Fluency vs Accuracy (ARG – April)


May 3, 2016 by gemmalunn

This month I started an additional teachers’ group at one of the schools where I work. This meeting has the same aims and format as the original ARG. Thus, this is a summary of both meetings.

The focus for this month was fluency and accuracy. The article read was Scott Thornbury’s ‘Accuracy, fluency and complexity’ article from English Teaching Professional (July 2000). Thornbury states that the concept of accuracy being defined as output matching that of a native speaker is perhaps no longer suitable in light of recent concepts such as ELF and world Englishes. However, for the sake of this meeting we agreed that accuracy can be thought of as the correct use of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation in order to be understood. Fluency is ‘relatively effortless and fluid speech’ i.e. one without too much hesitation, repetition or pausing.

Thornbury states that recent research suggests that rather than us having one ‘language bank’ from where we retrieve information for production there are actually two – a ‘dual-mode model of language processing’. One contains memorised words, expressions and sentences. The other, contains all the grammatical rules. The former can be accessed and used fairly rapidly whereas the latter is slower. Thus, in real conversations it is more likely that we rely on the memorised side rather than the rules, this make sense as you don’t often have time to think over all the rules of the third conditional before expressing a regret. Thus in order to improve fluency students need to be able to retrieve memorised chunks at speed and need activities which allow them to do this.

Thornbury then argues that the PPP methodology is flawed as the Production stage, which is supposed to focus on fluency, actually practices automatised accuracy. We should therefore look towards methodologies that takes into account the ‘dual-mode model of language processing’ such as task based activities.

Below is a brief summary of some of the questions we discussed in the meetings, here is a full list of all the questions: TT April Fluency vs accuracy.

  1. Do you value fluency or accuracy more?

All teachers agreed that whether they focus on accuracy, fluency or both depends on many factors such as the level, individual student needs, stage of the class.

  1. Do you always correct students’ verbal errors? And what correction methods do you use?

Everyone agreed they never correct every error and normally only focus on the structures being focused on in that activity, or common errors. Again, this depended on the stage of the class, students level and aims. For example, we all agreed that with intermediate it is important for them to eliminate basic errors in order to move away from the intermediate plateau and avoid these errors becoming fossilised. Some error correction techniques discussed were – on the spot, both parroting and correction, anonymous group error correction at the end of an activity / class, giving students post-it notes with their errors on. One teacher shared an idea which focuses on the common absence of the third person ‘s’. Every time her students forget this she holds up a picture of a snake to remind them to add an s!

  1. Do you generally follow a PPP approach?

Although all the teachers follow (to some extent) course books, many stated they often use a Test-Teach-Test format rather than the PPP approach as prescribed in the books. This is easily achieved by changing the order of activities in the course books. Many often incorporate task-based activities into classes as well. A few have used freer approaches that resemble a DOGME approach. We also had some good discussions about pushing students more so they encounter problems, as Thornbury puts it, and use these opportunities to learn.

Activities to practice accuracy

These mostly consisted of grammar related activities such as correcting word order/ form, sentence completion, and those listed in the article such as written ‘chats’.

Fluency activities

In addition to the activities mentioned in the article we also discussed using poetry, this also focuses on accuracy of pronunciation. Activities such as ‘just a minute’ which comes from the BBC4 Radio show where guests must talk about a topic for a minute without repetition, hesitation etc, if they do any of these things the next person takes over and the person talking when the minute is up is the winner. You could also give students some time to think about the topics if they are a bit nervous. Presentations were also a popular activity used to practice fluency.

Activities that practice fluency, accuracy and complexity

As mentioned in the article, find someone who is a good way for students to practice accuracy and fluency, by asking them to add follow up questions and find out more details it could also enable students to use more complex structures and negotiate meaning etc. One activity that is especially effective for exam students is to record themselves giving a short speech, listen, try to correct errors or get peers to correct errors then re-record the speech but this time in a shortened time e.g. from 1 minute 30 down to 1 minute 10, this helps students to try and speak with less hesitation etc.

As always it was great to discuss ideas with a wide range of teachers (nationalities, experience etc) so thanks if you came and contributed to the discussion. As usual there are useful links on the padlet site: http://padlet.com/gemma_lunn/TT    and feel free to add any other ideas for fluency/accuracy activities below.

The next meetings are:

Academic Reading Group: Wednesday 11th May 10:00 in L’Ulitimo Bacio (open to all)

Teacher Talk: Friday 20th May 9:30-11:30 in Migros Klubschule (for Klubschule teachers only)

The topic for May is reflective practice. Please leave a comment or email me if you’d like to come and join one of the groups.


3 thoughts on “Fluency vs Accuracy (ARG – April)

  1. punster30 says:

    Nice summary, it sounds like a really interesting group meeting!
    Just read the Thornbury article. I wonder what the ‘recent developments in the study of language acquisition’ were that he was specifically referring to. The idea of two ‘language banks’ as such sounds similar to the Lamendella neurofunctional ideas from the late 1970s, and there’s been the notion of a ‘dual-route model’ in the area of reading development since 1970s too. Any idea what research he was talking about?

    • gemmalunn says:

      Thanks, the groups are great. That’s a really good question and no I don’t have any idea which research he’s referring to, maybe I’ll tweet him and ask!

      Thanks again,


  2. […] and Complexity, so do click on through and have a read before you come. Special thanks to our ETAS colleague, Gemma Lunn, who recently discussed the same article with her teachers group in St Gallen. See you […]

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