Accuracy Versus Fluency in English

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Why teaching speaking is so difficult? If we compare it to teaching listening skills, where varieties of techniques have been developed since the introduction of the oral communication courses, partly with the aid of new technological devices such as the closed captioning system or mini disk, teaching speaking seems to be far behind.
One reason for this stagnation is that there is no view commonly agreed upon of what successful speaking is. One view is that the speech is thought to be successful as long as the learner can make himself/herself understood no matter how incorrect the language is, while another view insists on correctness in every aspect of language ranging from grammar to pronunciation.

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                             IVAN FRANKO NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF LVIV

















                                                                                                    An essay

                                                                                                    Presented by

                                                                                                    Stanislav Koval

                                                                                                    a fifth-year student

                                                                                                    of the English department







                                                          Lviv 2012


     Why teaching speaking is so difficult? If we compare it to teaching listening skills, where varieties of techniques have been developed since the introduction of the oral communication courses, partly with the aid of new technological devices such as the closed captioning system or mini disk, teaching speaking seems to be far behind.

     One reason for this stagnation is that there is no view commonly agreed upon of what successful speaking is. One view is that the speech is thought to be successful as long as the learner can make himself/herself understood no matter how incorrect the language is, while another view insists on correctness in every aspect of language ranging from grammar to pronunciation.

     The former is known as the fluency-oriented approach. From this viewpoint, small grammatical or pronunciation errors are insignificant, especially in the early learning stages. As a matter of fact, too much emphasis on correcting them is considered harmful rather than helpful, for it may cause excessive monitor in the mind, hindering the natural acquisition of spoken skills [1,83]. Naturally many EFL teachers support this viewpoint.

     The latter, on the contrary, places most emphasis on accuracy by pursuing mainly grammatical correctness. This view is called the accuracy-oriented approach. Practices that focus on repetition of newly introduced forms or grammatical structures are thought to help the learning. Although once supported by many linguists, nowadays it is seen as rather obsolete. Some methodologists claim that the teachers using this approach complained about the lack of effectiveness in the long run and the boredom they endangered among the students. Few EFL teachers, at least ostensibly, favour this viewpoint.

     In reality, accuracy and fluency are closely related, which leads us to the notion that accuracy as well as fluency is necessary for successful communication. A steady stream of speech which is highly inaccurate in vocabulary, syntax, or pronunciation could be so hard to understand as to violate an essential aspect of fluency being comprehensible. On the other hand, it is possible for the speaker to be halting but accurate... Sentence level grammatical accuracy that violates principles of discourse and appropriateness is also possible, but such language would not be truly accurate in following the communicative rules of the target language [3, 179].

     Consequently, we see the necessity of combining the fluency-oriented approach and accuracy-oriented approach by meticulously weaving certain language items into communication-oriented tasks.


І. Accuracy and fluency in different methods and approaches.

Apparently, there is no contrast between the two concepts of «Grammar» and 'Natural Communication'. Moreover, they seem to intermingle and be mutually subordinate to each other while dealing with the language-teaching process. Yet, these notions have always been the crux matter of any 'New' methodology in teaching a second language. For many years there has been controversy in language-teaching literature on whether grammar should be deductively or inductively taught and whether speaking activities in L2 classrooms should have direct or indirect roles. A brief synopsis of the history of teaching methodologies during the twentieth century might pave the way to a new perspective towards building up our wished-for free teaching approach.

6.1- Grammar-Translation: The lessons consist of an explanation of grammar via some reading sections exemplifying the new grammatical rules and exercises to practice using the grammar and vocabulary. However, most of these classes are taught in the student's first language.

6.2- Audio-lingualism: An audio-lingual lesson usually begins with a dialogue which contains the grammar and vocabulary to be focused on in the lesson. The students mimic the dialogue and eventually memorize it. After the dialogue comes pattern drills, in which the grammatical structure introduced in the dialogue is reinforced, with these drills focusing on simple repetition, substitution, transformation, and translation.

6.3- Cognitive Code: Cognitive-code focuses on developing all four skills of language: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. In lessons, the main focus is on the communicative competence and learning the rules of grammar in its new Halliday's terms (phonology/ morphology/ semantics/ syntax) is overemphasized.

6.4- Direct Method: This method has been adopted by different approaches. The teacher, applying this method in class, uses examples of language through discussions in the target language so as to teach grammar inductively. Much space is provided by this method to Teacher-Student interaction. The teacher's role has shifted from the dominant participant to the monitorwho interacts with his/her students a lot, asking them questions about familiar topics and trying to use the grammatical structure of the day in the conversation. Accuracy is sought and errors are corrected. This method is the pioneer to enhance speaking activities, though not in a natural way but rather previously planned by the teacher. But it still focuses too much on grammar.

6.5- Natural Approach: In the Natural Approach the teacher speaks only the target language. Students may use either the language being taught or their first language. The main objective of the approach is to provide a natural-like environment where students are encouraged to use the language, to talk about ideas, to perform tasks, and to solve problems. Errors in speech are not corrected; however homework may include grammar exercises that will be corrected. Its main weakness is that grammar is de-emphasized in class and dealt with as a marginal sub-task.

6.6- Total Physical Response: It involves the students listening and responding to commands given by the teacher such as "sit down" and "walk," with the complexity of the commands growing over time as the class acquires more language. Student speech is delayed, and once students indicate a willingness to talk they initially give commands to other students. So the focus is neither on language content (vocabulary and grammar) nor on the immediate speech acts. Its content may not be always interesting for the students, but its results would come later in perfect ways though after a long time.

6.7- Suggestopedia: Focus here is on providing a very attractive environment with music and meditation in which acquisition can occur. Some of the students' first language is used at the beginning, but most in the target language. The role of the teacher is very important in creating the right atmosphere and in acting out the dialogues that form the core of the content. Suggestopedia does not give too much emphasis to grammar.            

According to these different methods, L2 teaching concepts, strategies and techniques converge and diverge in different areas. Taking bits or chunks from each method at random has given rise to the notion of «eclecticism» and «eclectic language teachers». Yet, this non-canonized approach is often utilized by language teachers to create an atmosphere full of anarchy, lawlessness and chaos. Such disorder is encountered by an absolute antagonism on the side of teachers' supervisors, applied linguists and pedagogues.  


II. Fluency-oriented Approaches vs. Accuracy-oriented Approach

     As is already mentioned, the fluency-oriented approach, which enjoys popularity in EFL classrooms, emphasizes two points that stem from the Natural Approach suggested by Krashen and Terrell. One is that meaningful communication is the key to develop spoken skills. The other is that the least amount of correction should be given, otherwise communication itself is hampered. Those who believe in the fluency-oriented approach value natural acquisition of a language. Errors are regarded as inevitable by-products observed in the natural process of development rather than simply avoidable mistakes.

     The fluency-oriented approach, however, is not free of weakness. Probably, the most crucial is fossilization, errors that have become a permanent part in the way a learner speaks [3,181]. Ironically, fossilized errors prevent the learner from bettering fluency, as higher accuracy is required for improving fluency in each level. It is doubtful that learners can naturally correct all of their errors for themselves in the course of time. If they can not, when should the errors be corrected and how?

     Another weakness is that communication in a target language is not always the most effective way to develop speaking skills. In fact, communication can be quite successful even if the speaker's skills are rather limited. If the goal is simply successful communication, what one should do is as easy as to avoid saying what is above his/her speaking skills. Needless to say, this will never bring development in language skills.

     Even though the accuracy-oriented approach is rather neglected among the current EFL pedagogues, one can still see in it some advantages over the fluency-oriented approach, especially regarding the points mentioned above. First of all, feedback.      Learners are provided an opportunity to correct errors. They will become conscious of repeated mistakes before fossilization takes place. It is true that correction of errors that are provided negligently may discourage learners from speaking. But correction itself can also be encouraging, given in an appropriate manner, for it enables learners to make sure where exactly the problem lies in their speech. The instructor should decide whether the correction is worth interruption, and if it is, the instructor ought to consider possible causes and then think of appropriate ways of dealing with the error. Learners will also be fully aware of the target language items that they are trying to acquire in practice [2,376]. This awareness will eventually facilitate the learning.

     Here is what Jim Scrivener thinks about the subject-matter: “Imagine a switch inside your head - it swings between two settings: ‘working mainly on accuracy’ and ‘working mainly on fluency’.It is probably a huge simplification, but I suspect that something like this is at work in my head through most of my language teaching, changing its setting from activity to activity, stage to stage - and, in some teaching, changing moment by moment in response to things happening in class. And I think that initially getting that switch installed and working may be a key skill for anyone learning to be a language teacher [4,160].

     Certainly there are activities in which the teacher is arguably working on both accuracy and fluency in relatively equal measure, but many everyday language-teaching lesson stages are focused on one more than the other, and at any one moment, in any one activity, it is likely that you will be aiming to focus on accuracy rather than fluency, or fluency rather than accuracy.

     It is therefore important for the teacher to be clear about what is involved in accuracy-focused work as compared with fluency-focused work. And it is especially important to be clear about the differing aims - and consequently different classroom procedures - of the two.


III. Fluency plus Accuracy Approach

Although the fluency-oriented approach seems so different from the accuracy-oriented approach, introducing some elements of accuracy in it is feasible. In fact, this view is shared by many EFL teachers. Ebsworth has found that the majority of teachers surveyed favours the judicious use of grammar for accuracy within a meaning-centered communicative approach [1, 103]. Moreover, many EFL teachers have already been practicing this. Let us take a look at this example. "I went a movie." is a plausible answer by an EFL student to the question, "What did you do during the weekend?" From the fluency-oriented view, the teacher is expected to ask about the movie rather than to correct the sentence. However, the teacher is most likely to say, "Oh, you went to see a movie," instead of jumping to the question, "What movie did you see?" This type of natural reaction, known as consciousness raising, works as feedback from the instructor, reminding the speaker of errors in a positive way [5, 44].

     Learners, however, may still need some other opportunities to become fully aware of their errors, for the instructor's reaction cannot be sufficient. One reason is that the instructor can seldom imply all the errors that should be corrected, especially when the learner is telling a long story. The instructor should restate only a limited number of errors; otherwise the learner's motivation to talk will be fettered. The other is that the learner may not have a chance to repeat the correct sentence if he wants to continue his story. As long as communication is the main purpose, to give up the topic for a repeating exercise should be avoided. For these two reasons, the instructor's natural response cannot always fulfill the necessity of error correction.

     Since the instructor cannot give enough correction, it is necessary to seek other sourses for feedback. One possible alternative in the EFL class is peer feedback.

     Peer feedback needs to be controlled properly by the instructor, for it, like corrections by the instructor, can be detrimental to the learner's motivation. First, the instructor must make sure that adequate amount of feedback is given to the learner. Too many corrections may discourage the learner, while too few corrections will fail to do the trick. Secondly, the instructor should see if feedback is given in an appropriate manner. The instructor must avoid introducing such direct corrections among learners as may cause undesirable tension in the classroom.

     As it is possible to add accuracy elements to communicative activity, so is it to add communicative elements to repetitive practice. Since the problem of repetitive practice is that monotonous repetition causes lethargy, what the instructor has to do is to create a circumstance to carry out real communication, in which the learner can find the meaning in repeating what has already been said. For example, at a party one must repeat self-introduction each time he/she meets new people. This is real communication, and the person is not likely to get tired of saying the same thing as long as he/she wants to meet more people.

     The difficulty of introducing repetition in communicative work lies in how the instructor can build into repetitive communicative work the target language items that will be acquired. In other words, the learners should be able to carry out meaningful communication while they are repeatedly using the target language items that are yet to be fully acquired. For instance, those who have already experienced enough self-introduction will improve no further however many times they do the same self-introduction. To make them change the way of self-introduction without a proper reason may spoil the authenticity of communication. After all, target language items should be provided only when the learner realizes the necessity of the particular items, otherwise communication will lose its authenticity.


IV. Islands of Reliability

One more interesting notion is an “island of reliability”.  EFL speakers have set phrases that they often use in their speech. These phrases are so familiar to the speaker that he/she can use them almost instantly and unconsciously without searching for the right words in his/her mental lexicon or having to go carefully through the grammatical or phonological encoding process. Islands of reliability contribute to the fluency of speech. The more islands of reliability the speaker has, the more fluently he or she can speak. Speakers with sufficient number of islands of reliability only need to find words or phrases that bind his/her islands of reliability. In order to increase the number of islands of reliability, EFL learners need to use certain phrases repeatedly until they attain familiarity [3, 183]. Sometimes undesirable phrases are fossilized as island of reliability and annoy the interlocutor.




     As Heidi Riggenbach and Anne Lazaraton claim, "Today, language students are considered successful if they can communicate effectively in their second or foreign language" [1, 54]. It seems that the focus has swerved from accuracy to fluency. Grammar is disregarded, and communicative activities are prevalent in an EFL class.


     Yet, many would agree that accuracy is indispensable to improving fluency. It is not that accuracy or fluency but accuracy and fluency. In fact, they are mutually influential. Accuracy brings fluency and fluency brings further accuracy. Accuracy and fluency are not contradictory but rather like two pillars that support the spiral stairs toward communicative competence.

     Nonetheless, it is possible to foster accuracy in communicative activities. The crucial factors are real communication, framework on demand, encouraging error correction, and meaningful repetition. By implementing these factors, almost all the speaking tasks can be modified to enhance both accuracy and fluency.














                                                  LIST OF REFERENCES 
1. Ebsworth, M. E. (1998, March/April). Accuracy & fluency: Which comes first in ESL instruction? ESL Magazine, 1998.

2. Harmer, J. How to Teach English. – Longman, 1998.

3. Nation, P. (1989). Improving speaking fluency. System, 17 (3), 377-384.

4. Scrivener, J. Learning Teaching. – Bath Press, 1994.

5. Watkins, P. Learning to Teach English. – Delta Publishing, 2005.



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