Facilitate Target Language Use

Target language use encompasses all the ways the learner uses language

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The use of target language refers to all that learners say, read, hear, write, and view – production and reception of language on the part of learners, educators, and materials.


The use of target language refers to all that learners say, read, hear, write, and view – production and reception of language on the part of learners, educators, and materials. ACTFL recommends that learning take place through the target language for 90% or more of classroom time except in immersion program models where the target language is used exclusively. The target is to provide immersion in the target language unless there is a specific reason to NOT use the target language.


Second Language Acquisition research has shown that learners need as much exposure as possible to the target language for acquisition to occur. Learners need to be actively engaged with the target language. Just like learning to ride a bike or any other important skill, learning is best achieved by doing. For many learners, the precious minutes in our classrooms are the only opportunity in their day to experience the target language. We must maximize this exposure by providing a language-rich environment that prepares them for success in the real-world. Likewise, if the goal is for learners to have the proficiency to survive and thrive in the target culture, whether it be in our neighborhoods or across the ocean, then authentic target language experiences and materials must be provided.

  • Learners can only acquire (internalize) language when they hear large quantities of input that the teacher provides orally that is interesting, a little beyond students' current level of competence (i + 1), and not grammatically sequenced. (Krashen, 1982) Note that the i refers to the current competence of the learner and the +1 represents the next level of competence beyond where the learner is now.
  • Students acquire language through meaning-making with others (like solving a puzzle). (Vygotsky, 1986)
  • When learners hear large amounts of comprehensible input and they are engaged in meaning-making, they understand and retain what they hear and they use it to form their own messages. (Long, 1981; Swain, 1995)


  • Educators need to be purposeful in their use of the target language in the classroom, however, not just to use the language for the sake of using it.
  • Educators must ensure that learners are able to get the “gist” of what is being said, read, heard, or viewed and understand what they are supposed to be doing to participate successfully at all times; otherwise, frustration takes over.
  • Target language use is necessary but not sufficient for increasing one’s proficiency: That is, use of the target language must be accompanied by a variety of strategies to facilitate comprehension and support meaning making. Comprehensible input and comprehensible output go hand-in-hand.
  • Strategies that support using the target language in an immersive environment include:
    • Provide a language-rich environment

      When language proficiency is the goal of a program, instruction needs to occur in a language-rich environment. The language rich environment includes everything that the learners encounter: what the instructor says and uses; what is read and viewed; what learners access or produce; and online resources whether websites or videochats. When possible, the language-rich environment may also include authentic texts and realia around the classroom.

    • Support comprehension and production through context/gestures/visual support

      Learners comprehension needs a beginning context, which may be provided through gestures, visuals, objects, connections with prior learning or experiences. When introducing students to the family, for example, teachers might point to pictures of various families from the target culture and describe. When students are supposed to write their names or fill out a certain part of a paper, the teacher models this with an actual or projected version. If students are to answer questions about their favorite sport, the teacher might have a projected or printed out handout with the various choices depicted in pictures so that he/she can point to and repeat the choices often to enable students to answer. When asking a yes/no question, the teacher might scaffold with a simple “thumbs up/thumbs down” as he/she repeats “yes or no?” All of these scaffolds assist students in being comfortable and successful in a target language classroom.

    • Focus on Meaning before Details

      Learners at the Novice and Intermediate levels of proficiency need support to get a general understanding of what is heard, read, or viewed before digging in to figure out details or nuances. Whether listening. reading, or viewing, learners need a strong context, may need supporting visuals, and need a focused task such as finding out what is new information or figuring out the main idea. Meaning needs to precede form as the basis for comprehension: before looking at letters or characters, before looking for clues in grammatical forms or word order, before trying to figure out details, learners should search for overall meaning.

    • Conduct comprehension checks to ensure understanding

      Learners benefit from showing their understanding frequently. Frequent comprehension checks help learners to feel that their efforts are valued and understand what they need to improve upon. They also give teachers necessary data to adjust instruction.” Examples of comprehension checks include raising one or two fingers to indicate their answer to a question, writing responses on individual white boards, holding up the correct flashcard to match a statement, arranging a set of visuals to show comprehension, using an online response tool, selecting the best summary sentence from among several options, or having students correct their own work using a teacher-provided marker.

    • Negotiate meaning with students and encourage negotiation among students

      Educators introduce, model, practice, and encourage learners to use key phrases in order to negotiate meaning. Initially, this might be phrases such as “Really? Me too!” or “Wow! Cool!” Then, learners may expand their comments to “I like it too because…” or “I agree because I too …” Then educators might encourage learners to discuss new words using phrases such as “that means almost the same as ___.” During an interpersonal activity, learners may need certain phrases to make their interactions more natural and educators can provide these in the moment, adding key phrases to a physical or virtual “word wall” for learners to access during future language activities.

    • Elicit talk that increases in fluency, accuracy, and complexity over time

      Asking simple yes/no questions keeps learners at the Novice level, since the natural response is not more than a single word. Educators need to carefully consider how they are expanding the types of questions, prompts, and descriptions they are modeling to identify how they are guiding learners to higher levels of performance. One step is simply to ask learners to add more details by adding who, what, where, when, how, and even why to a basic question. As learners practice asking such questions in interpersonal tasks, they help each other improve and expand their language over time.

    • Encourage self-expression and spontaneous use of language

      It is important for learners to realize from the beginning that they can respond in the target language, albeit simply at the word-level or with comprehensive gestures. This can be supported by educators by giving lots of choices using visuals and repetitive phrases that can be easily modified. As confidence builds, learners should be encouraged to mix and match their language chunks to create their own messages. Learners who apply their learned vocabulary and/or structures in new contexts are beginning the transition from Novice to Intermediate.

    • Teach students strategies for requesting clarification and assistance when faced with comprehension difficulties

      To maintain target language use by both educator and learners, teach learners phrases needed to ask for help or clarification in the target language (What? Huh? What do you mean by ___? How do you say ____? I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?). These learning aids, as well as other common classroom phrases, can be included on a “word wall” or printed on a list that can be given to the learners or even taped to desks.

    • Don’t use English (one’s native language) as the default for checking on meaning or understanding:

      Of equal importance is making careful instructional decisions about when NOT to use target language (keeping that to 10% or less of what students say, hear, read, write, or view), and reserving that for deeper processing of understanding in generally private exchanges between teacher and student, for reflection on the learning process or for explaining deeper understanding on an assessment. English is reserved for very strategic purposes, such as explaining why this approach is worthwhile and what learners should expect in this class (not knowing every word, but being able to guess at the meaning and show understanding in a variety of ways), to briefly explain a concept that would take too long to act out or demonstrate, or to allow for brief processing of an idea (e.g., from all the examples you have heard and used, discuss with a partner how you think Spanish expresses possession). English should not be an easy default choice – otherwise, learners simply wait to hear words given in English. When people are in a country where only the target language is heard or visible, learners from these immersion settings are the ones who will be comfortable figuring out a sign, understanding a store clerk, ordering in a restaurant because they have worked to “make meaning” in their classroom setting.

      Note: In Classical Languages, the instructional focus is on the interpretive mode; however, interpersonal conversations and presentational writing tasks develop fluency in looking for the “gist” and thinking in “chunks” rather than reading or writing one word at a time.

      In immersion programs, the goal of maximizing comprehensible input is the same but the context is different and the inclusion of L1 is determined by the model used (e.g., 90/10, 80/20, or 50/50 models) and often increases over time (again – for pedagogical reasons, such as to bring in English language arts or to provide practice of English vocabulary for science and mathematics content/concepts in preparation for state testing).

Find Out More:

Krashen, S. D. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford, UK: Pergamon.

Long, M. (1981). Input, interaction, and second-language acquisition. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 379, 259-278.

Polio, C. G., & Duff, P. A. (1994). Teachers' language use in university foreign language classrooms: A qualitative analysis of English and target language alternation. The Modern Language Journal, 78(3), 313-326.

Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook & B. Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principle and practice in applied linguistics: Studies in honour of H. G. Widdowson (pp. 125-144). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Turnbull, M., & Arnett, K. (2002). Teachers’ uses of the target and first languages in second and foreign language classrooms. Annual review of applied linguistics, 22, 204-218.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). Thought and language, Revised edition. Alex Kozulin, Ed. Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Further web-based resources include:

Ohio Department of Education

This one link contains sub-links to many other articles that explain how to use this core practice in the language classroom: http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/Topics/Ohio-s-New-Learning-Stand...

Foreign Language Annals (access is available through ACTFL website): https://www.actfl.org/publications/all/foreign-language-annals

The Language Educator had a focus issue on comprehensible input and output (see October/November 2014, 9:5), available at ACTFL website: https://www.actfl.org/publications/all/the-language-educator

Learn More About Guiding Principles

Language learning should be a central part of any curriculum. Here's why:

Opening Statement
Opening Statement

ACTFL is committed to providing vision, leadership, and support for quality teaching and learning to prepare the next generation of global citizens.

Benefits of Language Learning

We believe that all students should learn or maintain at least one world language in addition to English. Therefore, language learning should be a central part of any curriculum.

Literacy in Language Learning

Contemporary definitions of literacy include more than basic reading, writing, listening, and speaking, adding the purposeful uses of these skills in today’s media- and information-rich environment.

Articulating Sequences
Articulated Sequences in Language Learning

In order for learners to achieve the highest level of proficiency possible, sequential study over extended periods of time is necessary.

Backwards Design
Plan with Backward Design

Backward design is one of the core practices for effective language instruction that relies on thinking purposefully about teaching and learning.

Authentic Texts
Use Authentic Text

Interactive reading and listening comprehension tasks should be designed and carried out using authentic cultural texts of various kinds with appropriate scaffolding and follow-up tasks that promote interpretation.

Communicative Tasks
Design Communicative Tasks

Oral interpersonal communication tasks engage students for the purpose of exchanging information and ideas, meeting one’s needs, and expressing and supporting opinions through speaking and listening or signing with others.

Grammar as Concepts
Teach Grammar as a Concept in Context

Grammar should be addressed within meaningful communicative contexts as one element of language proficiency.

Critical Role of Feedback
Provide Effective Feedback

The role of feedback for learners is critical in advancing language proficiency. Feedback should be provided in multiple forms including formative, summative and self-assessment.