Teach accuracy. No, wait, teach for fluency!

Posted on April 18, 2012 by

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My host mother and I share a very challenging 6th grade class. There are two distinct levels – a group of eight students are studying the second Macmillan book and a much louder group of about fifteen students are studying the third Macmillan book. Until a couple of weeks ago, I worked primarily with the bigger group and my co-teacher (and host mother) worked with the smaller one. Two simultaneous lessons generally resulted in a very loud, and often frustrating 45 minutes. A few weeks ago, my host mother and I began switching between groups – some days I would work with the lower level; and others with the upper level. For some reason, this was rarely discussed before arriving in the classroom, but simply announced by my co-teacher to begin the lesson. Just before the beginning of April, annoyed by the lack of consistency, I made an attempt to express my desire to work with one group – for the students’ benefit, as much as mine. This resulted in a rather heated, but productive, conversation between me and my co-teacher, which I’ll discuss after some background.

During the second half of March, I was contemplating a question posed to us a while back – whether we should teach for accuracy or for fluency.  I thought about it for a while and decided we should teach for accuracy. In my eyes, working with mostly young students presents us TLG volunteers with an incredible opportunity – because our students are so young, their brains act like language sponges, absorbing many of the intricacies of language that older students struggle to understand. Teaching for accuracy, I reasoned, would exploit the natural acquisition process of a young child’s brain and thus be the most efficient way to give our students a solid English language foundation, from which they could build towards fluency and would be prepared for any future that might require English. I even began preparing a post about the importance of teaching for accuracy. And then I had the aforementioned heated discussion with my co-teacher.

On the day of this conversation, I had spent the day struggling through a reading passage with the lower level students. This reinforced something I’ve suspected for a while – that both groups have relatively weak English. Although they can fill in every blank correctly on their grammar exercises, they struggle to hold a basic conversation or to discuss the reading passages in English. I try to speak very slowly and clearly, it’s obvious that they generally have no idea what I am saying, even if it’s as simple as “who is going to the store” or “you need to write.” My co-teacher often conducts the majority of the class in Georgian, frequently giving all of her classroom commands in Georgian. As she’s taught two different levels three times a week all year, this is completely understandable, and, if I was in her position, I would probably do the same thing. But, since I can only speak English, half of the class is constantly struggling to understand the lesson. Having a lesson solely in English is a big change for these students, but it gets easier with practice. The core of this heated conversation was about how we should conduct the lesson and who should teach which level.

I wanted some consistency – to always teach the same group of kids; my co-teacher wanted us to alternate every lesson. As we discussed the merits of each approach, whether Georgian should be so frequently used and what activities to do with the kids, I realized that I was trying to convince my co-teacher to adopt a more fluency-oriented approach to her English classes. After all, does it really matter if the students know the past simple of every irregular verb in English if they can’t understand the question “what are you doing?”

There are a lot of benefits about teaching for accuracy and, in the abstract, there will always be a debate between fluency and accuracy. In a perfect classroom, a foreign language would be taught with a balance of both fluency and accuracy. However, as TLG volunteers, we don’t teach in a perfect world. We work with some classes only once a week for 45 minutes and are rarely in a class for all of their English lessons; we have classes with wide disparities in English levels. All of this makes it very challenging, if not impossible, for us to craft and execute the type of balanced lesson plans that build both fluency and accuracy. And, we are teaching in a system that already emphasizes accuracy over fluency. As TLG volunteers, the best thing we can do is bring a little more balance to the lesson. And this means teaching for fluency.

Teaching for fluency means helping the students to expand their vocabulary and express their ideas. It means helping the students to build their conversational and written English, ignoring grammatical mistakes as long as they don’t interfere with meaning. In my two months in Georgia, I’ve had countless impromptu conversations with students, many of whom can recite the past participles of common English verbs but can’t hold a conversation beyond “how are you?” Any native English speaker can understand “There is a lot of potatoes on the table,” and “Yesterday, I go to the store” even though those are not grammatically correct. And, arguably, our Georgian co-teachers would be better at teaching English grammar, since they had to learn the rules, explanations and exceptions, whereas we grew into that knowledge. As TLG volunteers, we have a unique teaching environment, but one where our primary role, ideally, is to compliment the teaching of our co-teacher.

Let the Georgian co-teachers teach grammar and, during the time you are conducting the lesson, find activities that encourage the students to express their ideas and use their vocabulary. By building fluency, we give students the ability to use their English immediately – if only to converse with their TLG volunteer after school. It helps to build confidence among a large portion of the class, not just the few who are really good at grammar. It encourages the students to use English to express their ideas and their lives, thus motivating students to seek out new vocabulary and new phrases so that they can more accurately express their thoughts. And confidence and motivation, more than anything else, are essential for learning a second language.

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