Teaching speaking: fluency or accuracy?

Whatever type of approach you intend to use for a particular activity in the classroom, making the differentiation between fluency and accuracy is a very important one.

However, here are some things to think about. From Brumfit…

  • Just because we are talking about fluency, it does not mean that accuracy cannot be present. Accuracy is a focus on issues of appropriacy and other formal factors.
  • Overuse of accuracy monitoring can cripple language development, making the students lose confidence through the teacher’s over correction.
  • Any language activity that involves the learners not working like native speakers cannot be called a fluency activity.
    • The “quality” of the language is irrelevant.
    • Because:
      • work that focuses on language alone = accuracy work
      • and work that focuses on the language of the native speaker = fluency work.


So what is the “correct” approach?


Well, the behaviourist influenced thinkers will argue that mistakes reinforce mistakes

Whilst the cognitive argument argues that mistakes are simply an exploration of meaning.


The characteristics of accuracy and fluency activities…


  • Usage: explanation
  • Language for display
  • Language for knowledge
  • Attempts at communication are judged by linguistic competence
  • Attention is given to language
  • Correction is often a feature of accuracy focussed work
  • Language is the objective


  • Use: real life
  • Language for communication
  • Language for skill
  • Attempts at communication are judged by performance
  • Attention is given to meaning
  • Correction is generally a minor clarification of fluency in use
  • Communication is the objective

So, it seems that we should:

  1. look at spoken language as something different to written language;

  2. make a distinction between accuracy and fluency;

  3. decide whether we are going to adopt a behaviourist or cognitive approach to learning theory;

  4. and then having decided what our students’ needs are, what their aims are and what it is that we want to do, we then need to actually get out there and actually do it…


Is it actually possible to have fluency practice in a monolingual classroom?

If the above things are taken into consideration, then it is probably very difficult to have true fluency speaking activities in the classroom with monolingual students. But…

  • What about level? –do students’ needs change?

  • Can the same activity be used for both fluency and accuracy focus?

  • What effect do examinations have on this?

  • What about the length of the course? How can this have an effect?


Fluency tasks should:

  • build students’ confidence.

  • be a chance for students to recycle language and vocabulary

  • allow students to talk about what they wish to talk about.

  • need to listen to each other

  • be good for diagnosis: students can experiment with language

  • give students space so they can personalise

  • have a positive effect on classroom dynamics

  • if they have an authentic task which works in real time, then the language will have a direct effect on the outcome of the task.

  • in life, communication in paramount and requires a genuine use of language.

  • fluency is a process not a product.

How can students cope when they do not know the words they need?

  • Paralinguistics

  • Paraphrasing

  • Asking for help (in L1 or in L2)

  • Suck it and see approach

  • Pure guessing

  • They can change what they want to say: for example, calling a monkey a bear.

  • Some students close down at the start when they realise that they cannot finish off what they want to say.

  • Teach students fillers to give them thinking time

  • Teach and encourage students to start to get the language they need from their peers.

  • Engage in lots off listening activities using authentic materials so that students can begin to get a feel for authentic and natural language.

  • Give them lots of opportunities to hear authentic texts. You may well have to record them yourself though. Is it possible to find authentic spoken dialogue on the radio or television?


Multilingual classes often cause the students to bury themselves in their dictionaries when they should be involved in a fluency activity. What are the problems in monolingual classes?


Books and activities

Some books (especially the pair work ones) are very much language orientated, others are more fluency based. What is the focus of your course book? Does it address the needs of your students? Is it fluency or accuracy focussed? Are there definite reasons for using speech to communicate in these activities – in other words, is the book task based, or are the activities simply speaking for the sake of practising a definite micro linguistic point?


Some Course Book Speaking Activities are, in my opinion, fairly shoddy. However, the question I should be asking is: “what do I actually do that is better?”

  • There is often no outcome (other than just to get to the next exercise).

  • There is no reason for the communicative act. Eg. Talk to your neighbour about…

  • They do little to encourage native type speaking tasks.

  • There are very rarely any authentic models presented.

  • They are usually designed for grammar of function practise.


Fluency and Outcomes

Try to ensure that fluency activities have an outcome: i.e., they reach a decision. Others, for example talking about oneself can go on forever.

What can the teacher do during a fluency activity?

  • Collect samples of language and go over it with the students at the end.

  • Ask the students what they had problems with – what their perception of their performance was…

  • Record the students onto tape so they get to hear what they really sound like.

  • Provide models of native speakers performing the same tasks.


Remember, as soon as we start directing our students we are moving away from fluency activities.


Total Immersion Approaches

Prabhu in Bangalore adopted a very radical (for its time) approach involving total immersion in tas based learning with virtually no language input from teachers. What lessons there were were all based on fluency practice. It was however, extremely successful.I participated in a softer version of this in Azerbaijan to good effect.


Jigsaw Pictures

Have a large picture which is divided into 12 sections. Students have to discuss, describe and piece the whole thing together: can can even be done as an information gap exercise, although this will mean that the activity will lose its fluency bias.

For lower levels and make the activity more controlled, use less than twelve divisions in the picture. Also the teacher can set up the language beforehand. Early finishers can be writing the story up on the board.

Disadvantages with this activity is that it does tend to be rather slow, although you could try to speed it up by making smaller, more compact groups, and/or by making it a race.


Information Gap

Most good fluency activities have some degree of information gap – just as in real life.


Talking about oneself

Students share social and cultural information. Also, jobs, school, personal stories…


Problem Solving

“What’s the best way of robbing a bank?”

With/Without information gap: see Heinemann: Communication Games


Decision Making

In decision-making activities, students should share ideas and come to a conclusion or managed differences.

Examples include Balloon Debates and Skills and civilization.


Debate and Discussions

Look for interesting topics such as, “Men and Women are from Different Planets”. However this is always a very subjective thing to do and it is not always possible to actually do it in practise. How do we know what is interesting to all our students?

The answer to this is to use a questionnaire to set the activity up. The questionnaire can be used as a separate activity task.


Pure Discussion

This is the most difficult to make work. Does this sound familiar (although it may be expressed silently)


“I don’t have any opinion”


It can also take off to such an extent that some students are shouting and others never get to say anything. Some students may be so offended by what they have heard in a debate that they simply decide that these classes are simply not for them.


Our Questionnaire

Or variation: but it will give you an idea about what students think before going down the fluency road. It also means that students can’t easily change their minds over time. Any questionnaire about the class and the student’s learning experiences is nearly always a well received activity. Probably because it is actually about the students own experience.

Variations might include: true/false, change the statement so you agree, collect the statements with which you agree with and a dictation of a topic which the students can then change to suit themselves.


Project Work

Complete projects with questionnaires


Phone for information

Organising own activities

Action Research: this is solving real problems


Order pictures that show a sequence and describe the chain of events.


Role Play

  • Some students can find them very threatening.

  • Some students can be so quiet that others can’t hear what it is that they are saying.

  • In doing a role-play, you are in fact asking the students to act.


  • You can get the students to choose their own roles.

  • Have prompt cards ready to help them remember dialogue if they get stuck (is this fluency though?)

  • Organise the whole activity with great care, thinking very carefully about what each individual student can do.

  • Think numbers: the students not actively involved in the performance of a role-play – how are they processing language? Are they engaged in any activity?

Suggestopaedia [Lozanov Method]

Developed by the Bulgarian Lozanov. It makes use of dialogues, situations, and translations to present and practise language, and in particular, makes use of music, visual images, and relaxation exercises to make learning more comfortable and effective. Suggestopaedia is said to be a pedagogical application of “suggestology”, the influence of suggestion on human behaviour.

Teachers adopting this method often ask students to take on a new role, of their choosing. Mask making and wearing in class may sound silly, but apart from being a good project the masks can make this methodology work.



An Activity for Teaching ESL/EFL Students to Make Quick Replies and Encourage Fluency

A typically native utterance is the one that comes off the top of the head, without much thought given to it. This type of expression could well come under the heading of “small talk”, and a common example is “Great weather, isn’t it”.

  • The idea of this activity is to get the students to reply as naturally as possible to a relatively empty comment or statement like above.

  • Their reply will lack in formal correctness, because that is not the aim of the class. (Much native-native banter is said to be formally incorrect).

  • Another very important factor to tell them is that their reply does not have to be a logical follow-up remark; they should say the first thing that comes into their heads. By saying the first thing that comes into their heads, they are actually behaving collaboratively with the initial speaker.

  • To this end, the reply should also be quite short, although there are no hard and fast rules when people’s personal interpretations are involved.


The Rejoinders & Replies Activity


  • Tell the students that they are with friends in, say, a cafeteria.

  • It is a cloudy day outside and there is a lull in the conversation.

  • Someone is reading a paper, another person could be day-dreaming, and another people-watching. Silence reigns, and then one of the group says something, which is not directed at anyone in particular, off the top of his head.

The teacher can utter the following remarks with the tone he sees fit. He can direct the utterance at the students one by one, or at the group of students, but all the students must then reply.

  • Hey! It’s the end of the month!

  • Ouch! I’ve cut my finger on this page.

  • Someone looking at a newspaper: You know guys, this town we live in really IS a beautiful place.

  • Someone looking at a holiday photo of himself: Jeez, I look awful here.

  • Someone who is broke: I’d have another coffee, only I don’t have any money left.

  • Someone looking at a newspaper: That was a terrible accident in X, wasn’t it?

  • Someone looking towards the street: It must be raining, I see an umbrella up outside.

  • Someone whispering: See that man over at the counter, he’s just put a cake into his pocket.

  • Someone looking at a newspaper: Actors are lucky people, aren’t they?

  • Someone looking at the TV in the cafeteria: People watch too much TV.

  • Someone watching a mother/father with young children: They shouldn’t allow kids in here.



The teacher can say the spontaneous comments and then get the students to reply spontaneously.

You can change the setting to, say, a meeting, a hospital, a school and so on

  • Students often tend to take too long, and ended up constructing wonderful, logical, grammatical sentences (not to mention polite). For example, to “Ouch! I’ve cut my finger”, I got: “You must go to hospital”! and “Cover it” (?)

  • Fair enough, you can just practise simple, correct sentences,

    • but this activity wants to encourage realistic, fast replies, which are elliptical in many cases like in native-native exchanges.


  • Allow the students to give their long-pondered sentences, but remind them that they are with friends and that real life interlocutors don’t normally wait 20 seconds for a reply to a spontaneous remark.

  • Get them to be creative and help to get them into an appropriate frame of mind. They must forget they are in a classroom.

As a bonus, you may even be able to digress (let them know this, tell them it is a time-out) and actually debate a reply (for example, the one about the town being a shop window. Why is it?).

In summary, encourage:

  • Imagination.

  • Ellipsis.

  • Spontaneity.

  • Appropriate frame of mind. Get into context.

  • Accuracy is not that important.


Getting Elementary Students to Talk” –Roslyn Young

This is an approach that Roslyn Young took to get a group of students to become a group of friends an begin to engage in pure fluency talk. She wanted to get rid of books and methods and allow students to talk about themselves. This was based on the premise that everyone wants to talk about the most important person in the world: me. So, she thought, “let it show, make it obvious! Help them to meet each other”.

The class

  • The class was a fifty hour Evening class over 25 weeks. From October to June.

  • 12 students.

  • More than half had already has 50 hours of English instruction with the same teacher using Silent Way.

  • Most of the students were in their 50s and some were in their 60s.

  • It was a French monolingual class.

The beginning

  • She began by giving a five minute potted history of the English language. She believes that the French students particularly appreciate that they realise they already know half the language.

  • She then said that she was going to stop talking and that they if they wanted something to ask, they should finds someone they wanted to ask it of, and do their best to get the message across.

By November…

  • They were getting the hang of chatting in English… but,

  • they absolutely wanted to take notes. RY didn’t want them to do so, because they would then miss out on parts of the conversation and the whole way of working would be doomed.

Her compromise…

  • she recorded the whole class and typed up the conversation (!) and gave it out the next week. She has carried on like this until now.

  • Wile they waited for late comers, the students read over what they had done the week previously.

Ongoing techniques…

  • She uses the Silent Way Charts, and any word not on them will be written up on the board.

  • Correction: she holds her hands out in an open gesture to indicate: “how can you correct this sentence?” The class collectively try to work the problem out. If there are still minor errors, she uses finger correction. After she uses chants, chorus and concept cheking techniques to ensure that the students have got the sentence “off pat”.

  • She uses any type of link that helps students to remember vocabulary.

  • She expends vocabulary using “series”. The word “way” comes up. She adds: raiwa, runway, subway.

By March…

  • The students were beginning to have proper conversations.

  • However, the course had become for the students like some kind of party. They had become natural friends.

Learning to write…

  • Some students wanted to write, so she proposed that they wrote letters to her.

  • She asked them not to write about important things like politics, but about their own lives.

  • instead of correcting the letters, she simply wrote back.

How much time does it take?

  • She reports that writing letter only takes a few minutes. I have done a similar thing and in half an hour one can write many letters… maximum length is a page, and both she and I tended to write about the same length as the students.

  • It takes about an hour to transcribe the tape I the evenings.

  • On the other hand, she has no need to prepare the classes as she as no idea as to what is going to happen.

Bibliography and further reading

Brumfit, Christopher Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching: the roles of fluency and accuracy. (CUP 1984) Chapter 4 “Accuracy and Fluency” pp.50-57 sect 4.1

Klippel, Friederike Keep Talking CUP 1984

Sion Chris Creating Conversation in Class: Student Centred Interaction First Person Publishing 2001

Young, Roslyn Getting Elementary Students to Talk http://assoc.wanadoo.fr/une.education.pour.demain/articlesrrr/sw/talking.htm

Brown, H.D. Affective factors in second language learning. In J.E.Alatis, H.B. Altman & P.M. Alatis (Eds.). The Second Language Classroom: Directions for the Eighties. New York: Oxford University Press. 111-29. (1981).






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  1. Posted October 10, 2010 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    Hello Miguel thank you for your huge contribution to my teaching learning it is so useful !!!!!!

  2. nostalgian
    Posted February 28, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Thank you for creating an excellent site. :)
    It’s very helpful for me as I’ve got some ideas to work on my thesis, which focuses on students’ fluency in using humanistic exercises.

    You are well-organized your website as it’s easy to read and follow each parts. Also, the background and color don’t harm my eyes. :)