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Introduction to project work – what is a project?

As part of the celebrations for 25 years of Project, now in it’s third edition, and in preparation for the Project Competition to design the best class poster, Tom Hutchinson explains what a project is and shows us a few examples.

Project work is not a new methodology. Its benefits have been widely recognized for many years in the teaching of subjects like Science, Geography, and History. Some teachers have also been doing project work in their language lessons for a long time, but for others it is a new way of working.

In the first of a series of five blog posts, I aim to provide a simple introduction to project work. In the following posts, I shall then go on to explain what benefits project work brings in relation to motivation, relevance, and educational values. I shall also deal with the main worries that teachers have about using project work in their classrooms. So to get started:

What is a project?

The best way to answer this question is to show some examples of projects (click on the images to see full size versions).

Horse poster
Design by Katorina Pokorná and Klára Kucejová

Projects allow students to use their imagination and the information they contain does not always have to be factual. In the above example of a project which required students to introduce themselves and their favourite things, the students pretend they are a horse.

Dinosaur poster
Design by K Hajnovic

You can do projects on almost any topic. Factual or fantastic, they help to develop the full range of learners’ capabilities.

Lady fashion poster
Designer unknown

Projects are often done in poster format, but students can also experiment with the form, like in the project above. You will probably also note that project work can produce errors! Project work encourages a focus on fluency – some errors of accuracy are bound to occur.

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‘Serious Fun’ in the Classroom

Child's project of a town mapTom Hutchinson, author of Project, considers how using project work in the English language classroom helps to inject some ‘Serious Fun’ into learning.

In 2010 Project celebrated its 25th anniversary. It hardly seems that long since the original Project English first appeared, but I’m certainly reminded of time passing when I visit different countries to talk to teachers. It used to be the case that many of them would tell me how fond they were of Project because they had started teaching English with it. Now they’re more likely to tell me that they started learning English with it!

I’m often asked why the course (now in its third edition) has been so popular for so many years, and the 25th anniversary has given me the opportunity to reflect on that question…

I first got involved in writing textbooks in the early 1980s. It was a time when all sorts of new ideas about language and learning were coming out of universities and other teaching institutes around the world. It was an exciting time. Every year seemed to bring some new insight into how we might make our teaching and our materials more ‘communicative’.

It seemed to me, however, that in all this flood of ideas, one crucial element was missing. That was the simple, old-fashioned concept of ‘fun’. To put it simply: You can be absolutely spot on in terms of your syllabus and your task design; you may try to incorporate all the latest ideas about functional language and classroom methodology; but if the resulting teaching materials don’t engage learners’ interests, then you’re probably wasting your time. This is true for any learners, but it’s particularly important with younger learners.

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