Non-Targeted Comprehensible Input? In Elementary?!?

Before we get into definitions and explanations, I just want to remind everyone that I am not an expert at this. I am writing this to share the successes and challenges I encounter as I try new things and show other teachers that doing these kinds of things in your classroom is not only possible but successful.

This post was inspired by the many blog posts and articles I have read on this topic, especially this one, this one, and this one. And a special thanks to my former Musicuentos Black Box colleague, Justin Slocum Bailey, for the inspiration to look more deeply into using NTCI.

Ever since I started using TPRS, I have tended to stray away from the traditional TPRS method. As I have written about again and again throughout the years, my main challenge with TPRS is that I have trouble keeping students engaged over 6-7 years of 1-2 day/week instruction. As soon as they start to reach a plateau in their acquisition or they start to see the underlying structure to the stories (how they are all very similar, how they all follow certain story beats), they get bored with them and start to get off task. As many TPRS teachers have said, kids crave novelty. When I use the same method with the same kids for 7 years, that craving for novelty really starts to show and to become a problem.

I have been tinkering with my approach to TPRS and CI in general since way back in 2014 (my first year of using TPRS!). As frustrating as it can be, the restlessness I feel with my teaching practice has almost always led to a breakthrough in my teaching and students’ engagement. This restlessness is why I started going off-script, why I started using novels, why I started doing madlib stories, why I experimented with movietalk and picturetalk, why I have tried different kinds of writing and speaking activities why I started using Story Circles, why I play games so often, why I started using OWIs, why I started going to conferences and searching out blogs, and why I let the kids lead the way sometimes.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be in a place where I can rest on my laurels and not be searching for a new way to engage students. The upside is that my constant searching has led to a varied toolbox of methods, techniques, and ideas that allow me to get as much CI to my students as possible.

The latest technique to be added to the toolbox is something that is touched on by many of the things in my toolbox that I mention above, but that I haven’t had a name for: Non-Targeted Comprehensible Input (NTCI).

First, What is Non-Targeted Comprehensible Input?

At its core (and as I understand it), NTCI is Input is language in the classroom that is chosen based on how compelling it is to the students rather than on grammar or vocabulary. It can come in the form of class discussions, stories, readings, or any other form of CI that is not directly focused on repeating a certain grammar structure or vocabulary chunk.

This makes it sound like the teacher just talks in the TL and the kids magically acquire, but it is a lot more than that (we’ll talk about that in a little while). For now, I want you to think of traditional TPRS: there is a target structure for each story. This is the chunk of language that the teacher circles often throughout the story in order to get the students to acquire it. In non-targeted comprehensible input, instead of basing everything in the story or conversation around a specific grammar structure or language chunk, everything is based around what the students think is compelling or interesting.

I know what you might be thinking:

” Non-Targeted?!? Isn’t he an elementary school teacher? Can his students handle that? I thought that was only for older and more advanced students!”

That’s what I thought when I first read about teachers using Non-Targeted Input in their classrooms–This is something only teachers with advanced students can do. But I was wrong!

If there is no target, how do students learn anything?

The way I see it (and teach it), the purpose of our language classes is not learning. Learning is for math class, not language class. I have talked about this before. And as students, parents, and administration know, students don’t learn in my class.

So if there’s no learning, what’s the purpose of language class?


To an outside eye, my class might look chaotic or unstructured. But it isn’t. There is a very strong structure that underpins everything I am talking about with the students. Behind the apparent chaos and the seemingly unplanned nature of classroom discussion, I am casting a wide net of language over the students for them to acquire what they need:

The Net Hypothesis: Given enough comprehensible input, i+1, all the vocabulary and structures the student is ready for, is automatically provided. (pg. 4)

Krashen, Stephen. “The Case for Non-Targeted, Comprehensible Input.” Journal of Bilingual Education Research & Instruction 2013 15(1): 102-110.

Not Just Any TL Will Do for NTCI

The input needs to be sheltered. I can’t just walk into a room of kids who have never heard the L2 before and just start talking like I would to a native speaker. They need for it to be comprehensible as well as engaging. Coming from a background of using TPRS, I was able to transition to NTCI because I already have a lot of tricks and techniques to make myself comprehensible. I know how to shelter and how to present new words or ideas in comprehensible ways.

The biggest trick is sticking to high frequency verbs. They give the students a frame to build the stories and/or conversations onto. So when we talk about whatever topic is interesting to the students that day, we are using these verbs as our home base. They provide the boundaries that I use to make sure that I am not veering too far off into incomprehensibility, whether it’s in a story that I am telling (a TPRS story or a story that comes from a movietalk or picturetalk), a PQA conversation with the students (about any topic), a Card talk conversation, or any other oral input-based activity I can do in class.

With these verbs as our home base, other vocabulary that is relevant to the students and to our conversation can come out organically. I’m not always sure where the conversation will go or what we’ll end up talking about, but I know that if they are engaged, it can be more effective for their acquisition than a half-paid-attention-to story.

How does this work in elementary?

For my older students, I have 10 main high-frequency verbs that underpin the input.

I call them the “Tremendous Ten” and they are based off the Super 7, the Sweet 16, and what my students need the most. I plan to add another, Puede – He/she can, for next year.

For my younger students, the biggest adaptation is to make home-base considerably smaller. Instead of freely using 10 verbs, I reduce the boundaries to only 2 or 3 high frequency verbs (has, wants, likes/doesn’t like are usually the easiest for me to use to start getting compelling input for the youngest students).

Additionally, there needs to be a lot more thought put into activities to do and how long to do each one in earlier grades. Most early elementary students won’t have a successful class discussion for an entire period. For these students, I like to have lots of pictures to go with my input. Recently, I was talking about my pets with a few students before one of my classes. I showed them some pictures from my phone of my dog and my cat.

Norbert el gato y Dmitri el perro

The kids really responded to the pictures. So I wrote the word for pet on the board and started to describe my two pets (name, age, size, personality) and asked students about their pets. I limited the conversation (sheltered it) to the things I had used to describe my pets (listed above). The students were engaged, they were interested in sharing about their pets and asking each other about their pets, they were using the TL to the best of their ability and using circumlocution as much as they could and asking “Como se dice…?” as they needed to. This turned into a 25 minute conversation. There are so many things I could have then done: have students draw and describe their pets using the words we have used in class before or new ones we first heard that day (which is what I had them do), have students ask questions about each other’s pets, ask questions about students’ pets and do a card talk activity to talk about their answers.

That’s the thing I like the most about a NTCI lesson: the freedom it provides. There is no need to have a strong focus to the lesson before hand. And since the planning is very loose, there is none of the usual teacher guilt that comes with throwing an unsuccessful lesson plan out the window and doing something else. The variety/variability is built in from the beginning.

All this being said, it is important to reiterate that NTCI is not just talking at students in the L2. Students need the scaffolding that is provided by strong procedures and lots of sheltering of the vocabulary so that the input can remain comprehensible (for me, this involves using the high-frequency verbs).

I am interested to hear how others have been using NTCI. Leave comments to tell me how you use Non-Targeted CI in your classrooms. What can I do to improve? What did I get wrong?

Mil Gracias!


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