An ELT Glossary : Accuracy / Fluency

Accuracy is a term used to describe  the ability to write or speak a foreign language without making mistakes or errors. These mistakes/errors may be of grammar, lexis, spelling, or pronunciation. 

Fluency, on the other hand,  is the ability to "get one's message across", without undue hesitation when formulating ideas caused by difficulties such as unknown words or fear of inaccuracy.

So, for example, the learner who says He live here since two year is clearly inaccurate, but comprehensible and fluent. The learner who says I went to the ++ to the ++ er the shop++ I don't know the name ++ to buy a ++ erm ++ no, I don't know has clear fluency problems despite the accuracy of what s/he actually says. This sort of fluency problem, due to not having the words at their disposal, can be improved by teaching coping strategies such as circumlocution - I went to the + to the shop where you buy books + to buy + one of those books that has all the days of the year + where you can write your appointments. Although some hesitation remains, the learner gets their meaning across successfully without causing problems for the listener.

Teaching this sort of coping strategy is discussed in the following articles in the Notebook:
Coping Strategies
Developing Circumlocution Strategies

Accuracy and fluency have often been seen as either/or in ELT. If learners attempt to speak fluently, thus giving themselves less thinking time, the argument goes, their accuracy is liable to suffer. If they think carefully about every utterance, they will be more accurate but less fluent. Teachers have thus been encouraged to divide activities into accuracy activities, where they expect the learners to produce the (usually new) language without mistakes and fluency activities, where they concentrate on the learners' ability to fulfil the task without worrying about accuracy. This was one of the problems of the PPP approach which was clear that the practice stage aimed at accuracy, but could never decide if the final production stage was intended to ensure the learners were producing the new language spontaneously and accurately, or whether accuracy couldn't be expected in spontaneous communication immediately after the learners had met it for the first time and that learners shouldn't be pushed into using it or corrected (in which case what was the point of doing the activity?)

However, I would argue that accuracy and fluency both can and should be developed at the same time. Two articles in the Notebook discuss how this can be done, using a Silent planning - Language Focus - Task Enactment - Feedback - Task repetition sequence. This sequence allows learners to:

  • identify gaps in their knowledge  and to fill them before staring to talk
  • Try out the language in a "first attempt" at the task
  • Receive feedback on the accuracy of their language and other ways it can be improved
  • Repeat the task attempting to incorporate the feedback
  • Receive further feedback...
  • ... and possibly, repeat the task again
The sequence takes the view that, if what is blocking fluency is lack of the necessary language (or inability to retrieve the necessary language in spontaneous communication), then it needs to be provided for the learners and focused on. If they are using known language inaccurately, it needs to be focused on and they need to "have another go" at producing it accurately. And this second attempt, by which time they will have focused on all the problems of unknown and inaccurate language, should show both improved accuracy and improved fluency.

These techniques, and the sequence in general are discussed in detail in these articles from the Notebook: