Target Structures – A Few More Insights

Below, Sabrina sheds light on the current thread about targeting structures. I add it here because it clearly expresses one side of the many-sided prism that this discussion has become. I think it is important not to try to draw conclusions here. As Dr. Krashen told me pointedly in my high school last year, he did the research, we are the ones who have to apply it. So my take on this deal is that we have to just keep talking. Certain things will become clear. We don’t have to throw out the three structures model because we happen on some compelling new idea. All we have to do is keep teaching comprehension based classes and draw our own conclusions about what is best for us. We pick the candy in the candy store that we want, not what somebody says we want. We need only question everything and realize that this work will never be done in the sense that it will never be standardized. I am very glad that others are thinking about this, which Sabrina summarizes so well right here:

Doesn’t the Natural Order hypothesis state that grammatical structures are acquired in a predictable order? If I am understanding this hypothesis correctly (anyone correct me if I am wrong), each language ‘s average order of acquisition of grammatical morphemes is different from one another (not language neutral).

Furthermore, isn’t the rate of acquisition different in each and every child? Could we then extrapolate and add in the mix of this fascinating conversation that kids will acquire whatever structure we are teaching whenever it fits that order (unknown to us),  and whenever they are ready for it ( following each individual’s rate of acquisition)? The new emerging question that comes to my mind is: Is the structure I am teaching my kids too early for them to acquire and are they ready for it (no matter if I circle it 100 times or 1000 times)? Since we don’t have an answer to both questions, the problem becomes irrelevant and outside of my sphere of influence.



9 thoughts on “Target Structures – A Few More Insights”

  1. Sabrina is absolutely right that the natural order of acquisition varies from one language to another. We don’t have enough research to know what that order is, but Krashen has said that the more influence a structure has on meaning, the earlier it will be acquired. In French, in my personal experience, gender distinctions are late acquired ( I’m 67 and still working on it) because French people usually understand me even if I get the gender wrong. In English, gender mistakes can be hilarious, so they’re acquired fairly early. On the other hand, the -s of the third person singular, present tense, is late acquired, even if it’s the first thing that the grammar books teach.

    We may need to find a word or expression to distinguish between the grammatical structures that are aquired in a natural order, which I understand as a category of structures, such as past tense, plurals, passive voice, subjunctive, etc., and the structures we present in a lesson. “Ainsi soit-t-il / So be it” is a complicated subjunctive in both languages, but my students who were big fans of The Lord of the Rings trilogy picked it up easily. They could use and recognize that particular structure, but they could not extend the analogy to other verbs. My understanding is that in a lesson we present a particular structure/expression in context and circle the daylights out of it until it’s acquired, but we don’t expect our students to be able to use other verbs in the same manner. Only after they have acquired many similar verbs in this way will their subconscious brains begin making analogies. Am I interpreting Krashen correctly?

    1. …in a lesson we present a particular structure/expression in context and circle the daylights out of it until it’s acquired, but we don’t expect our students to be able to use other verbs in the same manner. Only after they have acquired many similar verbs in this way will their subconscious brains begin making analogies. Am I interpreting Krashen correctly?….

      Judy that is exactly the way I read him. The key part of what you said that I am trying to get some discussion on is:

      …only…after they have acquired many similar verbs in this way will their subconscious brains begin making analogies….

      This involves trusting the Net, and many of us just don’t trust much. We have to have a plan. We always seem to have to have a plan. There are so many people in our buildings whose plans are drowning others in bullshit. Plans everywhere. And yet, the way the unconscious mind is able to “make analogies” as you say, we don’t really need a plan! The parsing and arranging and allowing in of certain structures in certain forms but not in others will happen by itself. All we have to do is deliver the CI. It’s like in the zoo, the fish lady who works at the zoo with the big boots on takes the buckets of fish to the seals and the sea lion and throws the fish through the air to them. They know what to do with it. She doesn’t have to dive in and digest it for them. It happens automatically. And yet each day we dive in and try to mess with the natural digestion of language. It would be as if the lady cuts off the left dorsal fin of one of the fish, dives in, feeds it to a seal, who would rather have the entire fish, and in some weird ass way calls that feeding the fish. If we all can just trust that the language will be acquired if we just speak to the kids in relaxed ways that are about them and interesting to them, to the best of our abilities because we don’t have to be perfect, contrary to what we thought when we were growing up, then we will be all right. We will not be fired. You know, all of us fret so much about job security, but I have rarely heard of one of us being fired for doing TPRS. And if we believe in what we do, why shouldn’t we continue? Throw the fish out there, y’all! The seals know how to digest them, and they don’t even think about it. Less thinking, more happiness today!


    2. Judy, I actually need to thank YOU! The conversation we had via email this past weekend has been on my mind ( cette conversation a trotté dans ma tête et a fait du chemin). I qualified the work you did/ and still are doing as research ( keeping track of what structures your students are having a hard time with over the years) . I think what you are doing is commandable and in a way I think you ARE doing some qualitative mini research ( although you are not seeing that work as such) and perhaps finding out which structures are late acquired or early acquired. You motivated me and I decided to start keeping track myself, b/c its a great idea!
      So you write : “They could use and recognize that particular structure, but they could not extend the analogy to other verbs.”
      That explains why my kids can say in French ‘”Est-ce que je peux aller aux toilettes/ à mon casier/ à l’infirmerie etc…. ( may I go to the bathroom, nurse, locker etc…) but they can’t say may I write, sleep or anything like that and I just didn’t get why they couldn’t extend the may I to other verbs. I will confess I had them memorize those expressions at the beginning of last year in what I called “how do I survive French class without English” guide. Funny that we didn’t circle that but they still remember most of them . It may explains why they can’t extend the expression may I to other verbs, or perhaps simply b/c it is late acquired.
      Another thing I m observing with my students which I think is due to the opacity of the French language when it comes to phonetics is that they have a real hard time differentiating some sounds. So for example, they can’t distinguish between il va, il voit, il veut. They hear the v consonnant and shut down the vowels (at least for a while).
      Another thing you and I agreed on when it comes to acquisition is the inherent motivation (or lack thereof) in the kids. So doing some personalization and getting to know the kids on a deeper, more human way may bridge the gap and help with acquisition. But I find that some kids are just too far gone and I cannot reach them. Having classes of 36 kids doesn’t help either….

  2. I think this is why it is so necessary to feed our students as much comprehensible and compelling input as possible – we don’t know what is going to be acquired when and by whom. In my opinion, we increase our students’ chances of acquisition by focusing on the compelling.

  3. I had to smile when Sabrina said: So for example, they can’t distinguish between il va, il voit, il veut. They hear the v consonnant and shut down the vowels (at least for a while).

    My French students can’t hear the difference between fit and feet, or between hungry and angry. They even give me dubious looks when I tell them there is a difference. So I exaggerate the difference, fit and feeeeeeeet. And I use gestures and facial expressions when I do “hungry” and “angry”. We have to train their ears to hear those differences.

    1. Judy,

      I still make mistakes such as sheet and sh-t, and this is after being in the USA for 2 decades. The worst is when I do that in front of my students.I did that in front of them once inadvertently and they were dying.

      1. Hahahaaa! My Dad (cubano) used to confuse those 2 (sheet and sh*t), even after more than 3 decades in the US and even though he was a language teacher. Of course we’d egg him on , “Dad, what are those things called that we put on the beds?” Thanks for bringing up a fun memory of my Dad 🙂

        And I also have the same thing with my French students with il voit, il vent, il va. But Sabrina’s classic video “tu veux ou tu veux pas” with that wacky 60s guy has helped enormously with that one at least!

        1. Jen,
          Please don’t put me on the spot next time we see one another by asking me to say those words, cause I just can’t. I just have to accept there are certain things I will never master, no matter what…
          I had totally forgotten about that video I passed on to you, THANK YOU for the reminder, I will show it tomorrow. I m glad it helped your kids.
          On a different topic . I ‘m having a hard time getting one of my French 2 class to read Pauvre Anne!!! That is my regular high schoolers, some of whom failed French 1 last year.
          But yesterday I pleaded my cause to the assistant principal. She stopped me in the hallway to tell me know about her daughter going to Paris next week and so after listening to her and giving her some practical advise, I let her know how absurd that policy about letting kids take French or Spanish 2 who failed level 1 was . She had no idea, and she will bring it up to the principal at the next meeting! If I can get rid of some of these students, I will be able to teach the rest of the class more effectively.
          Anyway , I m just very frustrated with these kids b/c some of them are saying it’s hard to read Pauvre Anne, and it is hard for me to fathom. I just can’t believe it, but then again , they cannot read in English, or even in their native Spanish. So What to do …….
          It ‘s so frustrating to have to wait so long to see results…. I have become so accustomed to instant gratification that I have to remind myself, it’s a process and it takes time. And then on the other side of the coin, I have the ones who are saying it’s too easy and they are done reading the book after a couple of days. (big sigh here)

  4. Completely off topic, but one of my former students won the first The Voice competition in France and has put out an album. He has a song on youtube where he sings in English and in the clip he has the words on screen as he sings them. It’s not subtitles. He holds up notes and posters. It’s really clever and I’m wondering if he remembered a conversation we had about how important it was when watching a film to see the subtitles in the same language so that you were reading and hearing the words at the same time. His name is Stephan Rizon and the song is “Looking for Love”. Those who are teaching English (like me) might want to use it.

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