Reality Check: Is ‘Non-Targeted’ Language an Efficient Use of Class Time?

We have very little time with our students. Over the course of a four-year program, we typically have anywhere from 450 to 600 class hours. Research suggests that it takes thousands of hours to acquire a second language. Students may expect to leave our programs “fluent”, but most language teachers understand that we are truly aiming to develop enough language so that students can continue the process on their own.

Over the course of my career, I transitioned from being a very targeted teacher to eventually following a mostly non-targeted approach. ‘Targeting’ is when you know exactly which phrases you’ll be teaching on any given day, and you make plans to repeat those phrases as much as possible. For example, I used to start class every day with three phrases written on the board that we would use over and over during the period. The idea is to provide enough focused repetitions of key phrases that students fully acquire the language one step at a time. It is logically satisfying for teachers who want a very orderly process. Everyone learns the same thing at the same time, and we all build our language skills in synch. That makes assessment easier too. Sounds beautiful!

Except, language acquisition is a very messy business. Linguist Bill Van Patten often delighted in pointing out to teachers that learners acquire at different paces. There is no guarantee that learners will acquire what the teacher targets. Neither can we be certain of the exact order of acquisition. While we do know that the brain can memorize all sorts of language trivia that we can train learners to use to pass tests, when it comes to true spontaneous language use the brain only acquires what it is ready to acquire. And even if we did have access to that black box, every student is on their own trajectory.

All of this uncertainty is often ignored in grammar-focused language classrooms.

My non-targeted approach, on the other hand, exposes students to lots of less planned language through student-centered conversational activities. The grammar is unsheltered, but the vocabulary is limited. This used to be highly controversial in the CI community but now, I believe, it is a common practice. We can speak in past tenses on day 1 as long as we make ourselves comprehensible. The subjunctive is not avoided, and we use meaningful complex expressions when needed… as long as we take the time to make sure it is highly comprehensible.

Of course, nobody is arguing that students fully acquire anything on first exposure. Both targeted and non-targeted approaches have to recycle language so that learners eventually encounter the language when they are ready to acquire it. The real question in my mind isn’t whether language is recycled. All good CI teachers are skilled at recycling high-frequency structures. The real question has to do with the richness of the language that students encounter, starting from day one. When I was a teacher who closely followed daily targets, my classroom language was simple and comprehensible. But what if you could expose students to language that is rich and at times even complex, while still being highly comprehensible?

That is what I find in my non-targeted student interviews. Rather than a pretext to use the three target-phrases repetitively, the language is a bridge to make unexpected discoveries about my students. We follow up an interview with a Write & Discuss, and inevitably there are complex phrases included that I would have never included if it were not part of that student’s unique interview. Since I center much of my intentional speech in class around the Sweet 16 verbs, I know that there is a lot of repetition and recycling of language in my classroom. However, having a set of daily activities that are focused on developing unplanned, student-centered stories & narratives leads to much richer (and more interesting) language.

When I transitioned to a non-targeted approach my main concern was whether I could provide enough repetitions of core, high-frequency language. I wanted students to thoroughly acquire the high-frequency language rather than just remain in a perpetually confused cloud of “I-kind-of-sort-of-understand”. I knew that, given enough exposure to interesting & comprehensible language, they would acquire it eventually. My question: is there enough time in a school day so that eventually comes quick enough? Or is a tightly targeted curriculum better suited for the reality of preparing students to fly on their own someday.

I have written before about how CI is a humane, inclusive method which allows students to blossom at their own natural pace. The non-targeted lessons based on One Word Images and Ben Slavic´s approach to story-asking (which he calls the Invisibles) also move as slowly as my best targeted lessons did. Nobody is getting left behind; everything is as comprehensible as before. I think the interest level is higher because the personalization of the Invisibles story is deeply embedded into the DNA of the activity, whereas my targeted stories are about as personalized as a Mad Lib activity. Kind-of personalized, but the kids see right through it.

My biggest surprise with the non-targeted approach is the realization that I have more opportunities to differentiate for fast processors while not losing the slower processors. In the past I would spend time trying to find student jobs and other ways of occupying the busy minds of my fast-processing students. Part of their classroom experience was learning to remain focused and to not blurt out answers before the rest of the students had the opportunity to process the language. Now I am reaching the high-fliers like never before.

In our Master Class workshops we developed a set of “commandments” for easy CI, however you decide to practice it in your own classroom:

I think if you follow 7 or 8 of the commandments, you’ll be a superstar. But who needs that pressure? Print it out and try to do 5 of them every day. You choose which five and I am sure it will up your CI game.

Below are images of the quick writes produced by a few outstanding Spanish 1 non-heritage learners. These are just beautiful and demonstrate a richness of language that I would not expect, and certainly would not have targeted, for students in their fifth month of language classes. Some of the words I expect will drop out of their active vocabulary (maceta, semilla). But some of the expressions are not actually coming from this specific story. It is pretty darn cool.