Over the last three months I’ve gone through a process which has shredded to bits my grounding in teaching, thrown it up in the air and reformulated some of it, and shown me how to throw out the old and bring in the new. It has helped me to develop an approach to educating which is principled and grounded in sound pedagogic methodology. You’ve guessed it: the DELTA.
A topic which has cropped up again and again during the DELTA is the accuracy vs fluency dichotomy. Which of the two should there be more focus on? Which leads to better language users?
The accuracy camp of the discussion was born a long time ago, when language teaching was in its early days. This was the time when errors were feared, even avoided like the plague, and accuracy was the single measurement of a good language user.
As the communicative method came along, it became apparent that the number one use learners have for language is communication. Communication is centered around a communicative message, so the focus should be on conveying that message. That led to the natural conclusion: fluency beats accuracy in a communicative approach.
However, as Scott Thornbury pointed out in his workshop at Italy’s National TESOL conference 2014 in Rome, when you focus solely on fluency, then accuracy suffers greatly.
We know from history that a focus on accuracy leads to poor fluency, and an over focus on fluency leads to poor accuracy. So, where does the answer lie? Somewhere in the middle?
Scott pointed out that the “status quo” is to put the ball firmly in the accuracy camp at the beginning – when learners are around A1/A2 level – and it sways towards the fluency side as the learners work their way up the CEFR framework. However, he went on to suggest that it might be much more effective and more representative of First Language Acquisition if the focus were on fluency at the beginning and then later on accuracy. This echoes the idea of learning some vocabulary of a language, so that when you go on holiday you can get across your message, although it might be grammatically incorrect, such as saying to a Spanish barman “un cerveza” instead of “querí una cerveza.”
The current status quo would suggest that by the time a learner reaches C1 level, classes would be predominately focused on fluency, and our teaching experience confirms this: in higher level courses a number of lessons can pass by until a worthwhile grammar point arises – and even then it is probably more likely to be grammaticalised lexis than a pure grammatical form.
So, if we know a balance is necessary and we know how to measure accuracy (by the number of mistakes), then how do we measure and, more importantly, teach fluency?
This was the very question Scott Thornbury raised in his talk in Rome. He showed two short clips of young Italians speaking in English and he asked the audience to judge their fluency. To no surprise, it quickly became clear that the audience, who consisted mainly of non-native speakers, found one of the two speakers to be significantly more ’fluent.’
Scott enquired as to why and under what criteria they had measured this perceived ’fluency.’ The audience offered up the usual suspects: varied grammatical constructions, a wide range of lexis and slow, clear annunciation with little pausing.
I was quick to disagree and state I found the other speaker significantly more fluent. Several of the audience members highlighted that the other person in the video clip couldn’t possibly be fluent, because he:
- Limited his grammar to simple structures
- Had a poor range of lexis and repeated words and phrases very often
- Paused a lot
- Used a number of fillers, such as sounds like ”mmmmh” and repeating final words
- Suffered a number of false starts, having to go back and fix his utterances by starting again
My response, which Scott agreed with, was that these are the exact criteria which measure fluency – these are exactly what native speakers do when speaking fluently and, in this particular example, the speaker did all of these and more, therefore he was very fluent.
This seemed to shock a good number of people but my assertion was backed up by other native speakers in the room, who quickly pointed out that they found this speaker much easier to understand because he did all the things natives do when they speak e.g. use simplified grammatical structures, pause, use fillers and false starts.
However, if there was any more reason to doubt the speaker’s fluency, the proof was in the pudding: Scott pulled up a transcript of the two speakers, which showed the first had a lot of mistakes, many of which seemed quite fossilized, and the second speaker (the truly more fluent speaker) had hardly any errors.
So, the speaker in this video clip was not only ’fluent’ in the same way native speakers are fluent, but he was also very accurate.
This led me to an idea I had during the DELTA a couple of weeks earlier: in order to be fluent, don’t we need to be accurate?
This is exactly what Scott went on to state, pulling up a slide which visually represented the accuracy-fluency dichotomy, as shown below:
Scott went on to look at a number of definitions of fluency until a consensus was reached:
“Fluency is the ability to convey the impression of idiomatic intelligibility in real-time”
In short, in order to sound ‘fluent’, you have to:
- Use language structures appropriate to the speech act – more often than not this is simple structures
- Use lexis appropriate to the topic – if you’re an Italian speaker and you use a lot of latinate words, you’re probably not going to give off the impression of being fluent, as English speakers prefer germanic-based words when talking informally
- Use runs of words with pausing which reflects what natives would do.
- Fill pauses with fillers
- Use idiomatic language, repeat words and structures.
That brings us on to the question of how do you teach fluency in the classroom? Which exercises can you use? Do you have any suggestions or ideas? Please feel free to leave them below as a comment.