It’s been almost a month since I got back to school and I’ve been working a lot on Writing and Speaking with my classes. As usual, there are many things I discover about my kids both in terms of their own individual way to express their thoughts as well as how well they can communicate them and how accurate they are in their expression. Lots of interesting points for reflection have come up so far, but once again the first thoughts I had in mind related to this big dilemma – fluency or accuracy – which we all face.
Those of us who teach young teen and exam classes try to make our students aware of the importance of fluency and not accuracy. We urge our kids to speak naturally, without overanalysing or translating what they want to say before actually speaking. We encourage mistakes, “celebrate” failure in productive skills and invite our kids to take calculated risks with their oral and written performance.
At the same time though, accuracy is an inevitable part of exam testing. Apart from the obvious signs of being accurate as far as a person’s awareness of tense shifts are concerned (twhich are btw essential if we want to be understood), students are also further assessed in terms of accuracy. Yet, we try to cultivate a spirit of “native speaker naturalness” which involves the making of tons of mistakes. We don’t want our students to consciously think of the grammar or lexis they use, but still if they want to be successful in their exams they have to.
Speaking of a native-speaker like approach in the productive skills, I’ve thought of my own choices as a native speaker of Greek. There have been only a handful of times that I have consciously thought of, analyzed and constucted spoken or written responses in Greek. All these moments were either at formal education settings (national school exams, university) or work settings. In real life, the only reason I have been concerned with how accurate my use of Grammar in Speaking and Writing is because I grew up in a language-loving environment and …I love languages in general.
Certainly there should be a balance between fluency and accuracy. Still though I don’t see how stressing the significance of accuracy can coexist with real life. As a traveller and a person who has lived abroad, I’ve seen that everyday interaction focuses primarily on getting the message across, in other words getting the communicative job done. Apart from reinforcing this idea though, I’m afraid this double-play of “fluency in real life-accuracy in exams” also leaves learners with a mixed sense of purpose. If they are mature/lucky/wise enough to treat exams as a step of the learning process, but not an end-result, then they can realize the difference, but what happens if they aren’t?
What can we do then? I think we should start with the basics of both – focus on the essentials of accuracy (clear indication of past-present-future reference) and respect the message itself (what do I want to say and to whom?). Then, we should build on both gradually by identifying the problems that can impede communication first and then add the accuracy details to the message itself. Finally, let’s remind our students of the mechanics of exam testing – let’s remind them of the fact that language learning is a journey and the exam is just a stop which can offer them benefits (better job prospects, a sense of satisfaction), but doesn’t always prove how much they’ve learned and doesn’t signify the end of the learning process.