determine the best location for their garden. Their teacher then used the book to help the students compare their first-hand observations with the information in the text to refine the criteria for the location of their garden.

In addition to reading high quality children’s literature, students interpreted diagrams, tables, and maps, and read and followed the instructions on the seed packets. They studied an article on the impact of weather on fruit crops in Michigan and used multimedia sources including a Ron Finley video, known as the Gangsta Gardener, who built community gardens in Los Angeles.

What the research says

In a recently published study, researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan found that students who used the ML-PBL program outperformed their peers the experience of traditional science education in a scientific assessment of the state. Results held steady for students below grade level in reading, which is remarkable because reading performance is strongly correlated with achievement in other areas. The study was one of many published by Lucas Education Research, a division of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, which found that project-based learning had a positive impact on student achievement.

In another study, researchers at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University found that second-graders who had access to a project-based social studies and literacy program outperformed their peers on measures of social science knowledge and informative reading. And in another study, researchers at Stanford University found that California college students who used a project-based science curriculum Outperformed his peers in a science assessment and the state’s end-of-year English language arts assessment. Additionally, English learners with access to the project-based science curriculum outperformed their peers on the state’s English proficiency test.

Taken together, these studies provide compelling evidence that high-quality, project-based learning can advance a school’s literacy. and objectives of the content domain. Too often, schools with a strong focus on earnings in reading and math, the two subjects typically at the center of state accountability plans, shy away from interdisciplinary approaches such as project-based learning. But these studies show that this practice is not necessary and that students can see more improvements through literacy instruction integrated with project-based learning, even if the projects are rooted in other areas of the project. content.

Characteristics of high-quality project-based learning

Each of the curricular approaches presented in the studies places projects at the center of teaching and learning. In practice, projects are too often added at the end of a teaching unit rather than being a teaching tool that drives learning in a unit. Project-based learning, however, should not be used for every lesson. The approaches explored struck a balance between explicit teacher-led instruction and student-led learning.

The programs studied also shared other key characteristics. They included projects that were authentic and relevant to student lives, were closely aligned with core content standards, generally included driving questions to anchor the project and frame the lessons, such as how can we plan gardens so that our community grows plants for food? – and included sustained professional learning opportunities for teachers.


If you want to try to combine literacy with a project approach, here are the steps to get started:

  • Check out the free educational resources of the studies highlighted on the online portal Pinion, hosted by Lucas Education Research.
  • Think about how you can enhance project-based units with a variety of texts to deepen students’ knowledge, help them make connections to their first-hand experiences, and motivate them to ask new questions. Are there any articles, books or other texts that would help your students to engage more deeply in the project?
  • As you identify the texts, think about how students will use them and what supports they might need. Informative text interactive aloud readings are ideal for facilitating access to text containing complex concepts and providing water for a rich discussion. Other texts may be suitable for students to read alone or with peers. If students are developing written or multimedia products to communicate information, you may consider incorporating mentor texts to support this work.
  • When organizing small groups, think about the various literacy skills that students bring to their group. Some students may have an in-depth knowledge of a particular subject, while others may be good writers or videographers.
  • Look for resources in your community that could support student learning. Are there community members, family members, or disciplinary experts (e.g. scientists) who can share relevant expertise with the class? Students could write interview questions and document what they learn from others.
  • Remember the value of multimedia sources such as video clips, podcast episodes, simulations, or artistic study in deepening student learning.

As we look to fall and develop plans to accelerate learning after more than a year of virtual and blended learning in many parts of the world, schools should take advantage of project-based learning, which is an underused approach. It can help students develop literacy and other critical thinking skills, deepen their knowledge of content, and spark the kind of joy that I think we all want to see more of in K-12 classes. year.

Dr Miranda S. Fitzgerald is an Assistant Professor of Reading and Literacy Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research focuses on the teaching of reading and literacy at intermediate levels and the integration of literacy and science education, particularly in the context of project-based learning. His work has been published in journals such as American Journal of Education, Review of Research in Education, and HE HAS Quarterly research reading.

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