Tuesday, May 1, 2018

90% fever: Should we require that the teacher use the target language 90% of the time in class?

Language teachers are told that they should make sure they use the target language in class 90% of the time or more.  I have no idea who came up with this number, but there is no solid research I know of that supports it. There is no research I know of that says the percentage of first language use should be 100% of the time, 80% of the time or 50% of time. 
What research does say is that we need to supply a lot of compelling comprehensible input, and that using the first language is one way of making second language input more comprehensible. This can sometimes be a single word, or a short explanation. 
The research also says that some uses of the first language are not helpful. They include translating everything we say into the first language, or spending a great deal of time talking about complex grammatical rules. 
Stating a percentage requirement of 90% (or any percentage) says nothing about HOW the first language is used. A teacher could easily meet the 90% requirement simply by speaking the first language all period, without regard as to whether the input is comprehensible. 
If we simply focus first language use on making second language input more comprehensible, e.g. an occasional translation of a problematic word or a brief explanation of grammar, I predict that use of the second language will be 90% or more. But if our goal is only to use the second language 90% of the time, there is no guarantee that it will be used in the service of providing comprehensible input. 

Stephen Krashen


  1. I completely agree, Dr Krashen!. However, by teaching ESOL/ESL in the US made me realize I could not simply use our common 1st language with my Spanish speakers because there were Thai, Vietnamese and Russian students in the class!. It was an eye-opener, a revelation to me because I had always taught EFL in Argentina before that experience in the US!.

  2. Besides, if I used some Spanish when all my students were latin americans, my supervisor adviced me to not use the 1st language 😞 the way you suggested in your post, which is what I actually did...maybe because she was jealous she couldn' t check if what I was saying was correct because she knew no Spanish at all. Thanks for your posts and valuable books and contributions! Greetings from Buenos Aires!

  3. I have always viewed the 90% statement as an attempted corrective to the phenomenon self-reported by many teachers that they speak far more L1 in their classrooms than L2, using the L1 primarily to talk about the L2 rather than using it to make the L2 comprehensible. At a conference I heard Carol Gaab say, "How much English should a teacher use? Just enough to stay in the target language while making it comprehensible to students." I've always considered that a far better rule of thumb than the arbitrary 90% number. However, the former is not as quantifiable as a percentage, and our education system thrives on "hard data". We have to feed the monster. All that to say: I agree.

    1. I thought my name or profile would appear with the comment. This is Robert Harrell.

  4. 90% TL has shifted the debate and has made the importance of using the TL a given when it was not (unbelievably) before. The 90% figure is a stroke of persuasion genius for two reasons. First, newbies need concrete steps to follow. Using the TL more so that students can get more comprehensible input is still a new idea to many teachers. "90%" gives them something to measure themselves against. The second, and more powerful reason form a persuasion viewpoint, is that a specific number gives people something to discuss and debate. "90% TL" is more attention-grabbing and arguable than "more TL". The discussion about the accuracy lifts the importance of using the TL in people's minds. It makes teachers remember to do it more often. Without a specific number people would not be talking about this as much.

    1. I totally agree with Bryce. When I first heard the number it got my attention, and I was a dedicated CI teacher. Oh, so if I want to be an "A" teacher I have to break 90! It is a number that makes a statement: 'using the L2 is paramount if we expect students to acquire language.'

  5. Not using the mother language in class is a myth we must kill. As with most things there is a danger in overusing it but if used correctly the first language can help to provide more and better input.

  6. Thanks for these commonsense comments, Steve. I usually frame both TL and L1 use as a matter of wisdom and efficiency: Am I using time well by the way in which I am using the TL? Am I using time well by the way in which I am using L1?

    More nuanced thoughts on each in these position statements:

    -on TL use in the classroom: http://indwellinglanguage.com/position-statement-tl-use/
    -on L1 use in the classroom: http://indwellinglanguage.com/position-statement-l1-use/

  7. If you read the core practices carefully, they actually say both teachers and students should use the language 90% of the time. This is one of the reasons teachers still try to force students to speak from the outset.

  8. ACTFL’s position statement is often overly simplified to just say 90% use of target language, when the statement emphasizes the importance of providing maximum comprehensible input to develop comprehensible output and includes eight important implementation strategies to ensure that the teacher isn’t just talking 90% of the time with no understanding on the part of learners. (https://www.actfl.org/news/position-statements/use-the-target-language-the-classroom).

    The intent of the position statement is for educators to be conscious in their use of the target language in the classroom. Learning takes place in a language-rich environment, including not just what the teacher or learners say but also the language and resources that the learners read, hear, and view. The goal is to provide immersion in the target language unless there is a specific intentional decision to not use the target language (such as for learners’ deeper reflection during an interpretive task). The percentage of “90% plus” is intended to provide the target against which to judge what is going on in classrooms: Are we providing sufficient or insufficient immersion in language?

    Target language use is necessary but not sufficient for increasing learners’ proficiency: That is, use of the target language must be accompanied by a variety of strategies to facilitate comprehension and support learners’ meaning-making.

  9. Is there a typo?

    Where is says,
    "A teacher could easily meet the 90% requirement simply by speaking the first language all period, without regard as to whether the input is comprehensible."
    shouldn't it say,
    "...simply by speaking the target language all period..."?

    Otherwise, confused!

  10. Krashen says in Applying the Comprehension Hypothesis: Some suggestions 2004:

    "The Comprehension Hypothesis predicts that the first language helps when it is used to make input more comprehensible: This happens when we use the first language to provide background information. This could be in the form of short readings or explanations by the teacher before a complex topic is presented. Information provided in the first language can help the same way pictures and relia can help at the beginning level, as context that makes input more comprehensible. The Comprehension Hypothesis predicts that first language use can hurt when it is used in ways that do not encourage comprehensible input. This happens when we translate and students have no need to attend to the second language input."

    I feel that the ideas presented in the 2004 paper (which I mostly agree) is somewhat contradicts with this post.

    Here are my thoughts:
    - the teacher may provide background information in L1
    - the teacher may (and should) use visuals to aid comprehension
    - using L1 to make the actual material comprehended hurts the student

    My argument - based on my over 15000 live lessons in a 100% L2 environment - is that the student has no need to attend to the second language input whenever L1 is introduced (however little the amount is).

    My experience is that introducing L1 to make grammatical structures "comprehensible" encourages heavy monitoring. This works against acquisition.

    Introducing L1 to explain so-called "hard vocabulary" pushes the student back into translating-mode. Also, this works against acquisition.

    I strongly believe (based on our real life experience) whenever a teacher needs to give an explanation in L1 to make something comprehensible, that language phenomenon has never been comprehensible in the first place i.e. that element of the language is not even close to the i+1 definition. If the teacher cannot make that element comprehensible using L2 (and visuals, realia etc.), it means that the student is not ready for it.

    Acquisition is not about any given material; it's about the road s/he has to walk along in order to build up real language skills and reach proficiency. L1 is not the right tool; it simply prevents or slows down acquisition or even halts it. 0% L1 is preferable in a controlled (classroom) environment.

    Oliver Lados (TEFL teacher, Hungary)

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  14. Thank you Dr. Krashen. Fundamentals of Language Acquisition is still my go to resource after 20 years of teaching. I read it once a year.

    I was brought up in a different educational system and learned 3 different foreign languages during my time in school from 5th grade to 13th grade. Almost all students were proficient enough to maintain a good conversation with native speakers in all 3 languages. Yet, my teachers never spoke close to 90% in TL. However, we were provided materials that were in learner appropriate TL.

    Now I teach Spanish and German. I probably don't reach 90% yet my students are way above average on benchmarks (writing, reading, speaking, and listening) compared to others taught by native speakers who are almost exclusively using TL. I have always believed that it is because the TL is not comprehensible to the students. Do I want my students to understand classroom commands and instructions in TL (totally useless in the real world) or do I want them to investigate the use of TL throughout materials presented in a thematic unit?

    Lastly, facing such difficulty to convince practitioners to use 90% of TL may be indicative of the fact that something is not adding up. I found this blogpost a few years ago and I would not be surprised at all to find out that the 90% number is really based on a survey as suggested here.


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