Afterschool Programs Use Project-Based Learning to Incorporate Literacy

by Jennifer Kobrin on August 24, 2011

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Project-based learning is a wonderful answer to the ubiquitous student refrain: “Yeah, but how am I going to use this in real life?” Hands-on, multidisciplinary projects can build literacy skills while engaging students with the world outside their classroom. This week I’m proud to feature a guest blog from colleagues Jason Schwalm, OST Program Specialist, and Karen Smuck-Tylek, PBL Coordinator, at Public Health Management Corporation. Be sure to check out their blog—it’s a terrific resource.

With less than three hours of programming a day, it can be hard for out-of-school time programs to do it all.  The traditional afterschool routine – snack, physical activity and homework time – leaves little room for enrichment activities, and literacy often becomes an afterthought. 

One way to maximize programming hours, and build critical literacy skills, is to adopt a Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach.  PBL is an interdisciplinary instructional model that allows students to explore their interests and answer their questions about the world, while building knowledge and skills in the process.  Projects begin with a Driving Question and take shape as youth investigate a diverse range of subject matter, from the environment to media to culinary arts. 

Literacy is integral to this process of discovery.  In Philadelphia’s city-funded network of Out of School Time programs, OST providers that weave literacy into the project design, rather than offering literacy as a separate item on an already crowded schedule, have had the most success with PBL. Techniques like the Youth Education for Tomorrow (YET) model’s Read Aloud and Shout Out, in which staff read to youth and ask probing follow-up questions, encourage critical thinking and deepen students’ knowledge of the subject matter. Writing activities push youth to synthesize what they learned or think creatively about the project topic.  Independent reading of books that relate to the project topic is another way to build students’ content knowledge and deepen their love of reading.  For older youth, independent reading is often linked to a “research” phase of the project.

When literacy is integrated into the project design, OST providers can accomplish a number of academic goals during scarce programming hours. To incorporate each of these elements individually would require more than the 90 minutes a day that most programs devote to academics and enrichment. By weaving reading and writing into enrichment activities, programs can balance literacy with active, hands-on learning.  A gardening project might begin with a Read Aloud from the book Life in a Bucket of Soil, followed by a Shout Out, and lead to students getting their hands dirty in a compost bin. Check out the full project outline here.

To see examples of other projects that incorporate literacy, visit the OST Project Based Learning Blog.

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