Why Accuracy Matters

Posted on April 22, 2012 by


With the utmost respect for the advocacy of teaching for fluency, I have to disagree with it on several points.  Fluency advocates would have you believe that I strike at them from some nebulous, undefined concept simply known as “accuracy”.   Oh so poorly defined and even less understood, but I believe that anyone that knows English would say that they understand the term.  Certainly, English has many different dialects, accents, even differing vocabularies.  One thing that remains constant however, is the basic grammar.  I believe that when accuracy is being attacked they are attacking accuracy at a very high level.  For example the never-ending battle over the use of the Oxford or Serial Comma.  Some people use it, others don’t.  Neither is incorrect.  I, personally was taught to use it, so that’s what I do.  Not everyone in the world was taught that.  I don’t care.  What I do care about it is whether my students are putting nouns and verbs in the correct order.  Accuracy is the ability to produce correct sentences using correct grammar and vocabulary.  Now, this does not speak to meaning.  Certainly one can make entirely nonsensical statements using absolutely perfect grammar.  I do it for fun sometimes.

I think the real question of what stress, accuracy or fluency, depends largely upon the goals we have as teachers and the time frame in which we have to teach.  English is being taught at every single level from first grade to twelfth, and even on into university.  Given that English language education is such a high priority in Georgia and there is a stress on how to do it right, I say let’s do it right.  I want my students to be able to go to an English-speaking country and be able to impress people with how well they speak.  In that regard, learning language is just like building a house.  You don’t start a house from the roof and work down.  You have to have a framework, a basic structure from which to build.  Grammar is that framework.  Words and vocabulary are the bricks and mortar with which the house is finished.

With this as my background let me now address the Seven Reasons to Teach Fluency.

1.  Teaching fluency teaches confidence.  Certainly it does, however it also teaches confidence in perhaps the wrong things.  I know that I always learn best from my mistakes.  When my children make mistakes it also lets me see how their minds are getting to where they are going.  I can follow that path and then put them on the correct one.  I often congratulate my children on their fluency, but to get a “very good” out of me an answer must also be grammatically correct.  I see in their faces the difference this makes and how much harder they try to continue getting that higher level of praise.

2. Teaching fluency teaches adaptability.  This statement is simply false via the falseness of the contrapositive.  If you have not been taught adaptability you have not been taught fluency.  This statement is obviously false.  Fluency teaches you how to be understood and to understand a language.  It teaches you nothing about how to adapt your speech to local variations thereof.

3.  You can’t learn fluency from a book.  This statement implies that one must learn from a native English speaker.  If that were the case then I would be unable to understand my two co-teachers.  I am only the second native speaker they have spent any real amount of time with.  I can tell you that they are quite fluent.  In fact, hearing them speak is one of the main reasons why I like to stress accuracy.  Some of the sounds that English has (i.e “th”, “f”, the distinction between “v”, and “w”) are very difficult to grasp unless you hear them from a native speaker (just as I have a hard time with the more guttural sounds of Georgian).  I hope that I can instill better habits with regards to the pronunciation of these sounds in all of my students as well as my co-teachers so that they don’t perpetuate the mispronunciation.

4.  Fluency is well-defined and has a clear goal, while accuracy is poorly defined, poorly understood, and potentially useless.  The problem with this statement is that fluency, while being clearly defined, has such a broad definition as to border almost on tautological.  Using the definition given above being an accurate speaker only makes one more fluent.  I actually have very little to stand on from a definition standpoint as fluency has managed to steal almost all of language learning.

5. TLGVs are all fluency experts; most are not accuracy experts.  I may not be a high level accuracy expert, but due to recent changes to only teaching 1st-6th grade, I also don’t have to be.  I know verbs follow nouns in statements and the opposite is true for basic questions.  I know the differences between “he”, “she”, and “it” as well as “a” and “an”.  These things I can teach and teach well.

6. Accuracy doesn’t matter.  Ouch!!!  That statement just hurts.  Well if it just doesn’t matter then I guess you know what I’m going to say next.

“not power proposition add us a lives will proper the we so of conceived larger us for hallow rather they new full shall to the nobly perish that war Four conceived can place gave what here people dead earth this who by a as equal devotion fought note a be for a far met our above here resolve we God Now that We great be to live here under to of before advanced to might are to great dedicated dedicate portion shall nation We The great The whether any testing from and fitting what in are continent liberty we for world they is consecrated have rather it say dead new vain that the remaining men so here engaged long this which years who battle-field living did here long in endure dedicated government do created their they take forth us the for so is all or people dedicate not dedicated score that can detract of can civil not in from and on little nor this to brave come remember that increased we men But we honored have that should the that task in here ago the fathers ground It unfinished the It dedicated of here which to seven of gave a have that and birth devotion altogether that we measure but and nation that cause who on it nation that nation far freedom a not work thus those not resting have highly are can people the struggled these poor living for final forget dead died that brought our shall field It this can war have is or sense nation here we we these to and and the last consecrate that never a”

Well maybe you don’t.  The above is one of the most famous speeches given by an American.  It is the Gettysburg Address.  A mere ten, well-articulated, sentences that are taught to almost every American child.  I would wager to say that accuracy has to matter at least a little if we want the above jumble of words to have any effect upon us.

7. Improving fluency improves accuracy.  I completely agree with this statement.  I also agree with its converse that “Improving accuracy improves fluency.”  I don’t think anyone believes that we can have one without the other.  I think that our goal as TLGV’s should be to promote fluent and accurate use of the English language through education, cultural exchange, and interaction within our communities.

[Ed.- Now that you’ve gotten to see both sides of the Accuracy v. Fluency debate, what do you think?  Was your mind changed from your original position like Caitlin?  Do you agree with Panoptical that fluency is the most important?  Or do you subscribe to Choppa481’s position on accuracy?  Add your thoughts to the conversation in the comments section below!]