At the elementary level, literacy and math skills might be taught within a project, meaning acquiring the requisite skills will help students meet the product and content goals of the project and address learner need to knows. Or, the skills might be taught alongside, meaning acquiring the skills won’t directly support the product and content goals of the project or address need to knows, so they’re taught in a separate block of time.
As teachers become more and more familiar with Project Based Learning, they are able to integrate more and more literacy and math instruction within the project. You can see NTN’s articulation of that typically progression in our Elementary Spectrum of School Development (see the literacy and math strands specifically).
With literacy instruction, foundational skills (phonemic awareness, phonics (both decoding and encoding, or spelling) are usually taught alongside the project. This is because these skills need to be taught in an explicit, systematic way, which can make it difficult to embed them in projects. They can be reinforced or practiced within projects, however. For more on effective, research-based foundational literacy instruction, see our foundational literacy resources.
Reading comprehension and writing, however, benefit from being taught within the project, as this allows learners to read and write for authentic purposes and audiences. This requires that the project is designed to include a written performance task. For more on ways to embed literacy within a project, see our Guide to Literacy and PBL. For more on the rationale for our distinction between literacy instruction that occurs alongside vs. within PBL, see our Literacy Best Practices and the NTN Model white paper.
At NTN, elementary math instruction typically starts out occurring alongside PBL, with connections to projects as appropriate. However, even if math instruction is occurring alongside projects, we encourage teachers to bring in inquiry, mathematical discourse, and help students develop mathematical self-regard (mathematical agency), all of which aligns with research based best practices in math instruction and the key components of PBL. Over time, teachers will find it easier to integrate more math instruction into their projects and may even design projects that focus on math skills (e.g. a project on budgeting). In addition, after gaining familiarity and comfort with PBL, we encourage teachers to start designing Problem Based Learning math units for their students. Problem Based Learning is very similar to Project Based Learning but is shorter in duration and focuses on solving a math problem rather than creating a product. For more on these shifts, see our Math Best Practices and the NTN Elementary Model white paper.