Published 21st June 2017

accuracy vs fluency

Part and parcel of being an English as a Foreign Language teacher is lesson planning, which, unfortunately, is a necessary evil. In the EFL classroom, there are a lot of different factors to consider when making a lesson plan best suited to your students. It can be tricky to know which activities are optimal to achieve the aims of your lesson. One consideration that often trips us up is when we should be focussing on accuracy or fluency. So, accuracy and fluency: what’s the big deal?

When you think about it, when you’re teaching English as a Foreign Language there are a lot of balls you need to juggle. You need to have a solid grasp of English grammar, an understanding of teaching techniques and theories of learning, a good idea of best practices when it comes to classroom management, a good dose of creativity – not to mention bucket-loads of patience. So it’s not surprising to know that there are certain aspects of the job which we can still find puzzling.

Accuracy and Fluency

Which is precisely why we’re here! 

Let’s look at the difference between accuracy and fluency in the EFL classroom – and why it actually matters – so you can be more confident in your teaching skills, and together we can conquer the world!

…or just teach better, but whatever.

Accuracy and Fluency
Accuracy and Fluency

What is accuracy in the EFL classroom?

Accuracy refers to how correct learners’ use of the language system is, including their use of grammar, pronunciation and grammar.

In other words, accuracy is the correct use of tenses, verb forms, collocations and colloquialisms, among other things. 

Accuracy activities are activities which will concentrate on the nitty gritty of the language construction to ensure that the language item is produced 100% accurately – such as grammar exercises, gap fills, drilling or noticing activities. These usually take place in the controlled practice stage of the lesson. There is not a lot of variation in these activities, as there is a right and a wrong answer. 

For many EFL learners, accuracy is considered very important, and one of the main responsibilities of an EFL teacher is thought to be to correct errors and ensure the highest level of accuracy. However, while of course a certain degree of accuracy is needed for all communication, classroom tasks should not be geared towards more accuracy activities than fluency, because fluency is just as important.

What is fluency in the EFL classroom?

Fluency refers to how well a learner communicates meaning rather than how many mistakes they make in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary.

In other words, the ease with which a learner can speak and how well they can communicate without pauses or hesitations, without needing to search for words or phrases, without having to consider the language of what they are about to say. 

It’s important to note that a person who is fluent may not necessarily be 100 % accurate but they are generally still comprehensible. 

Fluency activities focus not so much on how the students are communicating but what they are communicating. Examples of fluency activities are conversations, roleplays, debates and projects.

So what’s the big deal?

In many EFL classrooms, the free practice stage is the last in the lesson. Most of the lesson time is dedicated to presenting the target language and ensuring the students are able to produce it accurately and appropriately. The free practice is stuffed into however many minutes are left in the lesson. Because of this, if a lesson is running late or the teacher runs out of time, it is this stage which is shortened or even cut entirely.

This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least because it is often the stage the students enjoy the most. And why wouldn’t they? It’s a chance for them to speak freely without worrying about their language. Instead they can focus on the content of what they are saying, which is why we communicate in the first place!

At the same time, this focus on accuracy is misguided, as accuracy is by no means more important than fluency. In fact, a student who is more fluent than accurate can be more successful at communication than someone who is more accurate than fluent. 

This is because communication is a fluid concept which involves more than one participant, and the other participant may still be able to understand the communication even if the rate of accuracy of the speaker is not very high.

Accuracy vs fluency in the EFL classroom

Our learners want to learn to speak English in order to communicate. And if we boil it down to one thing, communication is about being understood. To get all fancy and technical, communicative competence is being able to make use of vocabulary and grammar and their rules appropriately in order to convey a message. So while of course there is a need for a certain amount of accuracy, fluency can be seen to play a bigger role in effective communication. 

In your EFL lessons, try not to focus on accuracy to the detriment of fluency. Allow sufficient time for fluency activities, and this includes time for adequate preparation on the part of your students. You still need to scaffold the activity but you don’t need to give them step-by-step instructions for what they should say. If your activity is appropriate and relevant for your students, this should actually come naturally to your students, as they will have a purpose for communicating.

Speaking Activity

In the classroom, when planning a speaking activity, consider whether you will be assessing your students on accuracy or fluency and stick to that decision. If you choose to focus on fluency, don’t stop your students if they make mistakes but if you are aiming for accuracy then make sure your students are producing accurate language.

In a nutshell, both accuracy and fluency are important in the classroom and one should not be sacrificed for the other. 

This may sound simple and logical, but it’s easy to try to incorporate elements of both accuracy and fluency into your lessons, often with the result that your students don’t get the benefit of practising either. Instead, make sure there are opportunities for both types of activities in your lessons to ensure your students get the best of both worlds and get practice with both accuracy and fluency.