TESOL Thoughts

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

Learning about Fluency and Accuracy

Last month, I took a course on “Fluency and Accuracy” through iTDi. It’s not every day that you get the chance to be enrolled in a class taught by Penny Ur and Scott Thornbury; confident that there would also be some inspiring classmates in the group, I enrolled without thinking twice about it. One big advantage of online courses like this one is that sessions are recorded, so if you can’t attend a webinar (iTDi courses do one a week), you can always watch it at a later time. After listening to Penny Ur’s session at the TESOL Convention earlier this year and realizing that I could benefit from revisiting my strategies in teaching vocabulary, I jumped at the opportunity of learning more tips directly from her (and Scott!). The course has ended now, and I have walked a way with a fresh perspective on vocabulary, e.g., I might want to think about implementing the three steps to increase accuracy described by Penny. This was, no doubt about it, a great experience, and I highly recommend anyone to consider taking a class through iTDi if a topic that interests you comes up.

As part of the course requirements, I wrote a summary of some of the issues discussed. I did not add my opinion on some of the points presented, but I thought I’d share this summary here in case anyone would like to get a quick review of the course.


Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @IanJames, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @IanJames, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license

Penny Ur and Scott Thornbury both began their sessions by working through a definition of these two concepts before exploring some of the issues around fluency and accuracy. One of the reasons why these definitions are challenging is that English speakers around the world have different standards of accuracy. According to Scott, context, audience, and purpose are key elements to take into account when defining the concept of accuracy in language use. Fluency, on the other hand, was defined by Penny as “the ability to understand and convey meaning successfully, smoothly, and rapidly.” Interestingly, Scott brought up a distinction between productive and perceptive fluency. The former deals with the type of language and strategies used to keep the flow of communication (fillers, chunks, pauses), whereas the latter involves non-verbal communication, accent, and even the use of idioms or more complex language. These working definitions of accuracy and fluency were key to conceptualize the issues brought up during the course since we examined ways in which learners can improve their accuracy and fluency depending on their context.

During her first session, Penny explained that sometimes being accurate comes at the expense of being fluent (and vice versa). She then focused on ways in which we can help learners increase accuracy when teaching vocabulary, describing three fundamental steps: 1) mapping form onto meaning, 2) reviewing lexis, and 3) enriching language learned.

In the first step, she explained that it is important to teach vocabulary in a way that is impact-full, i.e., the meaning of new lexis is clear to students and memorable. Most importantly, she argues that asking students to guess words when we are not sure they can guess their meaning accurately is actually detrimental to learning. Instead, Penny suggests translating into L1 if needed or associating words with an image or something in L1 rather than asking learners to guess from context. To support this claim she cites Bensoussan and Laufer’s (1984) study (conducted with proficient English speakers) in which they found that context was only helpful in guessing meaning 24% of the time. If this is the first time students have been introduced to new lexis, Penny recommends ending the lesson by setting up scenarios in which students need to recall words learned.

When it comes to her advice on reviewing lexis, Penny points out that learners need to review a word at least 10 times and learn connotations, collocations, and context. Time efficiency is important, and games like hangman or word searches are not very efficient to review vocabulary. Finding phrases that include the word, odd one out (without an obvious answer), completing sentences. After new lexis has been introduced and reviewed, Penny suggests engaging in a third step, i.e., identifying the known lexis and learning more complex aspects about it, such as synonyms, pragmatics, etc.

Some tips on teaching were given, such as not teaching words together that might be confused (opposites or synonyms, sound similar, mean the same). An example given by Penny was teaching “blue” with “sky” instead of “blue” with “red”.

During the second half of the course, Scott cited Gatbonton, E. and Segalowitz, N. (1988) to explain that practice activities for fluency should be “communicative, authentic, focused, formulaic, and inherently repetitive”. Role-play, guessing games, surveys were mentioned by class participants and highlighted by Scott as sample activities meeting the previously mentioned criteria.

On the other hand, the point was made that when it comes to improving accuracy, feedback and correction, along with giving enough time for learners to review their language, are essential. During the last session, Penny claimed (and demonstrated) that in order to communicate, vocabulary is more important than grammar. In my opinion, this last point has ramifications into our every day teaching that we must take into account, since, as Penny notes, many textbooks do not give vocabulary the place it deserves in language learning.

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4 thoughts on “Learning about Fluency and Accuracy

  1. Hi Laura, a great summary, thanks for posting it. I only heard about the Accuracy/Fluency course when it was already almost over, so missed it. But it’s nice to read your summary. I’ll have to look out for future iTDi courses.

  2. Laura, what a great and informative summary!
    I’ve never read about productive and receptive fluency, now thinking about my students I see that it might be important to bear in mind preparing tasks.
    Was surprised with L1 but the idea of impact-full way of introducing vocab sounds reasonable though, I think, it might be really time consuming if you have more than let’s say 8 vocab items. On the other hand it’s right what students need when vocab is not totally new to them.
    I love the idea of setting scenarios for using new vocab at the end of the lesson. Students might even get a home task to create such scenarios themselves to test their partners next time. It may enable a teacher to see some problems if there are any.
    I remember reading an article about lexical approach (unfortunately I have lost it) where it was stated that it’s inefficient to teach words related to the same topic. That sounds reasonable as it is based on psychological research but looks really difficult to implement.

    Thank you very much for sharing. ITDi offers so many interesting courses. Now I’m doing the one in Business English with Vicki Hollett. It’s really engaging and useful.

    • Thanks for your kind words! I see how time can be a concern, but something that did surprise me was learning that sometimes translating the word for students is quite alright. I think I’ve hesitated to do that because I feel like they will not remember it later, but it seems that what really matters is creating opportunities to practice and review it. I’m also very interested in the Lexical Approach and keep trying to explore it more. You might be interested in this blog http://leoxicon.blogspot.com.tr/ if you are also drawn to the LA. Good to hear the BE course is going well! Maybe we’ll get to read a short summary of your experience 🙂

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