Saturday, 26 July 2014

Revisiting Fluency and Accuracy in Vocabulary and Grammar Teaching

This year’s TESL Toronto Conference (TOSCON 14) welcomed an impressive line-up of guest speakers and educators from different parts of the world to share valuable insights and expertise in a variety of Adult ESL pathways. At the conference, I had the pleasure meeting Chuck Sandy, the founder and a board director at iTDI, who, among other great things that he is involved in, motivates ESL teachers to join the community of educators passionate about collaborative professional development.  I was also given a chance to attend an online course “Revisiting Fluency and Accuracy in Vocabulary and Grammar Teaching” with Scott Thornbury and Penny Ur – a unique opportunity that could not be missed.

Below, I’d like to share a few thoughts triggered by the ideas discussed during the course:

        Teachers and learners are highly aware of the importance of vocabulary acquisition. There is always a learner who would suddenly stop while trying to express an idea and say that he or she does not have enough words to proceed with it. There is always a teacher in the staffroom grumbling about learners asking too many questions on words that they encounter in a new text and looking for the most creative ways to make vocabulary work as self-directed as possible. While working on their listening, speaking, reading or writing, learners will need a minimum number of words to be able to start applying the strategies and skills required to achieve a competence and successfully complete a task.  Grabe and Stoller (2011) advise that a beginner reader will need a minimum of 500 words to be able to apply reading strategies and skills effectively while a study by Hue and Nation (2000 in Schmitt, 2008) suggests that learners need to know as much as 98-99% of the lexical items in a text to be able to understand its meaning. Thus, vocabulary instruction is the foundation of the learners’ success on language tasks and needs to be integrated in the classroom activities, implicitly or explicitly, pre- or post-task, teacher or student-led, as much as possible.
         Working with adult ESL learners who are illiterate in their first language and acquire new vocabulary orally through speaking and listening activities (since these learners do not read or write in their native language they may not be able to look up the new words in a dictionary and record the meanings for further practice - things that their literate counterparts would naturally do), I have to be particularly innovative and efficient in designing vocabulary review activities. Penny Ur introduced a valuable tool (I would call it a teacher’s checklist; see the picture below) to apply while planning vocabulary review work in pre- or post-task phases. 

              While planning vocabulary review or extension activities it is recommended to consider 6 features of effective vocabulary learning such as validity (learners are busy using the words and do not waste their time on puzzling out and searching), quantity (the number of items is level appropriate), success-orientation (learners are slightly challenged (i+1) but not overwhelmed by the task; there is enough support and scaffolding for them to succeed and there are conditions for learners to build their confidence while noticing their own success), heterogeneity (activity can be easily adapted at different levels and therefore is suitable for a multilevel class), interest (learners are engaged in meaningful, relevant and real-life oriented tasks), and simplicity (the teacher’s preparation time is reasonable and instructions are clear and simple). Following these steps will ensure that vocabulary review work is both meaningful and successful.
              The ideas introduced by Scott Thornbury about the perceptive character of fluency and that fluency and accuracy are naturally intertwined have triggered a few thoughts on how to enhance the fluency work in the adult ESL classroom. 

Apparently, the research has not discovered universally applicable, objective measures of oral fluency (Segalowitz, 2010) and, therefore, we assume that fluency falls into the parameters of the impression created by the speaker being able to produce a speedy discourse without any obvious hesitations or pauses; accurate enough for grammar mistakes not to be noticeable or obfuscate the meaning; precise and efficient in use of vocabulary and idioms with adequate level of sophistication. With this in mind, I remembered quite a few instances when I advised learners to be promoted to the next level but they hesitated or delayed their promotions due to the fact that they believed their speaking skills were not good enough for the change. However, I knew that they would only benefit from more complex interactions. I used to think that it was merely a confidence issue that could be remediated by motivation and encouragement (externally) but now I believe that it is also a matter of learners' awareness (own perception - internally) of what fluency is, their own abilities and more importantly progress over time. Therefore, recording learners’ spoken interactions and playing them back with the view of analyzing learners’ own performance (certainly in a very delicate manner, possibly privately, individually or in small groups if the level of comfort allows) and identifying areas of progress or work to be done could definitely enhance learners’ awareness of their own current situation and hopefully nurture that confidence and decision to advance in their language learning endeavours. It is quite a delicate work but with the teachers’ guidance and clearly defined, appropriate objectives could become an invaluable fluency awareness-building tool. 

A few more things...

I have highly enjoyed the course. Besides the thought-provoking content of the live online sessions, Scott Thornbury and Penny Ur designed a series of engaging and interactive tasks for participants to complete before and after each session. They considered and valued each contribution and ensured that there was room for discussion and collaboration. I'd like to thank the iTDI team Chuck Sandy, Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto and Steven Herder for their support during the course. I would also like to thank TESL Toronto Conference Organizing Committee (TOSCON 14) led by Tyson Seburn and Tania Iveson for their outstanding effort and dedication to bring the ESL world to Toronto.


Grabe, W. and Stoller, L.F. (2011) Teaching and Researching Reading, 2nd edition, Harlow: Longman.
Schmitt, N. “Instructed second language vocabulary learning”, Language Teaching Research, 2008. [Electronic] Available online at:
Segalowitz, N. (2010) Cognitive Bases of Second Language Fluency, London: Routledge, p.39.

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