Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Targeted vs Non-Targeted input...the great debate

Targeted vs Non-Targeted Input: Our little slice of language teaching is finding itself divided over these terms.  There seems to be WAAAY more animosity and negativity around these than could possibly be justified.  At times, the discourse seems almost political (that is to say horrible, disrespectful, unnerving, unkind).
Ben Slavic demonstrating the power of pause and point in a
demonstration of Non-Targeted input

However, in my exploration of non-targeted input (NT) at the recent Comprehensible Cascadia conference, I learned that we all want the same thing and most of the core beliefs about how languages are learned are identical.

These observations are mine and mine alone.  They do not constitute a manual, plan, or merit much in the way of debate.  I am just thinking out loud and trying to process some of what I learned and match it to what I already know.  Many thanks to Ben Slavic, Tina Hargarden, and all the participants and workshop leaders at Comprehensible Cascadia for discussions and answering my questions.  

First, definitions.  Thanks to Bryce Hedstrom, Tina Hargarten, and the great community over at the CI liftoff Facebook page for creating this definition.

Non-Targeted Input:  The words needed (the input) emerge from the activity. The teacher uses skills to make the students comprehend the language. Acquisition is allowed to develop according to the natural order and the unconscious mind is able to process the linguistic data from understanding the messages. One technique that works well for Non-Targeted (NT) is One Word Images, pioneered by Tina Hargarten and Ben Slavic.

Targeted Input: The words (often called structures or target structures) are chosen from high frequency word lists; often they include the Super Seven (from Terry Waltz) and the Sweet Sixteen (Mike Peto).  Teachers create input around these words using techniques that include TPRS and other comprehensible input techniques. (This is my working definition)

Some similarities:
Non-targeted classroom, comprehensible input
  • Languages can be taught most effectively through comprehensible (comprehended) input.
  • The core skills- going slow, teaching to the eyes, sheltering vocabulary but not grammar (aka staying in-bounds), personalizing.
  • The idea of teaching for mastery, not memorization.
  • Creating a classroom community that is safe, welcoming, extremely positive and joyful, and equitable (reaching all kids, not just high achievers) is a huge priority.  In fact, it is necessary to do it in order to be successful. 
  • Equity is a core theme: all kids can learn language.  
  • Languages can be most effectively taught through comprehensible input.
  • Teachers have a responsibility to hold ourselves to best practices and research-based instruction.
  • Everyone who is doing it is extremely passionate about their work.  
  • Teaching is a very difficult job and as such, teachers have a right to not be miserable in their professional life work-life balance.  As such, low to no prep lesson planning and a joyful classroom allow us to take care of ourselves so we can be the very best we can be when we are with the kids.  
  • Much of the content comes directly from the kids- in NT it is One Word Images or Invisibles; in TPRS it comes from story-asking and student suggestions.  But both are student centered and highly personalized.  
Some differences:
  • One of the key skills in TPRS is circling.  Often circling is used to get frequent repetitions of targeted words.  
    • NT prefers to use light to no circling and does not focus on repetitions in the same way.
My takeaway: As I get more experienced, I focus less on circling anyway.  When I do it,  I *think* it is light circling.  Having Terry Waltz's circling cards is pretty great for this.  However, for less experienced teachers, circling is a basic skill that I think one needs to know how to do for either type of input.
  • TPRS is one way to stay in the target language at the recommended (by ACTFL) 90%.  Practitioners (myself included) find it easier to maintain that much language in class. 
    •  In a recent workshop with Ben Slavic, he dismissed the notion that staying in the target language for a certain number of minutes is an important goal.  While he didn't actually scoff at the ACTFL 90% recommendation, he pointed out that since a human brain needs 10,000 hours to learn a language and we have at best 120 hours a year, it's ridiculous to stress about it. We aren't going to get 10,000 hours, so why not focus on the important stuff: creating community, having fun in the language with the class.  From a private conversation:  "The stress that it (90%) puts on the teacher and the children doesn't make sense." "It is not practical in a school setting to go at 90%."  
 I think it is important to note that he is not saying we shouldn't teach in the target language. Of course we teach in the target language.  He is merely asking teachers to give ourselves permission to lighten up.
My takeaway: I don't need to stress so much about that 90%, or compare myself to others who do it better.  That is a huge gift!  Also, it reminds me of Karen Rowan's frequent admonition: "Comparison is the thief of joy." 
  • Comprehension Checks- TPRS teachers use comprehension checks to, well, check comprehension.  Frequently.  Individually and chorally.  Sometimes cold calling students.  Often by simply saying "What did I just say?" and expecting an answer in the shared language (L1).  In fact, much of circling is comprehension checking, when you think about it.  
    • Non Targeted (Non targeting?) CI teachers watch for understanding (look at them- do they understand?) and listen for the weakness of the response (to questions).  In a discussion about this, Ben said: "I am not doing any comprehension checks, I am just paying attention."  Tina mentioned that she no longer cold calls on kids at all and does not do comp checks that put kids on the spot, and reports that it seems to be positive for her classes.  
One path, lots of ways to get there!
My takeaway: There are many different ways to do comprehension checks.  But everyone using CI effectively is probably doing them in one way or another.  More experienced teachers with strong classroom community building skills (note- I did not say classroom management skills!) know how to pay attention to what they need to and do less intrusive checks, and less experienced ones will benefit from just asking what was understood.  My wondering: I wonder how to teach the skill of listening/paying attention for comprehension checks?  

In conclusion:
We all want the same thing.  We all choose the same path to travel.  We differ in the exact pattern of stepping stones that we jump to get there.


  1. Love your analysis. :) Thank you for your post.

  2. Love your analysis. Thank you for your post. Angie