I am sure every one of us teachers have, at least once in your lives, come across this question: “Teacher am I fluent? Because my boss said, I have to be fluent in order to get that promotion, or to participate in that conference, or to present that meeting, or to travel to the headquarters of the company I work for, etc.”.
What do you answer, then? I often find myself trying to explain the difference between accuracy and fluency and however hard I try, my students oftentimes have that expression on their faces: “hum, ok … If you say so…” but they did not quite believe or understand you.
The truth is that accuracy and fluency, despite walking hand in hand, are quite different.
If you speak English with accuracy, it means you speak correctly, with very few mistakes (taking into consideration the use of grammar tenses, aspects, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.). If you speak fluently, it means you speak quickly and with few pauses.
Ideally, it would be great if students spoke both accurately and fluently, however, these come after years of practice and contact with the language. Currently, we have more tools that enable students to be more fluent and accurate within less time, such as, TV series and films that can be watched on their laptops or smart TVs or even on their mobile phones; kindles, reading apps with audio books and much more.
When we teach, our lessons tend to be complete and we focus on both, for instance:
1. When we are trying to raise our students’ awareness of forms and drawing their attention to the details of how we use a new vocabulary item, construct a grammatical form, pronounce a word, we are working with accuracy. After this stage, we should provide our students with feedback.
2. When we are working with language items that are already familiar to students, when the focus is on communication (not form) in real time, and when we are ready to support students to outperform their normal proficiency, we are working with fluency.
As it is commonly known, in a lesson accuracy tasks come before fluency tasks. Of course, you do not want to build fluency with incorrect forms. First, we want them to get everything right; then we would like them to speed it up.
Now, the grand question is: “Which one is more important?” I believe that both matter equally when mastering the English language. Nonetheless, I have heard teachers asking: “How can we correct students (accuracy) if they cannot speak (fluency)?” I must say this question got me thinking.
So, from my experience, I have a tip for you:
• Course books often focus more on accuracy. That is why students think that fluency is harder to master, thus do not forget to have fluency tasks in all of your lessons. E.g.: 1. Have questions about the previous lesson’s topic, or questions about themselves, or an up-to-date topic; 2. At the last stage of the lesson, have a freer practice where fluency is the goal.
• Have theme-centered lesson. Use videos, articles, realia, etc., and from that, focus on the grammar form, aspect, vocabulary and pronunciation.
• Remember that, nowadays, companies demand that they speak, that is, communicate fast, and get their messages through even if this means not having the accuracy yet.
Nation, P. (2003). Materials for teaching vocabulary. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.), Developing materials for language teaching (pp. 394–405). London, England: Continuum.