Position Statement: The Why & How of TL Use

SONY DSCNot for the first time, the timing (and titling) of a post here is due to a powerful post by my friend and #TeamBlackBox colleague Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell. This week, Sara-Elizabeth helpfully complemented ACTFL’s position statement on target language (TL) use in the classroom with her own practical position statement, and encouraged other teachers to do likewise. Sara-Elizabeth also shared some background about the ACTFL statement and some ways she doesn’t recommend teachers use the TL.

So, I’m giving it a whirl, but, first, two notes on the ACTFL statement, whose central sentence is “ACTFL therefore recommends that language educators and their students use the target language as exclusively as possible (90% plus) at all levels of instruction during instructional time and, when feasible, beyond the classroom”:

1. The ACTFL statement is on the “Use of the Target Language in the Classroom.” Please note that understanding is a type of “use.” For instance, when a student understands the TL novel she is reading, she is “using” the language. When one student understands what another says in the TL, both are “using” the language.

2. Given ACTFL’s use of the phrase “as exclusively as possible,” the parenthetical “90% plus” seems to be there in order to establish a lower limit.


So, WHY and HOW do my students and I use the TL in class?

At this point in the history of language teaching, you don’t need a special justification for using the TL in the classroom. You do need a special reason to use L1, which I’ll address in a separate post that will probably be much juicier than this one. But, for the sake of thoroughness and in case it’s helpful, here’s a way of stating why we use the TL in class:

We use the TL lots because there is pretty much universal agreement among researchers that learners need lots of suitable input in order to gain proficiency in the language, and gaining proficiency in the language is the primary goal of my courses. As I’ve written elsewhere, allowing students to hear from me and interact with me and each other in the TL is “about the simple fact that humans need vast amounts of suitable input if they are to have any hope of developing a robust mental representation of a language, and spoken input customized for a learner’s level and interests can’t be beaten for in-class efficiency.”

There is also reason to think that something about interpersonal TL interaction itself contributes to proficiency in the language, and such interaction is unlikely to happen much outside of class.


First, I make the most of TL use by speaking with my students using language matched to their levels and interests, and by helping students encounter TL content aligned with their levels and interests.

Second, I make the most of TL use by creating or seizing opportunities for students to interact meaningfully with me and with each other in the TL.

For me—this is ambiguous in ACTFL’s statement—the “90% plus” guideline does not mean “90% plus of classroom language use should be in the TL,” but “90% plus of class time should be spent on TL use.” This means that goals other than communication, including those involved in the other 4 Cs, are either pursued while communicating in the TL or limited to less than 10% of class time.

Like ACTFL’s statement, mine does not attempt to list all the ways in which students and I might use the TL in class. You can find lots of examples throughout this site of how we sustain TL communication.


There you have it. Keep your eye out for The Why and How of 1L Use!

What are your thoughts on TL use? Feel free to share in the comments section or to link to your own blog!


See also: Steve Smith of Language Teacher Toolkit on Teaching in the Target Language

See also: The Role of the Teacher

Posted in Teaching and tagged , , , .


  1. I took Spanish and French in college classes and I know lots of vocabulary and grammar – enough to read Don Quixote or Le Petit Prince enjoyably – but I was flustered trying to speak the simplest phrases in a business situation. If I had had more exposure to the problem of thinking and reacting in the TL instead of having grammar explained over and over, this “freezing” would have been overcome. The naturalness of using the other language is part of achieving skill. If you expect to speak the other language, you will subliminally focus much more on getting the tongue around it. That is TPR for real.

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