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Teaching in the target language

I wrote this lengthy blog to go alongside the webinar I did on Sunday 25th January at 4.00 (GMT) for ALL (Association for Language Learning) London branch. If you want to see webinar it is on the ALL site here:

Why this topic?

Firstly, language teachers on social media sometimes comment that this remains an issue of uncertainty. Will I lose control of the class if they do not understand? Will it stop me building up a rapport? Should I feel guilty if i use English? Should I write comments in exercise books in the target language? Are my skills good enough? Should I be using 100% TL; if not, what percentage? Is it the best approach anyway?

Secondly, Ofsted, who have an enormous database of observations, have always pointed out that use of target language remains a concern. Essentially, too many teachers fail to use enough high quality target language. In their report Modern Languages: Achievement and challenge 2007-2010

.. the report ... highlights important weaknesses and the barriers preventing good language learning, including insufficient use of the target language in secondary schools. [Page 1]

The key barriers observed to further improvement in Key Stages 3 and 4 were teachers’ lack of use of the target language to support their students’ routine use of the language in lessons, as well as providing opportunities for them to talk spontaneously… In many of the secondary schools visited, opportunities for students to listen to and communicate in the target language were often limited by many teachers’ unpreparedness to use it. Too often, students were not taught how to respond to everyday requests and thus routine work in the target language and opportunities to use it spontaneously were too few.

Good or outstanding progress was characterised by clear links between the teachers' demands and opportunities for the students to speak in meaningful situations. Cues and information gap activities prompted creative speech, gradually moving students towards spontaneity: that is, being able to say what one wants to say. [Pages 23 and 24]

In the best practice: teachers consistently used the target language for managing lessons and because the students had well-developed linguistic skills deriving from their bilingualism, they made excellent progress in listening and were confident speakers with good pronunciation, They routinely used the target language for communication... [Page 24]

Secondary schools should... put much greater emphasis on regular use of the target language in all lessons. [Recommendations, page 8]

Research and methodological justifications

Should we accept that Ofsted are right about best practice? Well, yes. Many will accept that it is just common sense that the best progress will be made if the teacher uses as much TL as possible. If you believe that acquisition naturally occurs through exposure to meaningful language, then you take it as read that an immersion style is the way to go. Does research support this?

This is not the place for detail, but the eminent applied linguist Rod Ellis put it this way in 2005:
The opportunity to interact in the target language is central to developing second language proficiency 
So far, so obvious you might think. The question for most teachers is not the principle that target language use is a good thing, but how much you should use and how best to use it. That's the main focus of the webinar and this blog.

I am going to get straight into the basics of what I see as successful target language use. It's not about comments in exercise books, writing lesson objectives in the TL, posting signs in the TL so children can ask if they can go to the toilet in the TL; it's about skilled classroom interactions through the process of presentation and practice of language material.

Questioning and other interactions
Skilled question-answer technique is a must. Teachers need to be aware of effective questioning, what Americans sometimes label "circling". With beginners and low intermediate students especially, the teacher need a repertoire of question types ranging from most closed to most open:

Yes/No - is this a pen or a pencil?
True/false - he's going to the cinema, true or false?
Either/or - is he going to the cinema or the theatre?
Choice of more options - is she playing golf, tennis or football?
Closed question word questions - where is the station? who is he?
Open question word questions - what is she doing? what do you think about...?

This type of interaction is quite artificial, comically lampooned by Eddie Izzard (google Eddie Izzard French), but is the heart of what we do. When the "strong communicative" approach developed in the 1970/80s it went a little out of fashion since it was not considered real communication, but it allows the teacher and class to develop simple conversation from the very outset. In this way, students learn to develop quick reactions and to expect to hear the TL as the normal way of communicating. It can be fun to do, needs a brisk pace and can benefit from particular techniques:
  • Use an able pupil to get things going;
  • If an individual struggles with an answer, go to a quicker pupil or two, then return to the first one
  • Correct sensitively by modelling good responses;
  • Beware of "no hands up" or "lolly stick" approaches - these can frustrate fast learners, slow down the pace and stop you, as the expert teacher, guiding the right question to the right pupil. We are paid to exercise our questioning skill, not use a randomiser. How about just using "no hands up" as an occasional alternative?
  • Use humour to nudge things along e.g. tricks like exaggerated praise, giving deliberately wrong statements to provoke a response, choosing a student whilst looking in the opposite direction, amusing facial expressions, gestures such as thumbs up to praise, shaking hand gestures to indicate a nearly right response, feigned surprise or annoyance, that finger to lips kissing gesture which chefs make etc etc.
To these you can add a range of drill type interactions. I blogged about this here:

Here are a selection of effective ways of using TL effectively:
  • Whole group repetition (including whispering, singing, shouting)
  • Part group repetition (rows, groups, pairs)
  • Reading aloud individually or as a group from the board (good for sound-spelling links)
  • In pairs taking turns to say a word, phrase or sentence until someone runs out of ideas
  • Playing guessing games in pairs (e.g. Battleships, what did you do last weekend?)
  • Making up false utterances to be corrected by partner or teacher
  • Doing information gap tasks (e.g. completing a diary)
  • Lip reading in pairs
  • Giving a presentation to a partner or the class
  • Singing along with a song
  • Miming guessing games e.g. "dumb customer"
  • Pupils asking the teacher questions
  • Playing aural anagrams with a partner
  • Making up a story one word at a time
  • Playing word association
  • Playing an "accumulation" game ("I go to the market and I buy...)
  • Short term memory oral gapfill led by teacher
For 50 types of oral activity for the language classroom:

So when should I use English? 

Keep to a minimum to keep class on board. Some words are easily explained with gesture, a picture, definition or because they are cognates. Others harder so teacher has to use their skill and be what someone has called a "dictionary designer" - i.e. you use your skill to decide what methods are best to help students understand words or expressions.

Definitions are great because they provide more language input, gestures and pictures are good because they avoid "code switching" from TL to English which may encourage students to get lazy and expect translations. Translation best used in moderation.

Avoid the constant "echoing" technique where you keep adding the English word to help students along all the time. You need to develop a feel for when you need to supply that little bit of extra help. I suggest using English to:
  • Explain complex activities - it saves time and ends up allowing for more TL use.
  • For giving complex cultural information. There needs to be some room for the teacher to tell stories, amuse, explain, and build up a relationship.
  • Deal with discipline issues in most cases.
  • Set lesson objectives, if you do it (you don't always have to). Controversial? This may sometimes be better done in English. You don't want any doubt in the child's mind over this. A class might need need "easing in" to a lesson, depending on their mood. You might make a better connection with the class by saying a few words in English.
  • Put work into context. For example, let's say you are going to work on a text about an issue, would it better to spark the class's interest by briefly dealing with some key points in English or showing a short Youtube video? If this leads to greater commitment to the text later, then it's worth doing.
  • Explain grammar and giving notes. With really smart classes you may be able to do this in the TL.
  • Do certain types of AfL work e.g. looking at model exam questions, target setting, checking how much pupils understood at the end of a lesson and so on.
  • Give complex feedback in exercises books and orally. Is it possible that we make a closer psychological bond with most students by using the mother tongue with them? The exercise book is the the most intimate link you have with a student.
  • Talk to classes about language learning.
  • Set homework (usually) - there must be total clarity for this. maybe do it in TL first, then have a student interpret.

What happens if it's not working for me?

If you know your technique is sound, but you are losing the class and need to resort to translation methods then it's obviously not the end of the world, especially if you translate from the TL. In this instance students are still being exposed to TL. When you have the class's confidence, then try more TL again.

Explain to a class why you are using TL. Let them into your "secret".Tell them about child language acquisition and how you are trying to tap into their natural language acquisition abilities. I used to say:

"When you were tiny you learned to speak and understand English by the age of about 4 and nobody gave you vocab to learn, homework or tests. How did that happen? Can we try and make the same happen in the little time we've got together in class and for homework?"

Try working in bursts of TL for up to ten minutes (no English at all), then release tension by allowing some English.

Be nasty when you have to be! e.g. if TL pairwork is going on, if you start to hear English nip it in the bud, firmly if needed.

Misuse of target language

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), in their latest guidelines to language teachers advocate using about 90% target language.

That sounds about right to me. Why not 100%?
  • Total TL usually puts some pupils off. They often understand less than we think they do. Clarity is vital.
  • As soon as meaning is consistently lost, then students will switch off and, worse, misbehave. Why insist on total immersion, if you can get more motivation and more successful input with 90%?
  • About 90% makes good use of the little time we have with students to get them to progress. To me, it's largely about maximising meaningful input and our main focus should be on this. When we design lessons are we focused fully on what constitutes good input? Do we think of lesson planning in terms of input or output tasks?
For more on input and output tasks:

INPUT (focus on target language input)

Listening to recordings and doing comprehension tasks
Listening to the teacher while doing question-answer or drill style work
Watching and listening to a video
Reading an article or story and doing oral or written comprehension on it
Doing extensive reading
Using a picture for oral discussion led by the teacher
Doing a question-answer sequence when introducing new grammar or vocabulary
Doing a cloze task with the focus on meaning
Playing bingo
Doing a crossword from TL to English or with the focus on sentences in the TL

OUTPUT (focus on activities which supply little or no new input)

Doing a grammar-translation task (e.g. translating from English to French)
Writing a composition "cold", with little help from a source text
Memorising a talk or essay for a controlled assessment
Doing a cloze exercise with the focus on grammatical accuracy
Memorising a vocabulary list for a test
Playing hangman
Solving anagrams
Doing a crossword from English to TL
Practising learned conversations with a partner
Creating a grammar presentation 
Designing a poster

Effective target language teaching will mainly feature input tasks with a focus on meaning.I would think about this during lesson planning. How do I maximise input? If a child hears an item 10 times they are much more likely to remember it than only once or twice.

Effective target language teaching will also feature lots of input at whole sentence or "paragraph" level i.e. chunks of connected language rather than isolated words. This needs building in right from the start.

In the long run, how will some of our students attain proficiency?

Random tips for TL teaching

  • Have some sort of sign or signal indicating when only TL is allowed
  • Apologise to the class for using English to set the right tone and show you are one of them
  • Give rewards to students who never use English
  • Make maximum use of realia and pictures
  • Set challenges e.g. "I am going to talk to you for 3 minutes about my weekend in French/German/Spanish. Write down notes in English and I'll see how much you picked up" (then check understanding in TL - tell me in French/German/Spanish anything I did)
  • If a student asks you something in English, give a quizzical look and say you don't understand
  • Post high frequency phrases around the classroom
  • Use cognates where possible
  • Slow down your speech, but not too much
  • Use LOTS of aural gapfill: "I'm gong to start a sentence, you finish it" or "I'm going to end a sentence, how would you start it?";
  • Don't get obsessed with accuracy. Decide is the aim of your lesson is to focus on accuracy or general proficiency
  • Use phonics style activities to generate a sense of fun with making strange sounds
  • Use mini whiteboards to keep all pupils active during TL work
  • Use pupils as interpreters after you have spoken in TL - why not have a chosen pupil each lesson - "interpreter for the day"?
  • Give points for "spontaneous" TL talk from pupils
  • Use TL task as pupils walk in e.g. counting to 20 (books out by 20), reciting the alphabet, chanting/singing days and months
  • Try to make focus of computer/tablet work on INPUT (e.g. video listening, interactive grammar and comprehension)
  • Test vocabulary in target language if possible - this works for some areas where definitions and gesture can be used e.g. kitchen vocabulary, furniture, clothing. Make sure you warn pupils they are going to be tested this way, or they will think it's unfair.

Awkward questions?
  • Pupils are very easily confused, especially when TL is not used with skill and carefully selected and graded. Weaker pupils struggle with the concentration required. If not supported by explanation in English some pupils may struggle to have a feeling for what they have achieved. What did I learn today? Nature of language learning is accumulative, so it's not always easy to provide steps which are mastered. Returns may be long term rather than short term. This needs explaining to pupils.
  • The theory that acquisition occurs through the natural method of comprehensible input is unproven, though claims are made from research, generally of a very unscientific nature. Does the curriculum provide enough time for acquisition to occur to any great extent? With many pupils probably not. 
  • TL requires great teacher skill and a degree of fluency which not all teachers have. It is surely better to use a method which works for you. Is it better to do grammar-translation well than TL teaching badly? But the teacher is not the only model, of course.
  • Some claim that focusing on differences and similarities between TL and native tongue is an aid to learning, not a hindrance. By this argument it is better to use translation and take advantage of the cognitive skills older children have and which young children do not.
  • The idea that pupils will pick up rules by pure exposure and practice may be fanciful. My experience was that only the sharpest students did this. Most benefit from some explanations in English. Best to give rule fist then practise? Or other way round? Latter feels better, greater focus on meaning, but former may be clearer to pupils. 
  • Students are different. Some may thrive on a strongly TL approach, other may prefer a more "cognitive", problem-solving approach. We should cater for all needs. BUT, they do all that Chomskyan language learning device in their brains. We should exploit it. 
  • "I use TL consistently, but I have colleagues who don't" - this is an issue for the Head of Department to work on through team meetings, CPD and performance management targets. A consistent departmental approach is best. We want students to feel let down if they are not getting lots of TL.

Simple truth?

Pupils get better at what they practise. Do lots of speaking and listening in TL and they will get better at this. Do lots of writing and focus on grammar, they will be better at this.

Other references


  1. "Be nasty when you have to be! " isn't this the nub of it?!

  2. I don't get your point in the context of target language teaching.


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