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Accuracy and fluency are two key components of second language acquisition. In today’s world, it seems that learning the usage of grammar and focusing on accuracy are emphasized by many language students over fluency. This topic of accuracy and fluency has been a controversial issue that has been discussed for many years. Although some formalists argue that learning a language means learning forms and rules, some activists take a different view and claim that learning a language means learning how to use a language (Eskey, 1983). Thus, this essay will argue that accuracy is not necessarily more important than fluency. It depends on learners’ needs and the purpose of instruction in second language acquisition.
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In order to demonstrate this, this essay will first focus on the importance of accuracy and fluency in English learning and show that they are both essential by looking at two different teaching methods. Second, it will turn to discuss both accuracy and fluency in term of learner goals, learner variables and instructional variables. Third, it will suggest what language teachers should do to deal with the issue and find the right balance between them.
The importance of accuracy and fluency
In this section, it will be argued that both accuracy and fluency are needed in second language acquisition. There has been much discussion about these two components, with arguments put forward in support of either one of the other. However, it will be shown that neither component is useful without the other.
Early teaching methods promoted accuracy over fluency. For instance, the Grammar-Translation Method has been used by language teachers for many years. It is the traditional style of teaching method emphasizing grammar explanation and translation (Cook, 2001). In such a method, it is important for students to learn about the form of the target language. The role of the teacher is the authority. Students merely do what the teacher says and learn from the teacher, and many students consider that correct answers are essential. If they make errors or do not know an answer, it is the teacher’s duty to supply them with the correct answer.
However, accuracy cannot be regarded as enough in language learning. According to Larsen-Freeman (2000), in the Grammar-Translation Method, the language that is used in class is mostly the students’ native language. In this case, there is much less attention to second language speaking and listening. When it comes to speaking and listening skills, fluency needs to be taken account in language learning.
For this reason, other methods have emphasized fluency in language learning. It is clear that these approaches are built on learning the use of language not on learning the usage of it. For example, compared with the Grammar-Translation Method, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) emphasizes the process of communication rather than just focusing on language forms (Larsen-Freeman, 2000). Since the concept of CLT places an emphasis on fluency, errors of form can be seen as a natural outcome of the development of communication skills.
Another argument in favour of fluency is the implementation of language in an authentic environment. In the real world, language is mostly used to express feeling and thought (Eskey, 1983). When there is a purpose to exchange meaning, fluency is the key element during communication. While communicating with each other, foreign language learners often encounter the difficulty, that is, what they know how to say does not achieve their communicative intention. In order to bridge the gap of such discrepancy, learners may use communicative strategies, such as prediction to make the communication successful. This is because if communicators are in the same context, one may predict what the other is going to say next.
For example, before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, taxi drivers in Beijing were trained in order to obtain English speaking ability so that they could communicate with foreign tourists fluently. In this situation, although the taxi drivers were poor at grammar rules, they still can communicate with foreigners. This is because the driver can predict where the foreign passenger will go since their destination may be related to the Olympic Games.
In this case, although some grammatical errors exist, communicators can still understand each other because they are in the same context. When listeners can not understand what speakers mean, they usually predict the following conversation and provide immediate response with speakers in the process of meaning negotiation.
However, it must be remembered that the achievement of this level of communicative competence does not mean an equal one of grammatical competence (Eskey, 1983). As Eskey (1983: 319) claims, “fluency in a language is no guarantee of formal accuracy.” A realistic concern is that focusing on fluency may cause the significant effect on accuracy. According to Eskey (1983: 319), “rewarding a learner’s fluency may, in some cases, actually impede his or her achievement of accuracy.” For example, in order to get meaning across, language learners find the words, but they either pronounce them wrongly or put them together inappropriately. Such problem happens due to the fact that they can speak English continually but express themselves poorly. Thus, although accuracy is not enough by itself, it is still considered as necessary in language learning.
Although learners can still communicate the message to make sense without correct form, it can not be denied that in order to use the language, learners still need to be able to convert linguistic forms into the ability to actually use then. Therefore, when using CLT approach, correcting for accuracy will still be offered by teachers. Although prediction in communicative context may benefit successful communication, fluency is not enough in this circumstance. Without accuracy, misunderstanding may occur because of misspelling, poor pronunciation and grammatical structures. It is therefore clear that as language teachers, both fluency and accuracy must be equally concerned in teaching students to use a language.
The elements towards focusing on accuracy and fluency
As the first section has mentioned, both accuracy and fluency are needed in the process of language learning. In this section, it will be argued that although these two components are equally necessary, there are three elements that may influence focus on them.
The first element to consider is learner goals. It is suggested that many ESL teachers facilitate their students to develop communicative competence to really use the language for authentic purpose. Nonetheless, what students learn from the teacher may not be the outcome that the teacher supposes them to acquire. For example, if Thai children learn English in a rural Thai village, the outcome of language achievement may not all be positive. This is because these children do not need to use English as a tool in their daily life. In contrast, if Thai children learn English in order to sell products to foreigners, then there may be concern about a purpose for communicative competence. Moreover, if they want to pursue higher education in England, accuracy needs to be focused in language learning. Therefore, it seems that the need for accuracy and fluency relates to what goals learners want to achieve.
It is considered that learner variables are also a key element which influences the focus on accuracy or fluency. According to Celce-Murcia (1985), a strategy guideline is provided to assist teachers in determining what degree they ought to focus on form in their own classes. In his study, learner variables include age, proficiency level and educational background. It is noted that every individual learns in different ways. Compared with adolescents and adults, young children seem to be more holistic in learning a concept instead of doing apparent analysis. This is because they are too young to analyse the structure of a language. Therefore, if young ESL learners are taught, it is most likely that little grammar instruction is needed. However, if the students are adolescents or adults, focusing on form may be more important.
It is also suggested that education level is relevant to focus on accuracy or fluency. This is because teaching learners with preliterate level differs from teaching ones with literate level. If adults are at the level of beginners with little formal education, then focusing on form will be less important while fluency is the top priority. On the other hand, if the learners are at the intermediate or advanced level and are well educated, accuracy may be required and it may be necessary for the teacher to provide some feedback relating to form correction in order for them to make progress. Therefore, focusing on accuracy is not enough, fluency still needs to be concerned in terms of learners’ age, proficiency level and educational background.
Moreover, instructional variables can be seen as the third element, which includes skill, register and need. It is suggested that the need of focus on accuracy and fluency also changes according to the purpose of the instruction. For instance, according to Celce-Murcia (1985), when the teacher is teaching receptive skills, such as listening or reading, the emphasis on form will be less important, since these skills require competence primarily in word recognition. Nevertheless, this does not mean accuracy can be neglected, because when knowing grammatical structure, learners can build up logical connection between sentences, which facilitates both listening and reading comprehension.
On the other hand, if the teacher is focusing on productive skills, such as speaking and writing, then formal accuracy will become an essential concern. In addition, it has to be remembered that fluency is still needed for communication purpose. This is because if the teacher is offering a conversation class which purpose is for learners to really use the language to communicate with others, then fluency will be emphasized.
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Furthermore, if the learner’s immediate need is survival communication, formal accuracy is less focused. On the other hand, if the learner wants to use the language in a professional field, such as writing an academic essay or being a diplomat, then a high degree of formal accuracy is essential. “The higher the stakes, the more likely that accuracy will be important” (Eskey, 1983: 318). Therefore, it is clear that both accuracy and fluency are needed and whether focusing on accuracy or fluency depends on learner needs and course objectives.
Approaches of finding balance between accuracy and fluency
a) Course design and needs assessment
Based on these three elements mentioned above, it is suggested that teachers should find the right balance between accuracy and fluency. Eskey (1983) argues that:
Teachers must be prepared to deal with students who know grammar rules but can not speak the language fluently; likewise, they must also be prepared to deal with students who are fluent but not accurate (Eskey, 1983).
In order to balance accuracy and fluency in language learning and teaching, it is suggested that both these components need to be taught in the process of learning situation. Thus, in this section, it will suggest methods of keeping a balance between accuracy and fluency in term of course design and needs assessment.
It has been argued that many language learners have learned grammar rules, but when they want to express themselves, they do not have enough authentic experience of using languages (Celce-Murcia, 1985). Such result may be due to the fact that teaching materials does not provide learners with the context relevant to the communicative situation. In order to solve this problem, Celce-Murcia (1985) suggests an integrating grammar instruction into a communicative curriculum providing purposeful task-based discourse samples. For example, for the general purpose language learners, their beginning level course may start with teaching grammar-meaning correspondences, such as present tense versus past tense. By giving the time frame, students can easily distinguish the difference between these two tenses. After that, students are then taught grammar-function correspondences, such as the tone of must is stronger than need to. As soon as these two basic levels have been established, the teacher can offer discourse-level grammar, such as use of conjunctions. In this case, students not only acquire the grammar rules which focus on accuracy but also apply it for purposeful discourse which focuses on fluency. By this course designed to integrate form, meaning and content, it is possible for learners to balance accuracy and fluency in the communication (Celce-Murcia, 1985).
However, there is a simple question about why learners need to balance accuracy and fluency. The answer to this question relates to English for specific purpose (ESP). According to Hutchinson and Waters (1987), courses should be designed to meet learners’ needs. This may suggest that language teachers should note which learners need more attention on accuracy or fluency. To achieve this goal, for instance, teachers need to gather information about learners’ needs on accuracy and fluency and identify their target situation by using questionnaires, interviews, observation and informal consultations with learners before a course. Having done this, teachers analyse strategies required to cope in target situation, and then create syllabus which is a document saying which aspect needs more effort on accuracy or fluency. After that, select and design materials to focus on these strategies in syllabus. Finally, after teaching the materials, teachers establish evaluation procedures to test learners’ acquisition of accuracy and fluency (Hutchinson and Waters, 1987).
b) Evaluation and feedback
In this section, it will be argued that course design and needs assessment are not enough. The evaluation and feedback afterwards from learners can also help teachers find the right balance between accuracy and fluency. Evaluation can be defined as a whole process of action which begins with decision of information gathering and ends with change in current courses or influence on future ones (Dudley-Evans and St John, 1998). According to Hutchinson and Waters (1987: 145), “an ESP course, after all, is supposed to be successful.” This is because it is designed for particular learners to achieve particular objective with language level of accuracy and fluency.
There are two levels of evaluation. The first one is learner assessment. Students’ performance is assessed at strategic points, such as at the beginning and at the end of the course. This is because ESP concerns with the necessary skills for particular learners to carry out communicative tasks. This kind of assessment enables teachers to determine how much focus on accuracy and fluency is needed (Hutchinson and Waters, 1987). As ESP teachers, they need to consider if the objectives are too ambitious for learners. If so, the learners’ initial language competence may be overestimated. For example, a teacher designs a syllabus by analysing students’ needs. Students are expected to present written work and make an oral presentation in accurate English. After teaching, the teacher may find that serious weakness in grammar leads to unclearness of students’ oral presentation. Although the course contains the objectives of achieving certain level of accuracy and fluency, perhaps students achieve more on either one of them, and then students will require more specific help by teaching both accuracy and fluency used in the context relevant to their needs.
The second one is course evaluation by learners. This helps teachers to demonstrate how well the course actually meets a particular educational aim. Therefore, evaluation not only reflects learners’ performance on accuracy and fluency during the process of learning but also shows how effective students feel the course was. In this case, if they feel the ESP course fails to meet their goal, then there must be something wrong with course design or methodology. It is therefore clear that both learner and course evaluation have a similar function in providing feedback on the ESP course (Hutchinson and Waters, 1987).
Moreover, the feedback of the learning outcome is essential not only for students but also for teachers. This is because feedback reflects students’ learning achievement on accuracy and fluency and the effectiveness of teaching. Therefore, how to evaluate learning and teaching to obtain feedback is important to teachers. In order to find the balance between accuracy and fluency, evaluation and feedback are essential not only at the beginning of the course but also after the instruction.
In conclusion, although accuracy has been emphasised by many language students, as the three sections mentioned above, it can clearly be seen that both accuracy and fluency are important at different needs for different people of different priorities. Despite the fact that some arguments show that accuracy is essential for learners to acquire linguistic form to produce the language, this is not enough. Fluency is still needed considering the language implementation in an authentic environment. This essay has suggested that both accuracy and fluency are needed in second language acquisition. Whether to focus more on accuracy or fluency depends on learners’ needs and course objectives.
Therefore, language teachers can find the right balance of accuracy and fluency by using an ESP approach to design courses relevant to the needs and objectives. Thus, these courses can maximise the effects of teaching and learning through evaluation and feedback. Although ESP can solve this problem, teachers’ ability to design the course should be taken into consideration. Therefore, it is suggested that teacher training program is certainly necessary and the real development may be made in the future.
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