In everyday usage, fluent is often used interchangeably with proficient, as in, He’s pretty fluent in Arabic. But in language teaching, fluency is a bit more technical and just one component of language proficiency, often discussed in tandem with accuracy: Some learners speak very fluently, but their speech may be riddled with errors. Conversely, some learners speak haltingly but with a great deal of accuracy.
Generally, accuracy is the complement to fluency, and most classroom activities focus on either accuracy or fluency. More importantly, I can tell you that before I learned about fluency activities, virtually all of the activities I was doing in class were working on accuracy.
I’m going to discuss the characteristics of accuracy and fluency activities and provide examples that you can easily try with your adult learners.
It’s worth mentioning that we can’t really focus on both accuracy and fluency at the same time. During accuracy-focused activity, it is the role of the teacher to correct students, model native-like forms, help students to notice the gap, and so on. When we’re building fluency, though, we need to shut all that off. No correcting or interrupting. Our role is to encourage and support rapid speech, to lower inhibitions and anxiety related to making mistakes.
First, order of operations: it’s a good general rule that accuracy activities come before fluency activities. And when you think about it, this is common sense. You don’t want to be building fluency with incorrect forms. First you want to get it right; then you want to speed it up.
When we talk about accuracy, we’re trying to raise our students’ awareness of form and forms, to draw their attention to the details of how we use a new vocabulary item, construct a grammatical form, pronounce a word. We model, we repeat, we give feedback.
In my experience, students (and often materials) tend to be overly focused on accuracy, paying too little attention to actively building fluency. So when we talk about maintaining a balance between fluency and accuracy, what we really mean is making sure we dedicate some time to fluency. Your mileage may vary, though, so adjust your approach accordingly.
Paul Nation (2003) suggests that the following conditions be provided for effective fluency activities:
- All language items involved are already familiar to students,
- The focus is on communication (not form) in real time, and
- Supports are in place for students to outperform their normal proficiency
Let’s look at an example of a fluency activity to get a better sense of what they look like. Once you know what makes a good fluency exercise, they’re really easy to develop. This one could work with intermediate (B1) students:
- Students spend 5–10 minutes preparing a 3-minute spoken description of their dream house. They may make notes but should not be reading from a script.
- Place students in pairs and have them exchange descriptions.
- Now shuffle the partners, and ask students to deliver the same description, but in 2.5 minutes.
- Shuffle again, and give them 2 minutes.
In an exercise like this, students get the chance to work out the meaning and language the first time through. In the subsequent recitations, they will be more confident with their words, and under greater time constraints. Thus, we meet all of Nation’s conditions.
Other activities that build fluency in other skills could be freewriting, extensive reading, and authentic listening (without subtitles).
Personally, when it comes to grammar and vocabulary, I try to set a trajectory not only from accuracy to fluency, but also from written to spoken production. Writing is a deliberate, recursive process. It gives students time to carefully consider the new form, work from models, work out the details, catch their own mistakes, and get visual feedback from teachers. Then, we move on to spoken exercises, where the pressure is on a little, and things need to occur in real time.
Nation, P. (2003). Materials for teaching vocabulary. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.), Developing materials for language teaching (pp. 394–405). London, England: Continuum.