Defining A Key Term: *Vague Pair Elimination

A carpenter needs to be good at using a hammer. It’s one of her essential tools.

A teacher, who stays in the target language, needs to be good at *VAGUE PAIR ELIMINATION. It’s one of his essential tools.


Answer: It’s saying, suggesting or showing what an L2 word/phrase DOESN’T mean so that it’s meaning can become precisely clear.

Here’s a simple example:

Suppose I’m trying to help students make sense of the L2 word for “blue” by holding up a blue crayon. Students might misinterpret the meaning and think,

“is he teaching us the word for, ‘crayon,’ or is he teaching us the word for, ‘blue,’ or is he telling us that we’re about to do a coloring activity?”

The *PAIR is vague. Anticipating the VAGUE PAIR, a teacher could do something similar to what you see below in order to ELIMINATE THE VAGUE PAIRS:

“Students, this isn’t blue.”


“This isn’t blue.”


“This isn’t blue.”



blue azul

VAGUE PAIR ELIMINATION is important because *PAIRING, in a #TL90plus foreign language classroom, can sometimes feel a bit like playing the 20 Questions Game. At the beginning of the game, when whoever’s ‘it’ says, “I’m thinking of a person, place or thing,” the participants feel like, “wow, that doesn’t help much! It could be anything!” It’s the same feeling a student gets when a teacher writes an incomprehensible piece (word or phrase) of L2 on the board. Students think, “It could mean anything!” One of the best/fastest ways to get a student to *PAIR the piece of L2 with something meaningful is by showing what it doesn’t mean. For now, for the purposes of this blog, I’m referring to this process as VAGUE PAIR ELIMINATION.

(Note: For the sake of defining the term, I’ve provided an example that is very overt. At times, this type of intentional explanation is needed in a foreign language classroom. However, it’s ideal if a teacher can eliminate vague pairs in ways that feel, to a student, less like formal instruction and more natural. For examples, feel free to click on any of the links below. Each contains scripted lesson plans demonstrating how L2 grammar does not need to be taught with overt metalinguistic explanations.

Teaching Grammar While Staying In The Target Language.

*Disclaimer: This term is my own and I’m using it for the purpose of reflecting on my own foreign language teaching practice.  The reader should not assume that it’s the term found in formal, academic writing.

See what others are saying about Tuesday’s Tips For Staying In The Target Language.

Señor Howard

Señor Howard – – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – – @calhwrd

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