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Using Target Language for Progress in the Classroom

using target language in the classroom for progress blogUsing Target Language in the classroom can be somewhat of a minefield. Should I use it? Shouldn’t I use it? How much should I use? The students don’t understand, the students aren’t using it….

This is a struggle for many teachers and so, in this post, I will be sharing my teaching experience of using of target language in the classroom. You will read about professional research carried out on the topic and I will offer some practical ideas and useful resources on how to use target language effectively in the Modern Foreign Language (MFL) or English Language Teaching (ELT) classroom.

What Is Target Language?

I started teaching English To Speakers Of Other Languages (ESOL) in 2009 and more recently have qualified to teach French and German in a secondary environment. I have probably taught over 13,000 students in this time. All of my classes come with differences, but one commonality is the use of target language (TL or L2) – the language that is being learnt.

My Experience of Why Using Target Language Is Important in The Language Classroom

Generally, motivated students want to communicate in the target language and (most!) disinterested students just want to have enough L2 knowledge to pass their exams. From my own experience in the classroom, listening to and using target language through communicating with the teacher and other students, using relevant vocabulary and phrases, allow learners to immerse themselves in authentic and ‘natural’ language usage, which meet some learners’ needs in terms of communication in TL.

est-ce-que-je-peuxWhilst somewhat crude, examples of this in KS3 and KS4 modern foreign language classrooms include:

  • Est-ce que je peux enlever ma veste? Can I take my blazer off?
  • Wie sagt man xxx auf Deutsch? how do you say xxx in German?

From personal experience in the classroom, this regular and frequent L2 usage adds to students acquiring the language they need for the course much quicker. Not only because they are being forced to use target language, but also because when they are taught a grammar point or learn new language in the future, they will be able to relate it to the target language they are already using. Being regularly involved in this ‘recycling’ process aids in developing fluency, understanding and confidence.

The Research Behind Experience

Research undertaken by Dickson supports my personal experience of using mostly target language in the classroom. The research suggests that ‘it should not be overlooked that, apart from the teaching of grammar […] no aspect of L2 competence should be mostly developed through the use of English.’ Further research carried out by Dickson illustrates the pattern of Target Language and English most likely to promote development, which is, ultimately what every language teacher strives for.

The table 6.3, below, highlights:

  1. Use of all target language helps to improve pronunciation, spoken fluency and accuracy in learners
  2. Mostly use of TL promotes development in listening comprehension and knowledge of vocabulary
  3. A combination of TL and English promotes confidence, motivation, cultural awareness and grammar
  4. Mostly use of English promotes some grammar development Target Language in the classroom-1It is very clear that using a combination of Target Language and English language usage in the classroom will promote progress over using solely Target Language or English. So, definitely implement a combination of the two as far as possible.

    What else does research say about the use of Target Language?

what does the research say

There has been little dispute in the research about the importance of using the TL in the classroom. Dickson (1996), in his study for the National Foundation for Educational Research, entitled: Using the Target Language, states that using the “target language (L2) promotes natural acquisition and that use of the mother tongue (L1) undermines this process by diverting attention from the object of pupils’ learning.”  This is directly supported by Stephen Krashen’s work, which states “acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication.”

What is important to note from this research is that target language should be used regularly, as it promotes acquisition. It should also be natural.

A study conducted by Frohm at the University of Karlstad in Sweden in 2009 established that students want to use L2 in their language lessons, but find it difficult to use it. She also concluded that more L2 use by the teacher from the outset and frequent use throughout the lessons will motivate the students to use L2. Her final conclusion was using L1 has its place in the language classroom and can help as a means of simplifying the learning of L2 when used correctly. This research is supported by the work outlined earlier by Dickson.

Frohm’s research confirms that L1 can certainly be used in lessons. However, students should, moreover, be motivated and encouraged to use target language constantly during lessons and from the beginning of each lesson. 


Obviously, as with any other principle, the use of TL in the classroom should be evaluated in context and with reference to the purpose it is expected to serve. If, as a teacher, you feel your students are capable, over time, of understanding lessons completely in TL, then use your professional judgement and utilise TL over English. At the same time, ensure English is used as part of teaching to promote understanding of grammatical structures, for example. Encourage all students to use TL in the classroom, as far as possible by teaching useful words, phrases and requests and encourage self-expression in more able students. Simultaneously, work on developing the confidence of students who struggle to understand or communicate in the target language, lesson by lesson, offering encouragement, feedback and support. 

I am sure you have your own experience of using target language, too. Do you feel you use too much or not enough? Do your students understand you? Do they actively try to use L2 regularly, or quickly revert to L1?

Practical Ideas To Use Target Language In The Classroom

I am not a guru for using Target Language in the classroom, but I know that using it as part of a holistic approach to teaching and learning definitely works and this is backed up by research. Over the last nine years, my ESOL students have achieved 99% pass rates in their speaking examinations and students who I have taught from scratch in my secondary school are progressing very well. For example, within one academic year, 95% of students in a Year 7 class achieved grades 5 in their end of year speaking exams.

Top 14 Takeaway Tips To Promote Progress via Target Language Usage In The Classroom

These are my top 14 takeaway tips for using target language in the modern foreign language and /or the English Language Teaching classroom to improve progress. You can also download them here > 14 Practical Tips For Using Target Language In The Language Classroom (1497 downloads ) :

1. Start the first lesson in TL to set the tone.
2. Advise students they will rarely understand everything, but they MUST try, using clues and regular practice.
3. Regularly check comprehension 
4. Briefly explain the research and how their pronunciation, motivation, accuracy and listening skills will improve by using L2
5. Use a combination of target language and English in all lessons
6. Slow down your rate of delivery until students show confidence in using and understanding L2.
7. Define words by examples, rather than translating into L1
8. Use key words and phrases more than once
9. Use the tone of your voice, body language, gestures and visual support to emphasise key parts of speech
10. Teach students key phrases and requests, as well as ways to clarify and ask for assistance from the outset
11. Encourage spontaneous use of TL every lesson
12. Offer feedback, support and praise to assist students’ accurate use of TL and develop confidence
13. Negotiate ‘banned’ words and phrases, such as: ‘what?’ and ‘I don’t understand’ etc, to develop a growth mindset
14. Don’t give up and tell students they aren’t allowed to either

Further Recommended Reading on Using Target Language in the MFL Classroom

1. Crouse, D. (2012) Going for 90% Plus, How To Stay In The Target Language, https://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/TLE_pdf/TLE_Oct12_Article.pdf
2. Chase, A. (2015) TL Toolkit


Dickson, P., (1996) Using Target: A view from the classroom, https://www.nfer.ac.uk/media/1360/91032.pdf

Frohm, T. (2009) Does more target language use by the teacher encourage more target language use by the students?, http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:223109/FULLTEXT01.pdf

Krashen, S., Various Works, http://www.sdkrashen.com/

Check out some of the following posts for even more tips and why not subscribe to my mailing list below for even more fantastic teaching ideas and new resources?: 

Teaching Tips of The Week – Practical, low-prep activities to try out in the classroom each week


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