What is targeted input?

or, “I do not think this word means what you think it means”.

Krashen (2013) argues reasonably against a grammatical syllabus, but fails to comprehend the nature of targeting within a TPRS classroom. While he admits that “TPRS probably succeeds in reducing the problems of the grammatical syllabus”, he assumes that targeting of “items” for input in TPRS results in essential limitations in the effectiveness of acquisition.  The arguments presented in support of the superiority of untargeted input, however, are completely based on this incomplete comprehension of the nature of targeting, which begs the question: since targeted TPRS input does not have the shortcomings claimed, why argue for targeted or untargeted input in the first place?

Targeted input in TPRS means presenting selected vocabulary and structures (grammar) and using circling to achieve high levels of repetition of these items. The key point is that while these are the unstated language focus, they are not all the language that is presented. The arguments against targeted input are based almost exclusively on a mistaken belief that targeting input leads to less complex input, limited structure (grammar) in input, and the adoption of an order of presentation that is assumed to mirror a traditional textbook order of presentation. None of these are the case.

The following quotes criticizing targeted input are taken from “The Case for Non-Targeted, Comprehensible Input” by Stephen Krashen(Journal of Bilingual Education Research & Instruction, 2013 15(1): 102-110, available free online.

The natural order problem: Non-targeted comprehensible input, according to the Net Hypothesis, contains the aspects of language the acquirer is ready for. This means we do not need to know the natural order.
Rather, grammatical competence will emerge in a natural order as a result of getting non-targeted comprehensible input. (Krashen, 2013, same in following pull-quotes)

A very big assumption: that there is a natural order which applies to language being taught. This idea does not logically mesh with the idea that language is acquired purely through the matching of sound with meaning. “Late acquired” features can be divided into two types: those that stem from the conceptual complexity of the feature, such as contrafactuals; and those that stem from a lack of strong semantic content and/or are redundant, such as the third-person-singular ‘s ending in English, which is a redundant feature.

Studies to date on the natural order have been done on young children receiving natural input. Yet the TPRS teacher is not operating with 10,000 hours of input before her students reach age 3, nor is she constrained by the relatively low cognitive development exhibited by a typically-developing three year old. Clearly a three-year-old is incapable of acquiring the language for concepts that are not yet within the scope of his cognition, but the situation with 14-year-olds is quite different. There is no logical reason to assume that, given sufficient input, a teenager could not acquire the subjunctive before or at the same time as the indicative.

The problem of comprehensible and interesting is the fundamental problem of beginning language teaching. It is easy to get input that is interesting but not comprehensible, from the real world. Unfortunately school tends to provide input that is comprehensible, but not interesting. It is hard to get both, to say interesting things using limited language, even if one is not required to use specific vocabulary and grammar.

Seriously? It’s hard to say interesting things using limited language? Au contraire. Perhaps if one has no TPRS training, it might be. The Super Seven goes a long ways to providing very limited language that packs a strong punch in the storytelling department. And a competently trained TPRS teacher knows how to select items that will work together (if multiple items are required in one session) and how to set up the skeleton of a story so that students have freedom to embellish and take ownership of the resulting text. As has been said before, the method should not be blamed for observed deficiencies of un(der)trained teachers trying to use it.

The review problem: Non-targeted comprehensible input provides natural review, especially if there is some topic continuity in the progression of activities and reading.

What “review problem”? Trained TPRS teachers know what language their students have worked with, and naturally incorporate it into input in a spiraling manner. And really, non-targeted CI “may or may not” provide natural review — since by definition, no one knows what it is going to say.

The unteachable/untaught grammar problem: This is no problem for non-targeted comprehensible input. “Unteachable rules” are only a problem when the goal is conscious learning. Second language acquirers have always been able to acquire rules that have not been taught and that cannot be taught.

Since when does a TPRS teacher teach rules of grammar, whether they are “teachable” or “unteachable” rules? Again, this is a gross oversimplification based on an insufficient understanding of how TPRS works in the classroom — and more importantly, before the classroom, during the planning stages. That latter is a phase that is not evident from demonstrations and is rarely emphasized in short-term workshops, so perhaps this is understandable.

…we do know that teacher talk is roughly-tuned to the level of students, not finely-tuned (Krashen, 1981).

Teacher talk evidently observed well before the advent of TPRS, which is far more likely to provide input that is finely-tuned to the level of the students, as teachers are consistently teaching to the eyes and checking comprehension — be the input targeted or untargeted.

We also know that second language acquirers improve from communicating with native speakers and from reading authentic reading material (Krashen, 1981, 2004), input that is certainly not finely tuned to the acquirer’s i+1.

TPRS is a specific tool. It is intended to get students to acquire the major structure of a language rapidly and accurately. Communicating with native speakers and reading authentic materials are fine ways to improve language, but they both require a certain amount of acquired language to function. TPRS works precisely during that period of putting that “certain amount of language” into the student’s head, so that — after TPRS is no longer the tool of choice — the student can deal with less comprehensible input using structural competence approximate to that of a native speaker. So while this statement of Krashen’s is true, it is probably not a valid argument against targeted TPRS input, since the intensive comprehensible input at level provided by TPRS is precisely what makes extensive reading and extensive listening possible later.

If you concentrate on communicating, everything else will follow” (Brown, 1977, p. 26).

Sure. After that 10,000 hours of input, it will follow. Unfortunately, the average high school classroom teacher of foreign language has about 100 hours per year over three or four years. So while it’s an alluring idea to simply “share the beautiful language” and not worry about any technical aspects of  language in so doing, unless one is able to provide the extensive time required for the randomness of untargeted input to operate, targeting looks like a better option for the reality of today’s schools.

This is even more true in cases where the teacher is hired specifically to impart a curriculum.  That’s a job requirement. And keeping one’s job is a Good Thing. So since targeting input under good TPRS principles has not been demonstrated to be in any theoretical or practical way inferior to untargeted input, it’s time to stop demonizing teachers who choose to or are required to target their input.




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