Seven Reasons to Teach Fluency

Posted on April 21, 2012 by


We’ve touched on the issue of accuracy vs. fluency before (here and here). I’m here to tell you why we, as TLG volunteers, and English teachers in general, should ought to focus most of our efforts on teaching fluency.

1. Teaching fluency teaches confidence. If we correct every mistake in every utterance that our students produce, we risk leaving them feeling frustrated and give them the idea that they will never get it right. If we instead congratulate them when they get their point across it will give them a sense of accomplishment and the feeling that they can use English successfully in the world. This in turn allows/encourages them to practice their English more, and practice is the most effective way of actually improving.

2. Teaching fluency teaches adaptability. There are thousands of different English dialects and no clear indication of which ones Georgians are most likely to encounter in their daily lives. The correctness conditions for these dialects are often subtly different, and fluency precisely means that you can effectively communicate with someone despite having a different grasp of those correctness conditions.

3. You can’t learn fluency from a book. Fluency requires practice – practice communicating, not just reciting memorized texts. For many Georgian students, the TLG volunteer is the only person who will ever give them that practice.

4. Fluency is well-defined and has a clear goal, while accuracy is poorly defined, poorly understood, and potentially useless. Fluency is the ability to understand and make yourself understood, and has the clear goal of enabling the Georgian speaker to successfully interact with other speakers of English in real-world situations. Accuracy, on the other hand, varies from speaker to speaker, dialect to dialect, and register to register. Among the thousands of books on accuracy, grammar, and usage are a stunning number of contradictions and even self-contradictions; arguably the most famous – The Elements of Style – breaks its own “rules” over and over again. If a student does attain perfect accuracy in some dialect it will be of little use given that few people are equipped to recognize perfect accuracy and that among those, most regard it as relatively unimportant.

5. TLGVs are all fluency experts; most are not accuracy experts. We have been communicating in English all our lives, but most of us have never studied grammar in a systematic, formal way, and almost none of us are up to date on the research that is continuously being done on English grammar using new tools, such as computational linguistics and corpus studies, that render older grammars obsolete. In case you are wondering what level of grammatical expertise you really need to teach fifth graders accuracy, I direct you to this post on teaching superlatives which lays out the argument that, instead of putting “the” before a superlative, any determiner will do. In the four months since I wrote that post, I’ve come up with examples of superlatives that don’t need any determiner at all. (For example, the old adage “He who laughs last laughs best” and its more hilarious cousin “He who laughs last thinks slowest” both use two superlatives with no determiner.) Like I said – none of us are accuracy experts. A lot of the rules that we think we know, even about very basic, fundamental grammatical structures, are just wrong. They amount to folklore that most of us don’t have the expertise to debunk. We should focus on what we do know, which is how to communicate in English.

6. Accuracy doesn’t matter. Because the rules of English are so incredibly complex, even native speakers often make mistakes in spelling, grammar, and usage. That’s why, in the real world, we all use spell check, grammar check, and, for professional publications, proofreaders and copyeditors. There are people who get paid to know the difference between “its” and “it’s”; for the rest of us its just not as important as simply getting the point across.

7. Improving fluency improves accuracy. When language learners communicate, their fluency is improved by practice, but their accuracy usually also improves as they emulate the texts or speakers they are exposed to. Fluency improves the learner’s ability to communicate and the range of different communications the learner can take part in, thus providing additional opportunities to increase accuracy in a practical rather than theoretical way.

Of course, not everyone’s riding the fluency train.  Our next post in the series will tell you Why Accuracy Matters.