Here is a case of extremes: On the one hand, you have students who are obsessed with accuracy and terrified of making mistakes and losing face. So they try to say as little as possible, and what they do say tends to sound stilted and over-rehearsed. On the other hand, you have students who are so eager to communicate their ideas that they rattle on without pausing to check whether they are being understood and, seemingly oblivious to any interventions, make the same errors over and over again.
Well, hopefully we don’t get too many ‘extreme’ students, but such characterizations can serve to highlight the need to maintain a balance between accuracy and fluency in the language learning process. So how is this balance best achieved? This is a question that we could usefully put to our students. I believe that it is important to involve students in all aspects of the learning process, so that they are clear about what they are being asked to do and why. This is particularly important in task-based learning, where successful outcomes rely on student participation and enthusiasm.
Here then is a quick, practical way to discuss the issue. The first step is to draw a simple shape on the whiteboard and ask the students to call out what they think it is.
They will probably all know words like triangle or pyramid, as these are fairly universal. (If they don’t, make a note to include language work on shapes in a future lesson!) Now add a further detail to the shape and again ask them to say what they think it is.
At this point, especially if you teach engineers or architects, you may get a few tech-savvy students calling out lever, fulcrum or pivot point. More likely, though, students will recognize something from their childhoods for this is another universally recognised device, as ubiquitous a playground favourite as hopscotch and skipping ropes. They may not know the English word – a German student might say ‘Yes, it’s a Wippe!’ and a French student might say ‘That’s a tape-cul!’ – so you can give them the English word seesaw. Or even teeter-totter. More importantly, you can then ask them how a seesaw works, and what is required to keep it going efficiently.
‘At the very least you need two people, one on each end and ideally of the same size or weight, who must cooperate in order to keep the up and down motion going’. Ask students what happens when a large person is on one side and a small person is on the other side, and most of them will have some childhood recollection of being helplessly suspended at the wrong end! This situation can also be shown on the whiteboard.
Now you can introduce the idea of one ‘seesaw-er’ being accuracy and the other being fluency, and ask them to come up with suggestions as to what their English would be like if (say) the heavy side was accuracy and the light side was fluency. They might say things like ‘I want to be precise, so I find it difficult to speak’ or ‘I spend a lot of time thinking about the correct grammar’. If you ask them to think about the reverse situation, where fluency was dominant, they might say ‘I feel confident in speaking, but I think I am translating too freely’. Thus without indulging in too much talk about language acquisition theory or methodology you can impress upon students the importance of keeping a balance between accuracy and fluency – or better still, as the seesaw-ers, they will work it out for themselves. The final seesaw on the board might therefore look like this, with a few added points on either side of the balancing act.
In task-based learning, the students will have opportunities during the task phase to practise fluency in a range of business situations such as meetings and presentations as well as fluency in writing tasks such as reports and business letters. The role of the teacher is to set up the task in such a way that the students are clear about what they have to do to complete the task and are comfortable using their English in order to do so. When each task is completed, there is a feedback phase in which the language focus turns to accuracy – the teacher has noted down points to work on and can fill in gaps and give correction accordingly. Specific aspects of grammar and pronunciation can be dealt with in a structured way, using the board and checking that students have understood and noted corrections. This diagram shows the task-based learning cycle with the teacher’s input at each stage as well as what students contribute and learn from the process.
Harking back to an earlier post about whether teachers should switch brains in mid-lesson it is tempting to revisit the metaphor and suggest that in maintaining this balance between accuracy and fluency students also need to be working with both sides of their brains, albeit not at the same time. If we consider again the bicameral brain we can see some interesting parallels with the accuracy-fluency dichotomy.
The left-brain group of functions seem to suggest attention to structural detail and accuracy (indeed Broca’s Area, the part of the brain associated with language, is located in the left hemisphere) whereas the right-brain functions suggest interactive skills and a spontaneous approach to communication based on intuition and feelings. If we were to split the language student’s brain and put it on to our seesaw we might have something like this:
No wonder language learning is sometimes described as headache-inducing! But while the metaphor may not entirely hold (inasmuch as there are too many overlaps and too many unsolved puzzles in such a fluid area of study as second language acquisition) it is important to be on top of these two aspects of language learning and to ensure that our students are equipped to play them off against each other to maximum effect.