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Accuracy versus fluency

One of the best things to happen in language teaching over recent decades is the movement away from accuracy at all costs to a greater emphasis on listening skill and fluency. In the heyday of the grammar-translation era, accuracy was paramount and class activities focused on the precise translation to and from the mother tongue, along with detailed comprehension of written texts.

With the communicative movement of the 1970s onward the focus rightly shifted towards the use of language for practical communication. Mistakes were tolerated as long as they did not interfere with getting the message across. We soon got used to the notion of the "sympathetic native speaker" when assessing what a student had said or written.

But of course we would like accuracy too and as teachers we should aim for it without hindering communication.

With this in mind, I rather like the idea of planning lessons with the main focus on EITHER accuracy OR fluency. You can even share this with classes: "Today I don't want you to worry about being absolutely correct, just have a go!" "This is a fluency activity, folks, make as many mistakes as you want!"

Fluency activities might information gaps, dialogues, guessing games, "who is the first who can't something", general oral discussion. In these cases the teacher would be a listener, rather than a correcter. The teacher may even back off completely, take a well earned rest and let students get on with just the occasional reminder if they go off task.

In contrast accuracy activities would include question-answer to practise a grammar point previously presented, structured drills, written grammar exercises, repetition, pair work tasks with a focus on grammar, such as battleships or paired dictation. In these cases the teacher would correct where necessary.

I do not wish to set up a false dichotomy here, but it is worth mentioning that there is a theoretical basis for making the accuracy/fluency distinction, if you accept the natural acquisition hypotheses and the notion that the focus on accuracy merely helps students develop their ability to monitor their own accuracy and to self-correct. Worrying about getting things wrong sets up an affective barrier for students and inhibits their language acquisition. Comprehension and fluency tasks remain the heart of language acquisition.

My hunch would be that many teacher linguists still tend to focus on accuracy too much. Why? Firstly because they are good at it themselves and sometimes come from an era when it was highly valued. Secondly, in school getting things right or wrong is still a basic fact of life and thirdly assessments, for all sorts of reasons, still place an undue emphasis on written skills where, despite mark schemes which reward successful communication, accuracy still counts.


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