Problem-Based Learning and Adult English Language Learners

This CAELA brief draws attention to the benefits of and the support needed to implement a problem-based learning approach in the adult English language-learner classroom.

J. Mathews-Aydinli
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Center for Adult English Language Learning (CAELA)
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This CAELA brief draws attention to the benefits of and the support needed to implement a problem-based learning approach in the adult English language-learner classroom. The author first reviews the research that makes problem-based learning, a teaching approach that stresses both cognitive and metacognitive aspects of learning, relevant for adult ESL students. She then addresses four steps necessary in implementing problem-based learning activities, including how classroom roles are different for both teachers and students. Following this is a section on how to go about setting up a problem-based project with students, adding a concrete scenario example and follow-up activities. This brief also highlights the supportive role that administrators need to take either to initiate or assist teachers utilizing problem-based learning. The brief also lists additional written and web resources.

Required Training


What the experts say

Problem-based learning is a valuable tool in the repertoire of learning methodologies that language and basic skills teachers can use to promote language learning.  It is situated within the framework of communicative approaches to language acquisition.  The brief offers a succinct description that will be useful to those investigating this method.  The key role of the instructor is appropriately stressed in the brief since problem-based learning is an approach that requires reflective practice on the part of instructors as well as training and support from program administration.  The benefits and challenges are also cited with references to a research basis for both.  The article does a good job of summarizing a valuable approach to instruction without glossing over some of the difficulties in its implementation.

Extremely valuable for both teachers and program administrators who are interested in incorporating problem-based learning (PBL) strategies into instruction, this resource makes the case for using such strategies by citing pertinent research on the benefits to adult ESL learners, namely:

  • Focusing on authentic issues and problems prompts more meaningful peer interactions than rote techniques such as dialogues—thereby promoting second language acquisition (Mackey, 1999; Nakahama, Tyler, & Van Lier, 2001).
  • Having learners self-direct and “take charge” of the activity increases their independence and ability to apply language skills to real-world situations (James, 2006).

The most useful feature of this resource is its comprehensive presentation of concrete guidelines and considerations for instructors to use in each phase of the PBL activity, including

  • a list of criteria to use in assessing the effectiveness and appropriateness of this approach;
  • suggestions on how to correct errors in its implementation;
  • print and online sources to use in planning PBL scenarios; and
  • an example scenario. 

 Other useful features include the discussion of potential challenges to using this approach. By citing peer interaction research from the Lab School (Claussen, 2005; Greif, 2005; McFadden, 2005), which showed that peer-to-peer English interaction was altered and sometimes curtailed when the instructor intervened, the resource anticipates one such challenge to using this approach and addresses it with appropriate strategies. Equally helpful are strategies described to minimize other challenges.

This resource is unique in that it goes beyond the steps in a PBL activity to delineate what is required of the instructor in each of the steps. Administrators will find it as useful as instructors, for it describes how they can support instructors and help them to successfully incorporate PBL in their classroom.

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