Targeted vs non-targeted input

For those of us who have already made the switch to comprehensible input, apparently the new divide in camps is targeted vs. non-targeted. I didn’t realize I had an opinion on this until iFLT, but it turns out I do (I have so many opinions!) and this is my blog, so you’re stuck reading about them. If you’re not sure what I mean by targeted or non-targeted, targeted input is when you have your specific structures (frequently referred to as target structures – crazy, I know) that you want your students to be on the path to acquiring by the end of your activity/activities. Those structures could be single words or whole phrases, and the lesson could be a quick 15 minute discussion of a static picture, or it might be a 3 day series of everything you have in your comprehensible input toolkit. Non-targeted input, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like. Giving students input with no particular rhyme or reason, just conversing and discussing in the target language or about whatever you want to use as your launching point (pictures, a video clip, etc.)

Targeted input

The case for targeted input is pretty simple. As teachers, it helps to have some sort of plan to follow to know what our intentions for acquisition by the end of each course. (Does this mean our students have acquired the structures? Of course not. But at least we know the foundation has been laid.) For administrative purposes, it is hard to write a scope and sequence/curriculum plan based on non-targeted input. Honestly, I’m not really sure how that would look. Targeted input also makes it easier to stay “in bounds” since each level of a course, to a large extent, would stay on track with each other for those of us who teach multiple classes of the same level.

Non-targeted input

The case for non-targeted input is aimed at targeted input’s drawbacks. Chris Stolz discussed some thoughts of Ben Slavic in his own blog post here where Ben proposes that targeted input can get very boring very quickly, and I agree with that. If you are too heavy on circling, the kids stop “falling for the trick”, so to speak. It’s worse with PQA, especially since the form you’re going to be using in PQA (I/you forms) are not the forms kids are going to use in a story (he/she/they) – not inherently a problem, but sometimes the forms are very different from each other (Spanish preterite verbs, anyone?) and the jump might be too much for your slow processors. It also can become very stilted trying to form a question in just the right way to get your target structures in, especially for ones that aren’t quite so conversational but are common in writing.

The other problem I’ve found in practice with targeted input is that, some really useful language stuff just doesn’t work well in a targeted language setting. Rejoinders, for example. Rejoinders are used in conversation all the time – Oh really? That’s so interesting! No way. I can’t believe it! I don’t care. That’s ridiculous. That’s too bad. You poor thing. – but if I try to shoehorn them into a story or other manner of targeted input and I am not really cautious, it can often seem contrived and again, the kids pick up on that.

The solution

From watching the master teachers at iFLT and reflecting on my own practice and what I intend to do this next year… I think the best choice, as is it is in many things in life, is a little of both. I am a teacher who absolutely needs those targeted structures so I know where I’m going and what I’m doing, or else I will ramble the whole period about nothing and the kids’ acquisition will go nowhere. On the other hand, a lot of really great acquisition happens around the target structures – my students have picked up so many non-targeted words just from random class discussions (one class got really good at extraño because I always said one student was so strange, one class was big on apesta because one year their insult for everything was ‘that stinks’, another class is hardcore about caballo because it’s a student’s nickname, and so on). I have never explicitly taught rejoinders as more than a pop-up or things like saying salud after a sneeze, but my students can and do say them.

When I was watching Mark Mallaney, he noted that his target structures in his stories were all directed towards his final goal of having students being ready to read a novel. Since I read class novels in my classes, that’s how I’ve been doing things (though theoretically, with more intention this year. I do not read class novels with my Spanish 3 and maybe that’s why I feel so lost and blah when teaching that class.) But the rest of the stuff he did that day, either seemed to be non-targeted, or loosely targeted based on one word (deberías). But the way he was using deberías, it was hard to tell if it was specifically being targeted, or if he was putting it on the board as a reminder of a useful word to use when students were phrasing their answers. And I guess that’s why he’s a master teacher, because it’s totally conceivable that his students could bust out things like ‘You should visit the cave of the winds because it is beautiful and popular.’ after 1 year of Spanish.

So that’s my opinion on targeted vs. non-targeted. I don’t think there’s any right way or wrong way to do things. As far as the state of Nebraska is concerned, as long as I am teaching in Spanish and about Spanish-language culture things, they don’t care how I get it done.

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3 thoughts on “Targeted vs non-targeted input

  1. Good post Courtney! I, too, have noticed this recent divide even though I’ve recently taken a 2 month hiatus from all things PD-y. I definitely agree that the solution is whatever works best for the teacher and students! At my prior school, my students with two solid years of TPRS/CI did GREAT with non-targeted structures in 3rd year! The vocabulary they were able to pick up and use was INCREDIBLE. However, I’ve found my current school students aren’t able to do this as well. It could be that I now only have 1st/2nd years or it could be that we’re block schedule (so some kiddos have a year or even year and a half off from target language exposure!), but they even struggle with targeted structures. I’m hoping to get some OWL (Organic World Language) training this year and I’m hoping it will give me some tools and ideas to implement with my kids in non-targeted language.

    PS: I had to chuckle at your “as long as I am teaching in Spanish and about Spanish-language culture things, they don’t care how I get it done’ comment! That’s usually been the case for me, too!

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