Rethinking our priorities – How natural accuracy really is?

What are you aiming for?

It’s been almost a month since I got back to school and I’ve been working a lot on Writing and Speaking with my classes. As usual, there are many things I discover about my kids both in terms of their own individual way to express their thoughts as well as how well they can communicate them and how accurate they are in their expression. Lots of interesting points for reflection have come up so far, but once again the first thoughts I had in mind related to this big dilemma – fluency or accuracy – which we all face.

Those of us who teach young teen and exam classes try to make our students aware of the importance of fluency and not accuracy. We urge our kids to speak naturally, without overanalysing or translating what they want to say before actually speaking. We encourage mistakes, “celebrate” failure in productive skills and invite our kids to take calculated risks with their oral and written performance.

At the same time though, accuracy is an inevitable part of exam testing. Apart from the obvious signs of being accurate as far as a person’s awareness of tense shifts are concerned (twhich are btw essential if we want to be understood), students are also further assessed in terms of accuracy. Yet, we try to cultivate a spirit of “native speaker naturalness” which involves the making of tons of mistakes. We don’t want our students to consciously think of the grammar or lexis they use, but still if they want to be successful in their exams they have to.

Speaking of a native-speaker like approach in the productive skills, I’ve thought of my own choices as a native speaker of Greek. There have been only a handful of times that I have consciously thought of, analyzed and constucted spoken or written responses in Greek. All these moments were either at formal education settings (national school exams, university) or work settings. In real life, the only reason I have been concerned with how accurate my use of Grammar in Speaking and Writing is because I grew up in a language-loving environment and …I love languages in general.

Certainly there should be a balance between fluency and accuracy. Still though I don’t see how stressing the significance of accuracy can coexist with real life. As a traveller and a person who has lived abroad, I’ve seen that everyday interaction focuses primarily on getting the message across, in other words getting the communicative job done. Apart from reinforcing this idea though, I’m afraid this double-play of “fluency in real life-accuracy in exams” also leaves learners with a mixed sense of purpose. If they are mature/lucky/wise enough to treat exams as a step of the learning  process, but not an end-result, then they can realize the difference, but what happens if they aren’t?

What can we do then? I think we should start with the basics of both – focus on the essentials of accuracy (clear indication of past-present-future reference) and respect the message itself (what do I want to say and to whom?). Then, we should build on both gradually by identifying the problems that can impede communication first and then add the accuracy details to the message itself. Finally, let’s remind our students of the mechanics of exam testing – let’s remind them of the fact that language learning is a journey and the exam is just a stop which can offer them benefits (better job prospects, a sense of satisfaction), but doesn’t always prove how much they’ve learned and doesn’t signify the end of the learning process.

Comments (5)

  1. Great post, Maria!

    I agree with a fluency first approach. I think the problem is that when teachers say they are shifting the priority from accuracy to fluency other people hear ‘That teacher is abandoning grammar and error treatment’, which is patently untrue. Seeing as grammatical accuracy is going to go through several stages in the journey of acquisition it makes sense to have a stronger focus on the message. Declarative knowledge might be useful in checking work but it can’t readily be drawn upon for spontaneous communication so easily.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Marc! I agree that most people unfortunatelly still see focusing on fluency as a “relaxed, non-serious” approach to learning. It’s a belief that is culturally influenced also since many students seem to feel the same way even though they can see their performance change for the better.

      1. Yes! This bugs me so much. “I want more grammar structures I don’t understand. I am tired of my English getting better.” What I do is explain I won’t teach grammar by itself but only when it arises and only what is best for the learners’ messages or messages they are listening to or reading. That way they can understand it’s not abandonment but that there is actually thought behind what I do.

  2. I love these comments. I understand why students feel this way; I was the same as an undergrad, appreciating a good puzzle rather than being made to feel like a half-wit struggling to convey basic propositions. I know this feeling is counterproductive but very intuitive as well. Anyway a way I explained the accuracy/fluency divide to my students was sometimes that all language was communication whether they approached it that way or not; they could send the message “I am very unused to speaking” by neglecting fluency, or the message “I am still learning” by neglecting accuracy. Either way they’re telling the listener something perhaps they don’t intend to.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Mark. I love the idea that communication can take many forms depending on what we choose (whether consciously or not) to say every time we speak/write.

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