There are many goals English language teachers consider when developing their instructional strategies and deciding on class activities. Considering whether to focus on fluency vs. accuracy is an important one. Is one set of skills more important than the other? Should they be taught separately? Can they be taught jointly? These are all good questions, and we have answers for you. But first, it may be helpful to look at some definitions.
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What are accuracy and fluency in teaching English?
The question of whether to focus on accuracy vs. fluency in language teaching is important because, depending on the answer, teachers will emphasize different aspects of the language (for example, grammar for accuracy or conversation for fluency). Let’s look more closely at what the two terms mean.
Defining accuracy and fluency can sometimes be problematic, as definitions for each term may vary a bit. But there are some common interpretations of both terms.
When teachers talk about accuracy, they usually refer to:
- Knowledge and understanding of grammar rules, vocabulary use, and pronunciation
- An ability to apply grammar rules and vocabulary in writing
- An ability to apply grammar rules, vocabulary, and pronunciation in speaking
Accuracy can also refer to an awareness of the different registers existing in a language, e.g., formal, colloquial, etc. In other words, an accurate speaker of English will demonstrate an awareness of context and know when to use formal or informal language.
The definition of fluency is more challenging. According to the Academic Press article “On Fluency,” one of the aspects of fluency is “the ability to fill time with talk.” The English Language Institute at Victoria University of Wellington’s “Improving Speaking Fluency” paper adds that “fluency can be described as the ability to process language receptively and productively at a reasonable speed.”
So, when teachers talk about fluency, they usually refer to:
- An ability to speak or write easily
- An ability to speak or write at a reasonable speed
- An ability to speak or write with errors that do not impede communication
Which comes first, fluency or accuracy?
Ideally, accuracy and fluency should advance at the same pace during the language acquisition process, but this is often not the case. Whether students first speak accurately or fluently often depends on the teacher’s instructional style. For example, English language teachers who have adopted a communication-based approach to language instruction will emphasize exposure to the second language (L2) and interaction, rather than accuracy. But does this mean increased fluency comes at the expense of accuracy? Not necessarily.
Researchers in the journal article “Need We Sacrifice Accuracy for Fluency?” conducted an experiment with ESL school children in Hungary, comparing accuracy vs. fluency of children who studied English as a foreign language with a communication/content-based approach with those who studied with a form-based traditional approach. The former were slightly more accurate in their production of grammatical morphemes in an oral interview and were more fluent, confirming that communication-based approaches do not sacrifice accuracy for fluency.
Regardless of the instructional style, students may also naturally acquire accuracy and fluency skills at different times. From a developmental point of view, it appears that children acquiring their first language often develop fluency before accuracy. This is partly due to the fact that not all grammar structures are acquired at the same speed.
For example, in English verb conjugation, the third person is acquired after the first and second persons. This does not prevent children from talking in the third person, albeit with mistakes. Neither does it mean that they will forever be unable to use the third person. Similarly, adults may also acquire grammar structures at varying speeds based on a variety of factors, such as learning style, experience with language acquisition, etc.
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However, many teachers worry that if students don’t acquire the correct grammatical structures from the outset, they will end up building errors in their speech that will stay with them, possibly forever. Not to worry, as there are some instructional methods that may promote parallel growth in both accuracy and fluency.
One such instructional method is Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), which uses storytelling as a teaching tool. This method emphasizes exposure to comprehensible input (CI) and oral production in the L2. According to Karen Lichtman, author of “Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling,” students taught with TPRS compare favorably in test scores and general language proficiency with students for whom accuracy was the primary focus of instruction. The takeaway: It is possible, with the right teaching strategies, to develop both accuracy and fluency within the same class activities, suggesting the skills are not mutually exclusive.
Can you be fluent but not accurate?
It is certainly possible to speak a language fluently but not accurately. This possibility exists for L2 and native speakers alike. Examples of native English speakers who make grammatical errors when speaking or writing abound. In a delightful little book appropriately titled “Between You and I – a little book of bad English,” author James Cochrane lists examples of common grammar and vocabulary mistakes often made by native English speakers.
Among these is the grammatical error cleverly used in the title (“between you and I”) which highlights the common confusion even among native speakers of the different functions of subject and object pronouns. Another example with which teachers are eminently familiar is the confusion between the verbs “can” and “may,” as in, “Can I go to the bathroom?” Other examples of common mistakes include “its vs. it’s,” “their vs. they’re,” “then vs. than,” and many others. That individuals making these mistakes are native English speakers shows it is absolutely possible to be fluent but not accurate in speaking a language.
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How can a teacher balance teaching fluency and accuracy?
ESL teachers are rightly concerned with encouraging fluency in their students while instilling proper language structures and vocabulary usage. Many teachers also worry that an excessive emphasis on fluency may come at the expense of accuracy. So, how can teachers balance accuracy and fluency in language teaching?
Many activities can be used to foster both accuracy and fluency. However, when practicing fluency, it is advisable not to stress accuracy. In fluency-oriented exercises, the teacher should aim for students’ self-expression and be more concerned about content than form. If students feel their speech is being evaluated for correctness, they will become anxious and reluctant to express themselves.
When the teacher emphasizes content, especially content that interests students, the students will be more eager to participate. In this case, the teacher should refrain from openly correcting students’ mistakes. An unobtrusive way of correcting students is to model the proper form by correctly repeating their sentences. For example, if a student says, “I like go out with my friends,” the teacher can say, “Is that right? You like to go out with your friends?”
Worried your students feel anxious about their abilities? Learn 8 strategies to build confidence in your ESL students.
Accuracy vs. fluency activities
Some teaching strategies deliberately avoid the fluency versus accuracy dichotomy, preferring to develop both skill sets implicitly and simultaneously. When focusing on accuracy, it is a good idea to do so within the context of conversation or reading. Students who are involved in “interesting” content will be more focused and receptive to explicit grammar instruction. On the other hand, teaching grammar in isolation can make for a rather dull lesson. Here are some sample activities teachers can use to encourage accuracy and fluency that can be tailored to fit your students’ age and skill level.
To improve accuracy:
- Grammar and pronunciation drills. These are classic activities that foster accuracy. English textbooks typically have an exercise section or a companion workbook with grammar activities and listening drills to practice pronunciation. ESL teachers who don’t use a textbook can easily find online practice exercises for their students.
- Find the mistakes and correct them. A great way to stimulate students’ attention to grammar rules is to give them sentences with mistakes and ask them to find and correct them. Akin to this is asking students to correct each other’s writing. When engaged in this type of activity, students will automatically focus their attention on identifying errors and understanding how the errors diverge from the norm. This is an excellent way to stimulate student reflection on the L2.
- Fill in the blanks. Give your students sentences with blanks that need to be filled, and provide options with words that look similar but have different meanings, like “spill” and “spell,” or “compliment” and “complement.” This is an effective way to fine-tune their vocabulary accuracy and make them aware of subtle differences in spelling.
To improve fluency:
- Topical conversations. Fluency in a language is best acquired through conversation, but the conversation topic should spark the learner’s interest. ESL teachers can prepare a list of topics beforehand and even poll the students to see which topic interests them the most.
- Co-create stories. The TPRS method is one of the most successful in teaching fluency because it continuously encourages students’ output. In the TPRS class, students co-create stories with the teacher. Once the story has progressed beyond two or three sentences, the teacher can ask the students to describe the situation. In DtS (Describe the Situation), the teacher first describes what has happened in the story, then asks students to practice on their own or in pairs, and finally has students DtS independently. There are infinite variations on DtS that can make the activity more creative and enjoyable. You can ask students to describe the situation using a certain emotion or to describe it from different points of view. This is also an excellent opportunity to implicitly correct the student’s speech and improve accuracy.
- Poster presentations and roleplay. These activities can be used to practice vocabulary and grammar relative to specific topics and foster fluency. Once a topic has been determined, e.g., family, hobbies, etc., the students create posters with images and descriptions. They then prepare a presentation to be given in front of the class. The other students listen and, at the end, are required to ask the presenter questions. The images work as references to help the presenter remember the content to be conveyed. In roleplay, students work in groups to create and memorize a script. Then, they perform the script they have created and memorized.
Download this Bridge infographic on fluency vs. accuracy to give yourself a quick reminder of the differences between these important concepts.
Both accuracy and fluency are important
Accuracy and fluency are both essential components of language instruction and should be emphasized in equal measure. Cultivating both skill sets separately or simultaneously through targeted activities is possible. The most effective strategies to teach these essential skills are those that combine accuracy and fluency in engaging ways that capture students’ interest, increasing engagement and learning capacity.