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With the coming of new technology, and an emphasis on the need for language learners to communicate orally in the target language, the objective of English language teaching shifted to teaching fluency: the ability to speak clearly and smoothly. Subsequently, the Audio-Lingual Approach began to be used exclusively in the language classroom.
However, it became evident that neither of these approaches offered English language learners a comprehensive program for achieving mastery of the target language. Students of the Grammar-Translation Approach could produce translations that were lexically, grammatically and syntactically correct, but they could not communicate as effectively orally. Students of the Audio-Lingual Approach could communicate orally, but their ability to read and write the target language, and their fluency, were affected by their limited background knowledge of syntax grammar, and vocabulary.
The debate raged on in research, theory, and practice, as to whether fluency or accuracy should be the primary focus of the English language classroom.
Now, with fluency and accuracy recognized as complementary branches of effective English language learning, scholarship focuses on a more cohesive approach. Accuracy is one of the components of fluency, and fluency contributes to a higher level of accuracy. Accuracy and fluency are not opposing practices, and should be taught together in the language learning classroom.
Linguists and language instructors have observed that accuracy and fluency each have their place in the development of language learning. (Hammerly, H. (1991). Fluency and Accuracy. Towards Balance in Language Teaching and Learning. Multilingual Matters. Reviewed in Applied Linguistics. (1993) 14(2):208-210; doi 10.10931/applin/14.2.208. Oxford Journal. Oxford University Press, by Angelis, P.J.)
In the beginning stages of language acquisition, when the language student has little or no knowledge of the target language, the emphasis must be on accuracy: gaining vocabulary, and learning to use that vocabulary correctly.
In the intermediate stage of language learning, the student should begin working on his or her fluency, articulating the knowledge he or she has acquired through vocabulary and grammar study.
In the late intermediate to mastery stage, the language background has been laid, and the student can concentrate on improving his or her fluency. The student is then able to decode words automatically, and to grasp syntactic meaning quickly and easily. This automaticity enables the student to produce, and to read, the target language smoothly and accurately.
Emphasizing accuracy over fluency, or vice versa, is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to the language student¿½¿½s efforts to attain complexity and mastery of language.
Readers who are not fluent will encounter learning problems across the curriculum, because fluency is essential to comprehension. Students who struggle to decode text do not understand or remember what they have read. Fluent readers are proficient with decoding, phonological awareness, and vocabulary. (Kuhn, M.R., Stahl, S.A. (2000). Fluency: a review of developmental and remedial practices. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Center for Improvement of Early Reading Achievement.)
Accuracy and fluency support one another, and each is necessary to achieving mastery of the target language.
Successful classroom models for teaching fluency and accuracy together have been developed for all stages of language acquisition, and all grade levels, including adult.
Reader¿½¿½s Theater is a teaching model that is used to enhance fluency and accuracy, beginning with the early intermediate stages of language learning. It is used in the elementary, middle and high school classrooms, but is also a good model for use in the adult language learning classroom.
In the Reader¿½¿½s Theater model, students are grouped by interest, not ability. This motivates and engages them, creating a non-threatening learning environment where they are comfortable taking risks.
Reader¿½¿½s Theater can be used across the curriculum. It enchances fluency through its use of repeated readings, and accuracy through comprehension and interpretation. (Worthy, J. (2005). Readers Theater for Building Fluency: Strategies and Scripts for Making the Most of this Highly Effective, Motivating and Research-Based Approach to Oral Reading. New York: Scholastic.)
Instructors choose the script for the theater readings according to the student¿½¿½s ability levels. Scripts are given to the participants prior to the reading, to provide practice time. Instructors guide readers in the use of the script, explaining difficult words or passages, and emphasizing prosody: ¿½¿½This character is angry, so he speaks loudly and quickly.¿½¿½ Thus, accuracy and fluency are each addressed.
No stage set or costumes are necessary in Reader¿½¿½s Theater. The emphasis is on the readings. The members of the class who form the audience have no scripts. They must listen to the readings and respond to what they hear. They may do this orally in a group discussion at the completion of the reading, or they may be asked to provide a written response.
The oral discussions provide further opportunity for fluency practice, and the written responses provide practice for both fluency and accuracy.
The Performance Process Model (Howarth 2001) is another strategy often used to teach fluency and accuracy together. Scott Sheldon explains that this model helps to build complexity in the post-intermediate learner¿½¿½s language. Learners in this stage are communicatively competent, and do not always perceive the need to refine their language any further. Therefore, although they may have studied the language for years, they may not ever achieve mastery. (Sheldon, S. (2009). Promoting Fluency and Accuracy Through Planning, Telling, Transcribing, Noticing. Retrieved January 10, 2010, from Developing Teachers website:http://www.developing teachers.com)
Language learners in the post-intermediate stage who measure language competency by speaking ability, define fluency as the ability to converse with others, rather than the ability to read, write, or comprehend the oral language. They regard speaking as the most important language skill. (Burkhart, G.S. (1998) ¿½¿½Spoken language: what it is and how to teach it¿½¿½ in Modules for the professional preparation of teaching assistants in foreign languages. Grace Stovall Burkhart, ed; Wash.,D.C. Center for Applied Linguistics.)
However, speaking includes three areas of knowledge: mechanics (accuracy): using the right words in the right order, and with the correct pronunciation, functions: knowing when clarity of message is necessary and when precise understanding is not necessary, and social/ cultural norms (discourse): understanding turn-taking, and knowing the appropriate conversational exchanges for use in the specific situation, with the specific people present.
In the communicative model of language learning, instructors help their students acquire this knowledge, through practicing conversation in a meaningful context.
The Performance Process Model used by Sheldon and others is one of the teaching models that can be used to provide opportunities for acquiring these three areas of speaking knowledge.
The Performance Process Model:
Plan - Perform - Analyze - Repeat
Sheldon first provides his students with a model: a listening text of what they will be expected to do. This activates their background knowledge and provides them with a framework for their work. The students are then divided into groups. The task is telling a story. One student from each group agrees to relate a personal anecdote. The group helps the speaker plan what he or she will say. The speakers choose their own stories, but are given guiding questions to answer. Planning what they will say with their group and using the questions helps them to refine their language, and to use more complex language forms.
Student speakers gain support from the collaboration of the group. They are recorded the second time they tell the anecdote, which motivates them to improve their performance.
After the anecdotes are recorded and played back, the performance is analyzed by the speaker and their group. Each member of the group transcribes, amends, and notices the language used, and each member makes suggestions about how the language could be improved. There is a lot of discussion about what was said, and what could, or should, have been said. The students work together, refining and connecting form and meaning, reflecting on the mistakes that have been made, and on similar mistakes they themselves have made. The Performance Process Model provides the opportunity for lots of speaking, and active listening.
This model has been used successfully in many variations. Pedro Luis Luchini used it in teaching English to Chinese students. (Luchini, P.L. (2004). Developing Oral Skills by Combining Fluency with Accuracy Focused Tasks. EFL Asian Journal.)
Luchini¿½¿½s goal, like Sheldon¿½¿½s, was to provide an activity that implemented collaboration and self-initiated language. He points out that the students must rely on their interlanguage, (what they know about language itself, not what they know about a particular language), to produce the initial performance. Afterward, with the help of their group, they have the opportunity to fill in their knowledge gaps.
Luchini¿½¿½s students were juniors in college, whose oral language skills he described as ¿½¿½early intermediate and intermediate¿½¿½, (they had been studying English for 6-8 years). He observed that the combination of meaning and form-focused instruction contributed to the student¿½¿½s oral skills.
Luchini put his students into collaborative learning groups, and gave them comprehensible input via reading text, video tapes, and video-recordings of their own performances. All materials featured the target output. Students were given various tasks to do, to interact with the material. They did self-evaluations, and were also evaluated by their group. After being observed and evaluated, they were shown the target language objective, and given the opportunity to perform the task again and to make corrections to their first performance.
After further evaluation, they produced a third performance.
They were then evaluated by their instructor. They were allowed to choose the instrument of evaluation: an oral examination on the target objective, reading aloud from a prepared script containing the target output, or performing a role-play of the target output with their group.
Luchini observed that in addition to improvement in their oral language use, there was an increase in the students¿½¿½ self-confidence, which improved their fluency.
Rod Ellis discusses the value of planning in achieving fluency. He points out that planning helps the speaker to experience fewer pauses, repetitions and silences, to be more accurate, and to use a greater number of proper word forms, and more complex language. (Ellis, R. (2009). The Differential Effects of Three Types of Task Planning on the Fluency, Complexity and Accuracy in L2 Oral Production. Applied Linguistics30/4:474509doi.10.1093/applin/ amp042. Advance Access published on 30 November 2009 Oxford University Press 2009.)
The performance models Ellis used for his study were similar to the Performance Process Model Sheldon and Luchini used in their classrooms: reciting narratives or responding to pictures to tell a story. The use of communicative language in the model puts focus on meaningful exchange. Grammar is introduced through practicing the communicative language in context, and is acquired through the interaction and feedback. The opportunity for both meaningful exchange and practice in context are an inherent part of the various performance models classroom teachers use.
Reading, telling, and responding to narratives in the Reader¿½¿½s Theater and Performance Process Model gives students an opportunity to practice and apply decoding and comprehension skills, and this practice benefits their fluency, their accuracy, and the complexity of their language production. Fluency in the mechanics of reading leads to comprehending higher levels of reading tasks.
These models implement collaborative learning groups, but classroom instructors have also found it useful to pair students for shared passage reading and discussion, placing higher and lower level students together as partners. The lower level students benefit from their partner¿½¿½s advanced knowledge, and the higher level student¿½¿½s knowledge is reinforced through their teaching, because they must be able to articulate the knowledge to their partner in a comprehensible way, to provide examples, and to answer questions.
Dr. Timothy Rasinski points out that accuracy, along with rate of reading and prosody, is one of the three major components of fluency. (Rasinski, T. (2008). Increasing Fluency with High Frequency Word Phrases. Shell Education.)
Fluency, Rasinski writes, connects decoding with everything we know about words and brings the meaning of what we read to life. Fluency is the bridge to comprehension. He advocates Reader¿½¿½s Theater for fluency practice, and emphasizes the importance of having students listen to model readings, not only to learn new words and phrases, but to know how they are supposed to sound.
Rasinski recommends that teachers do a reading rate evaluation on students three times a year to test their fluency. Instructors use a passage that the student has practiced, model prosody in the text, and have the student read the text aloud for one minute. They record the words that the student reads accurately.
Rasinski uses paired reading, choral reading, call and response/refrain, (where one reader reads a passage and the group answers or gives the refrain), and divided reading. The activities in his book are based on variations of the Performance Process Model for practicing accuracy and fluency: students read material they have had modeled, present material, and respond to and evaluate presentation of material. Exercises implemented after passage reading are cloze exercises (reading comprehension), vocabulary exercises (accuracy), and punctuation exercises (prosody and fluency).
Classroom instructors can assess accuracy and fluency using standardized tests. The Weschler Individual Achievement Test, WIAT, tests accuracy and fluency with reading (word analysis and comprehension), writing (spelling and written language), language (listening comprehension and oral expression). Fluency can also be assessed using DIBELS, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills. DIBELS assesses the student¿½¿½s reading rate.
To attain complexity and mastery of language, students must be able to transition from the attainment of the skills associated with the beginning stages of English language learning: the lexical and syntactic skills associated with accuracy, to the decoding skills acquired with fluency. If they fail to do this, their language skills will fossilize, and they will begin to have problems. This usually occurs in the transition period between the intermediate and late intermediate stages of language learning.
Fluency in the mechanics of reading allows students to direct their cognitive resources to comprehension. If students struggle with decoding the text, they will not be able to comprehend it. As problems with reading create problems across all subject areas, helping students transition from mechanical language skills (accuracy) to automaticity (fluency) is of paramount importance.
As educational research on the benefits of teaching accuracy and fluency together in the classroom develops, more strategies and models for effective teaching of these two components of language will be developed and implemented, enabling more students to achieve mastery of the English language.