English Language Teaching Goal: Accuracy or Fluency?

By: Ann Christian A. Francisco

When new to teaching, I wanted my students to be grammarians. I was very traditional and was so focused on the structures of the statements or utterances of my students. I had the ideal thinking that if my students were to be good users of the English language, then they should be grammatically correct at all times. As years passed by and as I observed my co-teachers, I noticed that they were not so focused on grammar. Instead, they looked at the idea of the students and the flow of their expressions. In oral communication, they encouraged the students to just express themselves and disregard grammar. In the English conversations that I hear in the workplace or outside, I noticed some correctly structured utterances and some very fluent but grammatically erroneous utterances. In the classroom, some students who are vocal may be structurally correct or fluent but structurally deficient, or both. These observations made me think, “What should be the focus in teaching the English language?”

Accuracy focuses on grammar correctness and the language teacher makes sure or checks that the structures of the students, whether written or oral, are free of grammatical mistakes. In checking the written outputs of the students, the teacher marks all the grammatical mistakes of the students and asks them to revise such. In spoken communication, the teacher interrupts the students when their utterances contain parts that do not meet the standard. At times when the teacher does not interrupt the students, he or she gives them low to average scores because of the number of their grammatical lapses. Focusing on accuracy, the goal of the language teachers is to turn their students into their mini-versions or grammarians themselves. For future language teachers, this may be an effective training for them. They will be equipped with strong and solid grammatical knowledge and skills. However, for those who will not be future language teachers and those that are not so keen on grammar, this approach may not be advantageous. At worse, it may even be detrimental.

Focusing too much on accuracy may result in unpleasant consequences. For one, many of the students, those that are not so good at the course and not also very interested in it, may feel low morale whenever they are interrupted and corrected. On the process of learning, the flow of ideas of the students is disrupted and this may make the acquisition of the skill and the organization of ideas more taxing, both for the teacher and the students. Moreover, substantial and sound ideas of the students may be overlooked and may not be appreciated if the constant focus is on accuracy. If this happens, the students will not mind so much what they say or write because they will allot more time in making sure that their structure is correct; hence, meaning and content are sacrificed.

On the other hand, fluency moves to the back seat of teaching the correctness of grammar and encourages the smooth and continuous flow of ideas. Here, even if students commit mistakes in their structures or utterances, they are not interrupted and they tend to believe that they have not committed any grammatical mistake. The goal of the teacher here is to make the students express their ideas without any worry of being interrupted or having low score because of their committed grammatical errors in structures. Aside from the continuous flow of ideas, the teacher also looks at the substance or the content of the students’ English outputs.

The focus on fluency may work for English learners who are just starting. Since English is a second language here in the Philippines, it is important that confidence is developed among the learners. One way of doing this is to just let them express their ideas without the fear of being corrected or being criticized for their wrong grammar. However, if this is done all the time without taking time to process their wrong structures, students may have the wrong idea that they have not committed errors and these errors may become fossilized. This entails a bigger problem in the future because it will be very difficult or even impossible to correct. Worse, they may even bring this fluent but structurally questionable kind of English to their workplace when they become professionals. Also, when fluency totally displaces accuracy, teachers build false confidence in the students. When exposed outside and somebody negatively comments on them, they will not take it kindly or constructively.

Fluency and accuracy are equally important goals of language teaching. At times, English teachers focus on accuracy; at other times, on fluency. What is important here is that teachers do not totally neglect either of the two. The weight given to each may not be balanced at all times depending on the intended learning outcome of the lesson or the activity. What matters is, as language teachers, we need to develop communicative competence in our students, and part of this very broad concept is training our students and making sure they gradually become fluent and accurate. We should take time to guide our students to reach these fluency and accuracy, not either of them, but both of them.