A is for Accuracy

31 05 2015
from The Visual Thesaurus

from The Visual Thesaurus http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

Accuracy and fluency: it used to be the case that, of these two constructs, fluency was the one that was the most elusive and contentious – difficult to define, difficult to test, and only rarely achieved by classroom learners.

It’s true that fluency has been defined in many different, sometimes even contradictory ways, and that we are still no nearer to understanding how to measure it, or under what conditions it is optimally realized. See, for example F is for Fluency.

But I’m increasingly coming to the view that, of the two constructs, it is accuracy that is really the more slippery. I’m even wondering if it’s not a concept that has reached its sell-by date, and should be quietly, but forcefully, put down.

Look at these definitions of accuracy, for example:

  • “….clear, articulate, grammatically and phonologically correct” (Brown 1994: 254)
  • “…getting the language right” (Ur 1991: 103)
  • “…the extent to which a learner’s use of the second language conforms to the rules of the language” (Thornbury 2006: 2)

Correct? Right? Conforms to the rules? What could these highly normative criteria possibly mean? Even before English ‘escaped’ from the proprietorial clutches of its native speakers, by whose standards are correctness or rightness or conformity to be judged?

at the weekend

“[preposition] the weekend” from The Corpus of Global Web-based English CLICK TO ENLARGE

Take my own variety of English for example: I was brought up to say ‘in the weekend’. I found it very odd, therefore, that the coursebooks I was using when I started teaching insisted on ‘at the weekend’. And then, of course, there were all those speakers who preferred ‘on the weekend’. It was only by consulting the Corpus of Global Web-based English (Davies 2013) that I was able to confirm that, in fact, of all the ‘preposition + the weekend’ combos, ‘in the weekend’ is significantly frequent only in New Zealand, while ‘on the weekend’ is preferred in Australia. OK, fine: as teachers we are sensitive to the existence of different varieties. But if a learner says (or writes): ‘In the weekend we had a barby’, do I correct it?

Moreover, given the considerable differences between spoken and written grammar, and given the inevitability, even by proficient speakers, of such ‘deviations’ from the norm as false starts, grammatical blends, and other dysfluencies –  what are the ‘rules’ by which a speaker’s accuracy should be judged?

In fact, even the distinction between written and spoken seems to have been eroded by online communication. Here, for example, are some extracts from an exchange from an online discussion about a football match. Ignoring typos, which ‘deviations’ from standard English might be attributed to the speaker’s specific variety?

>I don’t care about the goal that wasn’t given; I care about how bad we played particularly when under pressure. Base on the performance from last three games we will be hammered when we play a “proper” decent side!! People think we are lucky to aviod Spain and get Italy but lets not forget the Italian draw Spain so they are no pushovers.

> yes we was lucky, but all teams get lucky sometimes. thats football, you cant plan a tactic for good or bad luck.

> Devic was unlucky to not have the goal allowed and the official on the line needs to get himself down to specsavers but as Devic was offside the goal should not of counted anyway. Anyway I pretty fed up with all the in fighting on here so I am not bothering to much with these blogs for the foreseeable future.

> also on sunday night i will be having an italian pizza i think it will suit the mood quite nicely

I think that the point is here that nit-picking about ‘should not of’ and ‘base on’ is irrelevant. More interestingly, it’s virtually impossible to tell if the deviations from the norm (e.g. ‘the Italian draw Spain’;’ we was lucky’; ‘I pretty fed up’…) owe to a regional or social variety, or to a non-native one. The fact is, that, in the context, these differences are immaterial, and the speakers’ choices are entirely appropriate, hence assessments of accuracy seem unwarranted, even patrician.

Unless, of course, those assessments are made by the speakers themselves. Which one does. Following the last comment, one of the commenters turns on the writer (who calls himself Titus), and complains:

>Titus. Please, please, please go back to school. Have you never heard of punctuation? What about capital letters? How about a dictionary? Sentences? Grammar?

It’s as if Titus is being excluded from membership of the ‘club’, his non-standard English being the pretext. To which Titus responds, with some justification:

> didnt know this was an english class? i am very intelligent and do not need to perform like its a spelling b on here

Which is tantamount to saying: accuracy has to be judged in terms of its appropriacy in context.

All of this has compelled me to revise my definition of accuracy accordingly. Here’s an attempt:

Accuracy is the extent to which a speaker/writer’s lexical and grammatical choices are unremarkable according to the norms of the (immediate) discourse community.

Thanks to corpora, these norms can be more easily identified (as in my ‘in the weekend’). A corpus of ‘football blog comment speak’ would no doubt throw up many instances of ‘we was lucky’ and ‘should of won’. ‘Unremarkable’ captures the probabilistic nature of language usage – that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only degrees of departure from the norm. The greater the departure, the more ‘marked’.

The problem is, of course, in defining the discourse community. Consider these two signs, snapped in Japan last week. To which discourse community, if any, is the English part of each sign directed? Assuming a discourse community, and given its membership, are these signs ‘remarkable’? That is to say, are they inaccurate?

keep off from herewe have a maintenance


Brown, H.D. (1994) Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Davies, M. (2013) Corpus of Global Web-Based English: 1.9 billion words from speakers in 20 countries. Available online at http://corpus.byu.edu/glowbe/.

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A – Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Ur, P. (1991) A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

C is for CLT

8 03 2015

Having been trained in what might best be described as late-flowering audiolingualism, it was not until my second year of teaching that I became aware of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and how it represented such a radical shift from current methodology. I think it must have been the influence of the Strategies series (Abbs et al. 1975) but before long everything went functional-notional, information gap activities were the rage, and formal accuracy, along with error correction, went out the window. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! In fact, the advent of CLT coincided nicely with my own disenchantment with drilling and with the snail-like progress through the structural syllabus that seemed only to thwart the latent fluency of my (Egyptian) students.

Being communicative, Cairo 1976

So, what did we gain? The emphasis on language’s social function, including attention to appropriacy and register, was important, not least because – to practise ‘being social’ with language – we needed to include lots of interactive activities, such as role plays and ‘real’ conversations, into our classes. This in turn led to the idea that (perhaps, just perhaps) such activities, rather than being simply practice of previously presented language items, could be the springboard to learning itself: that is to say, that you could learn a language simply through using it. This, after all, was a core tenet of the ‘strong’ version of CLT and was an extremely powerful idea (captured in the term ‘fluency-first), influencing all my subsequent thinking on methodology.

What we lost, from the benefit of hindsight, was a ‘focus on form’. Even if you can learn a language by using it, you still need to have your attention directed to the language’s formal features, if only so that you are ‘primed’ to notice them in situations of real language use. That realization prompted my first ever IATEFL talk, which was called ‘No pain, no gain’.

But what we also lost was the communicative approach itself. I still believe that CLT was ‘betrayed’ in the mid-1980s by the revival of the grammar syllabus and the associated drift back to an accuracy-first methodology. (A subsequent talk of mine on this topic was called ‘Not waving but drowning’). I also believe that it is possible to combine a fluency-first methodology with a focus on form, so long as that focus is primarily reactive, not pre-emptive. I’ve been lucky enough to see this occur myself, in classes I’ve observed. And, of course, the view that language learning is both an emergent and scaffolded phenomenon is fundamental to what was to become Dogme ELT. Dogme ELT was really an attempt to inject new life into CLT.

So, is Dogme ELT the future of CLT? I doubt it, somehow. The commodification and marketization of education, including language education, continues unabated. Where the language English is just another curriculum subject, where it is viewed as knowledge to be learned rather than a skill to be activated, and where it is measured less by communicative competence than by the results of high-stakes testing, then there is not a lot of incentive for a fluency-first approach. In such an educational climate, concepts so fundamental to CLT as authenticity, fluency, discovery and collaboration seem outmoded, or, at best, ‘add-ons’ for those who can afford the luxury of small classes of communicatively-motivated learners. Given the appeal that still attaches to the word ‘communicative’, though, CLT will probably continue to prosper as a brand, even though its original ingredients may have long since been reconstituted.

Strategies smallReference

Abbs, B., A. Ayton, A., and I. Freebairn. 1975. Strategies: Students’ Book. London: Longman.

This was my ‘half’ of the conversation with Jeremy Harmer that we ‘performed’ at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate in April 2014, and which is written up in IATEFL 2014 Harrogate Conference Selections, edited by Tania Pattison (Faversham, Kent: IATEFL 2015).



And here is a video of the conversation when it was first aired, at The New School, NY, in July 2013:


P is for Pronunciation

1 08 2010

Read my lips

I’ve just completed a nine-hour block of sessions on phonology on the MA TESOL course that I’m teaching at the New School. Apart from the inevitable (and sometimes intractable) problems involved in reconfiguring my knowledge of phonology so as to accommodate North American accents, the question that simply will not go away is this: Can pronunciation be taught?

As a teacher, I have to confess that I can’t recall any enduring effects for teaching pronunciation in class – but then, I very seldom addressed it in any kind of segregated, pre-emptive fashion. Most of my ‘teaching’ of pronunciation was reactive –  a case of responding to learners’ mispronunciations with either real or feigned incomprehension. There are only two pron-focused lessons that I can remember feeling good about: one was where I used an inductive approach to guide a group of fairly advanced learners to work out the rules (or, better, tendencies) of word stress in polysyllabic words (the students seemed generally impressed that the system was not as arbitrary as it had appeared), and another where I used a banal dialogue that happened to be in the students’ workbook to highlight the different spellings of the /ay/ phoneme – a lesson that was more about spelling than pronunciation, really – but, again, one that helped dispel the myth that there are zero sound-spelling relationships in English.

As a second language learner, any attempts to improve my pronunciation have fallen (almost literally) on deaf ears. I remember being told by a well-intentioned Spanish teacher: “Your problem is that you use the English ‘t’ sound instead of the Spanish one”. To which I replied, “No, the ‘t’ sound is the very least of my problems! My problem is that I don’t know the endings of the verbs, that I don’t have an extensive vocabulary, that I can’t produce more than two words at a time. … and so on”. That is to say, in the greater scheme of things, the phonetic rendering of a single consonant sound was not going to help me become a proficient speaker of Spanish. Nor was it something I would be able to focus any attention on, when my attention was so totally absorbed with simply getting the right words out in the right order. And nor, at the end of the day, would I ever be able to rid myself of my wretched English accent, however hard I tried (assuming, of course, I wanted to).

Hence, I’m fairly sceptical about the value of teaching pronunciation, and I suspect that most of the exercises and activities that belong to the canonical pron-teaching repertoire probably have only incidental learning benefits.  A minimal pairs exercise (of the ship vs sheep type) might teach some useful vocabulary; a jazz chant might reinforce a frequently used chunk. But neither is likely to improve a learner’s pronunciation. Certain learners (a small minority, I suspect) with good ears and a real motivation to “sound like a native speaker” might just squeeze some benefit out of a pron lesson, but for the majority it will probably just wash right over them.

In An A-Z of ELT, I hint obliquely at these doubts – doubts which I claim are justified by research studies. What studies?

Well, here’s one for starters. In an early attempt to tease out the factors that predicted good pronunciation, Suter (1976) co-opted a panel of non-specialist informants to assess the pronunciation of 61 English learners from a range of language backgrounds and with different histories of exposure and instruction. Twelve biographical factors were found to correlate with good pronunciation, and, in a subsequent re-analysis of the data (Purcell and Suter 1980), these were reduced to just four. These four predictors of acceptable pronunciation were (in degree of importance):

  • the learner’s first language (i.e., all things being equal, a speaker of, say, Swedish is more likely to pronounce English better than a speaker of, say, Vietnamese)
  • aptitude for oral mimcry (i.e. ‘having a good ear’)
  • length of residency in an English-speaking environment
  • strength of  concern for pronunciation accuracy

Significantly, none of the above factors is really within the teacher’s control (although the last – the motivtaional one – could arguably be nurtured by the teacher). Nevertheless, the learners’ histories of instruction seemed not to have impacted in any significant way on the accuracy of their pronunciation. The researchers commented: “One of the most obvious [implications of the study] relates to the fact that teachers and classrooms seem to have had remarkably little to do with how well our students pronounced English”.

Now, is this bad news (we can’t do much to help our learners achieve acceptable standards of pronunciation)? Or is it good news (we don’t have to teach pronunciation, and can spend the time saved on more important stuff)?


Purcell, E.T., and Suter, R.W. 1980. Predictors of Pronunciation Accuracy: a Re-examination. Language Learning, 30, 271-287.

Suter, R.W. 1976. Predictors of Pronunciation Accuracy in Second Language Learning. Language Learning, 26: 233-253.

F is for Fluency

17 12 2009

Jeremy Harmer recently asked – on Twitter – for opinions as to why some learners achieve high degrees of fluency, while others do not. I wanted to reply that any answer to that question depends on how you define fluency – and then I would go on to attempt to define it. But the 140-character restriction of Twitter proved too much, so I thought I’d blog it instead.

As I found when I tried to define it in the A-Z, fluency is one of those elusive, fuzzy, even contested, terms that means different things to different people. In lay terms, a “fluent speaker of French” is probably someone whose French is judged as accurate, easy on the ear, and idiomatic. The term, however, was co-opted by methodologists (especially those aligned to the communicative approach) to describe the purpose of classroom activities whose focus is on communicating meaning, rather than on the practice of specific (typically grammatical) forms. Thus, Brumfit (1984) said that “the distinction between accuracy and fluency is essentially a methodological distinction, rather than one in psychology or linguistics”. And added, “fluency…is to be regarded as natural language use, whether or not it results in native-speaker-like language comprehension or production”. The problem with this definition, though, is that it is very difficult to operationalise, especially from the point of view of testing. What exactly is “natural language use”, how do you contrive it in the classroom, and how do you assess it (especially if you are discounting native-speaker-like models as your benchmark)? As a term, fluency becomes difficult to disentangle from related concepts, such as intelligibility, coherence, communicative effectiveness, and so on.   

To counter this fuzziness, various researchers, working in a cognitive tradition, attempted to characterise it in measurable terms. Thus, Ellis and Barkhuizen (2005), following Skehan (1998), define fluency as “the production of language in real time without undue pausing or hesitation.”  That is to say, it is a ‘temporal phenomenon’. Well and good. This is something we can measure.

Confusingly, though, they go on to say that “fluency occurs when learners prioritize meaning over form in order to get a task done”. This to me seems patently false: getting a task done is no guarantee that there is no “undue pausing or hesitation”. On the contrary, the effort involved in performing a task may actually increase the degree of dysfluency. And nor is attention to meaning a pre-condition for pause-free production. Some of our most fluent productions, as proficient speakers, are texts that we have committed to memory (tongue twisters, nursery rhymes, prayers, oaths of allegiance, etc) that we can trot out without ANY attention to meaning.

In fact, it may be that fluency is indeed a function of memory, and that the capacity to produce pause-free speech in real time is contingent on having a memorised bank of formulaic language “chunks” – a view that was first put forward as long ago as 1983 by Pawley and Syder in their seminal paper, ‘Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency’. Well, I used to say that it was P & S who ‘first put forward’ this view. And then I discoverd more recently that the great Harold Palmer, as even longer ago as 1925, identified ‘the fundamental guiding principle for the student of conversation’ as being “Memorize perfectly the largest number of common and useful word-groups!

If this is in fact the case, as teachers interested in developing fluency, we might need to:

1. clarify the concept of  what a ‘word group’ is;
2. select those word groups that are both common and useful;
3. set a target that represents the largest practicable number;
4. decide what the criteria for perfect memorization might be;
5. devise and teach strategies that promote memorization of word groups;
6. devise activities what provide opportunities for learners to activate what they have memorized, without undue pausing or hesitation, in ways that replicate real language use.

Is this a tall order?