What Do You Want To Teach?

It is most important that the teacher who wishes to use comprehensible input effectively put aside the general notion of using the target language in class in a general way. What does this mean?

It means that we teach specific structures. Krashen’s idea of non-targeted input may make sense in the theoretical world, but there is the question of available time. Most of us only have three or four hours a week with our students. How can we immerse our students in a sea of non-targeted input in that amount of time?

Because of this fact about available time, it can be said that this is one area in which Krashens’ theories don’t apply to our work in schools. As people who work in school buildings, with the sea of unmotivated students who walk into our classrooms every day, we must target structures.

I find it very helpful to ask myself before each class, “What do you want to teach?” or “What are you teaching?”

To me this really helps. I target these structures, for example:

  • assis(e) en face de – seated across from
  • ressemble à – looks like, resembles
  • il ne faut pas – you must not, one must not

That’s what I want to teach. I don’t want to teach a story, a list of words, a book, any other combination of language no matter how it is packaged, but those three structures.

How can my students, in level 2, with about 175 or so hours of French out of a necessary 15,000 hours, be expected to understand a story or read a book in the target language in that amount of time? My students need a lot more hours than 175 to start being able to understand non-targeted language in auditory and written ways.

But I can teach those structures.

The difference that most people may not grasp, the mistake they make with TPRS and with CI instruction in general, is that in their ignorance they don’t target a few structures over many classes – they get too vague with their comprehension based instruction.

They think that going over the structures, using them in class less than a hundred times or so, is enough for acquisition. It’s not. It’s not enough for acquisition or anything resembling acquisition.

Students have to hear the structures used much more than a hundred times, and in context that is meaningful and interesting to them, before one can say that there has been acquisition.

If you like, we can label as “non-targeted” all the other words that form part of the din of the story, those little connecting words that the skilled instructor communicates but does not include in each utterance (only the target structures are expressly repeated in each utterance throughout class).

Yes, those words are not targeted and they get acquired in sleep in a way we cannot understand or worry about, so we quit focusing on them or targeting them in class. We let the unconsious mind organize all that, all those other words.

We just focus on the structures. A generalized kind of non-targeted comprehensible input is a lofty goal, a wonderful sounding process, but not one that is achievable in the classrooms and in the available hours that we work in. It can’t be done.

So we target structures. It can be said that we do both actually. It’s a gnarly topic – we target a few structures so that all the other structures can be acquired in a non-targeted way. Maybe that’s a way to say it.

But we target structures because of available time. Krashen wasn’t thinking about available time when he did his research so he promoted the idea of non-targeted input in a general way over lots and lots of hours of input. That doesn’t apply to what we do. In my opinion.

Anyway, all I do, all the work of my own twelve years at this, I just ask myself what I want to teach and in each class I focus on those few things, targeted, and I find ways to make them interesting, usually a Matava or Tripp story, since I can’t write stories that appeal to kids like they can.

Always ask yourself, “What do you want to teach?” If the answer is not a few targeted structures, if the answer is vague, then reconsider what you are doing. Learn to teach one or two or at most three targets per class.

Or, you can spend much more time on those three structures by dragging the work with them out over a week or two, as I do, in the form of a taxonomy as expressed here:





11 thoughts on “What Do You Want To Teach?”

  1. I agree 100%. Theory is a good thing, but we have to realize that learning a language in a classroom is not the same as growing up surrounded by a language. My goal is to help my students be and feel successful and to empower them to use their new language for real communication. Targeted CI is the best way I know to get there.

    It’s true that we don’t have enough time to accomplish what we’d like with our students. I have only 100 hours/year and my students take only two years of Spanish (though I now have 3 who have stayed for a third year). I know they need thousands of hours to become bilingual, but we shouldn’t underestimate what that targeted CI can accomplish in the few hours we have.

    I just got back from two weeks working at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic with a dozen students, most of whom have had 2 years or less of Spanish. To watch them interacting with the Dominican kids, using the language, having real conversations, brought tears to my eyes. The word “power” came to my mind: I realized that my students had power to use language to make connections, something they did not have two years ago.

    The night before we left, a group of Dominican teens serenaded our group. After they finished singing to us, we sat in the darkness of our living room in front of the open windows, as each Dominican teen came to the window with a message of appreciation and love. One of the girls said, “Your group is different from others that have come. You speak Spanish.” The tears weren’t staying in my eyes by that point.

    1. This is totally awesome.

      You know those movies about schools, the ones that start off with a terrible class but by the end everyone loves each other? I used to think that kind of stuff was just fiction. But I am hearing from you guys this week and have glimpsed myself once or twice that those sorts of happy endings are actually possible.

  2. I’m glad you responded to this thread Rita. It’s a very important one and I think largely ignored. So much else going on here this week, esp. with the rubric discussion and the huge news from Greg, but this point about targeting structures is just critical to the work we do. I’ll republish it in the fall. And thanks for the beautiful story!

  3. Oh,Rita! I am so glad you got to taste the fruit of your labors! Ben always says that this is hard work and it is. How great for you and your students.

  4. I also really loved what you wrote, Rita! It’s easy to get side-tracked and feel like there is never enough time, but we do need to give ourselves credit for what we (ourselves and our students) accomplish. What a powerful story! I feel this briefly when, for example, I was able to talk with a Spanish I student after class about her sisters today and her sister’s evil/social hamsters. And it was just like we were shooting the breeze! Totally natural. Really made my day :).

    1. Nathan, yesterday I was in the hall speaking with one of my very gifted Spanish 2 students (en español, of course), when another, average, student passed and asked me something (en español, of course), creating a second little conversation. It was a surreal experience for me and absolute validation of what we do. As you stated, it seemed totally natural and not forced–of course my school is a Spanish-speaking community! (OK, not really, but it felt like it at that moment.)

  5. I’m sorry, Ben, but here I come to play a little devil’s advocate. Do you think non-targeted input would be incomprehensible? If there was a way to maintain comprehensibility and loosen the targets, do you think it would be ideal in our classrooms?

    Certainly, if the goal is for kids to “master” the structure (aka progress to vocabulary production), then they need the massed reps. In other words, if we want the vocabulary in that structure acquired right now, then targeted CI is the way to go. Is this efficient? (see below)

    I am growing more and more distaste for the term “structure.” Misleading. We are not focusing on form or structure. No grammatical syllabus. No expectation that the particular grammar in the structure will be acquired just because we targeted it. And yet, we call them structures. It’s a vocabulary string. It’s probably our most powerful tool for maintaining comprehensibility.

    The target structures do some powerful things for comprehension and as Ben says, allows students to get the meaning of the message, thereby acquiring a lot of the function words (grammar) that are floating around and in the message. Targets are also powerful for student confidence. 100% comprehensibility is absolutely necessary to start the year. Their attention and shaky confidence can’t tolerate anything less than 100%.

    There is no set number of reps needed for acquisition. As Paul Nation puts it: “That is the like the holy grail of FL instruction.” He also says, more is better (duh). And he builds an argument for reading-based acquisition based on 12 reps being sufficient for acquisition (acquisition = vocabulary recognition, not production).

    As Mason and Krashen (2004) have supported: listening to stories with minimal form-focus is the most efficient means of vocabulary acquisition. By “form-focus” they include some of the activities we use in TPRS. . .
    In this study, the story-only group got 20 words defined and then listened to a 15-minute story that had those words. Minimal interaction during story. Then, students took a translation test (5 minutes).
    The story-plus-supplementary activities group received the same as the story-only group, but then also got oral comprehension questions, read a written version of the story, and did partner retells (these are all things we do in TPRS!). Then, the story-plus-supplementary group took the translation quiz again (85 minutes total).
    An unexpected follow-up translation quiz was given to both groups 5 weeks later.
    Story-only: .62 words/min (immediate), .25 words/minute (delayed)
    Story-plus-supplementary: .42 (immediate)*, .16 (delayed)
    *This group took the “immediate” translation quiz AFTER the oral comprehension questions.

    The story-plus-supplementary group knew more words, but not enough to compensate for the additional time invested in the activities (less efficient!)

    And get this!
    “Also, it is not clear if time is better spent on rehearing the same story or moving on to a new story. Several studies show that there is continued growth in vocabulary knowledge with each rehearing of a storybook, but there is some evidence for a diminished effect after a second reading; Leung and Pikulski suggest that some listeners “seemed bored by the third reading.” Our claim that hearing stories is more efficient than skill-building exercises may hold only for the first or first two hearings, while the story is still interesting.”

    To me, this suggests that we could stick with the targets/story, based on being able to maintain interest.

    Also, as the paper points out, their study may have underestimated the gains from hearing stories, since more vocabulary from the story may have been acquired and other aspects, such as grammar.

    So, what the study says to me: the more we maximize the time students get compelling CI, the better. It also seems to show that just listening to stories (2xs) is most efficient, rather than repeating the same “targets” with supplementary activities.

    1. I read this article, Eric, and I drew a different conclusion based on the “Results” paragraph towards the end. After follow-up reading, a retell, and then another test of the target structures (and there were 20, which is huge) student comprehension went up and lasted longer than the oral story only. From the article:

      After correcting the test in class, reading a written version of the story, and retelling the
      story, story-plus-study group performance was extremely high, with 74% achieving perfect scores.
      On the delayed posttest, the story-plus-study group score declined somewhat but was far better than the story only group; the study-plus-story mean was nearly double that of the story-only group, and the difference was of course statistically significant (t = 10.17, df = 56, p < .001).

      So I think it suggests hearing a story then moving into reading is key. After a story, more auditory work isn't as effective but reading really is. Based on recent PLC discussion of PQA's merits, I wonder what results would have been if they had done the equivalent of PQA with target structures prior to the oral story and reading? How would all 3 steps have altered results, if at all?

      1. Of course comprehension would increase in the study-plus-supplementary group, because they had much more exposure to the words. The point is that it was less efficient (number of words/minute learned). Just establishing meaning and listening to stories led to a higher rate of words learned per minute. There was more knowledge of the 20 items in the study-plus-supplementary, but that comprehension score was less efficient in both immediate and delayed testing. The study suggests that listening only is the most efficient. Too bad they didn’t also try to keep total instruction time constant, to see if that vocabulary acquisition rate from listening is maintained from listening only. In other words, could new vocabulary continue to be acquired at that efficiency rate?

  6. A fitting repost. Targeting is so important as is time for this work. I am currently set to lose 500 minutes (About 8 and a half hours) from each of my German groups this year due to the school board’s decision to go under the required number of days in response to the strike we had been on. We are scheduled to give up funding and instruction for 6 school days because it is simpler, cheaper, and more definite for them to dock work days rather than take the whole amount of aid and teach those days. (Plus some seem to want to punish the teachers)

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