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.
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.