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Accuracy vs Fluency: Is Korea Making a Mistake in How They Learn and Teach English?

December 3, 2009

Editors Note: This excellent article was written by one of our readers for the Expacked community and it’s will be great to get some input on how you feel about this important issue.  Before you vote in the poll, please read through the article to get a deeper understanding about this issue.  Please also feel free to add your own experiences and thoughts about this issue in the comments section at the end of the article.

I am a native English teacher for an elementary school in Korea and after one of my recent open classes we had a debate on the Accuracy versus Fluency issue.

This is an issue which I feel quite strongly about and believe it is a very important issue in the field of teaching English in Korea.  I was consequently asked to give a presentation on this issue as an introduction to this debate.

Afterwards I was approached by Expacked and asked to write a piece on my opinion regarding this issue.

This article purports to serve as an instigator for further communal debate on this issue.  This is only a summarized extract of an extensive research paper I’m currently writing as a quest in understanding the problematic issues and struggle South Korea currently has with the English language.

What follows is my opinion, and the readers are under no obligation to either agree or disagree with the contents. However, if anyone does want to comment, please feel free to do so.

The issue in question during the debate was whether teachers of English in Korea should focus more on fluency or accuracy.

Many different opinions were raised.  There were supporters of both fluency and accuracy.  Some felt that English teachers, here in Korea, should focus more on fluency while others felt that such teachers should focus more on accuracy.  Then there were those who thought that English teachers in Korea don’t need to pay attention to accuracy at all.

At the end of the discussion no conclusion was reached, and it left us with a big unanswered question.

Before we get to that question and the quest to answer it however, we should first get clarity on the meaning of accuracy and fluency.  What is meant when we ask whether one should focus more on accuracy (if at all) or fluency when teaching English in Korea?

First off it is worth mentioning quickly that there is a distinction between English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL), and many other terms used in this field, but for the purpose of this article, we will not distinguish between these terminologies when talking about teaching English in Korea.

It is also worth taking note that there are many issues that we will leave untouched in this article, for the sake of keeping things on and to the point of this discussion.  We will for the purpose of this article accept that the definition of fluency is correct, and that ‘learning’ English is the correct and proper terminology to use when one speaks about teaching English in Korea.

These above-mentioned sub-issues could maybe be further discussed in a possible later published piece.  It is most certainly issues which are part of my research scope.

What does accuracy and fluency actually mean?

According to respected dictionaries, Accuracy refers to how correct learners’ use of the language system is, including their use of grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary.  Accuracy is often compared to fluency when we talk about a learner’s level of speaking or writing.

Fluency refers to how well a learner communicates meaning rather than how many mistakes they make in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary.

A learner might be fluent (make their meaning clear) but not accurate (make a lot of mistakes).  Thus it seems to mean that if a person can make their meaning clear then that person is fluent in that spoken language and when a person uses the correct grammar and has an extensive vocabulary with the proper pronunciation that person uses the language accurately.

I do not agree with this definition, but as I have said above, I chose not to debate this at the moment.

Now the question can be redefined as whether or not an English teacher in Korea should also teach grammar, extensive vocabulary and proper pronunciation?  But wait!  The middle and high school students in the public school system in Korea do have accuracy as part of their English curriculum, to some extent.  So, let us focus on the English curriculum of elementary schools in the public school system in Korea.  Thus we have to qualify the above-mentioned question and ask whether or not we should start focusing on accuracy as the foundation of English teaching-learning on elementary school level in Korea?

I believe that we should definitely incorporate accuracy as a major part and leg of the English curriculum for elementary schools in Korea.  Both accuracy and fluency should be taught from a very young age, as young as grade 1.  Fluency and accuracy are two factors which determine the success of the students in the future.

In the initial stages of language learning, fluency is important because it will enable the students to feel comfortable within the language.  However, at this stage accuracy is equally important, if not more, because a language should be learned wholisticly.

At elementary level, it is very important to get a balance between making sure students don’t pick up ‘bad’ habits (such as using incorrect grammar, inappropriate words and the wrong pronunciation, etc) and making sure that the students also get the opportunity to practice to use, that which they learn, fluently.  Effort should be made to make sure students don’t pick up incorrect habits which are harder to correct later on.

Students are forming their foundation in English at elementary level.  If we don’t focus on accuracy now, with fluency as a supportive and supplementary part of the English curriculum, it will negatively affect the student’s learning in the future. Learning at a young age is also more effective.

An effective way of teaching English is to focus on a fluency-based-on-accuracy method.

I believe it is of utmost importance to have accuracy as the base or foundation in teaching-learning any language.  While one teaches accuracy, one will obviously also teach fluency, because fluency will come automatically through the techniques and activities applied when one is teaching, and practicing, accuracy.  It is a two-in-one-deal.

Let’s use the analogy of building a house.  How does one build a house?  One lays a foundation first – the basic grammar rules, basic vocabulary, proper pronunciation of that vocabulary, correct spelling, etc.  Then one adds the bricks – more vocabulary, more pronunciation and intonation, teaching how to apply the grammar rules in practical situations, learning proper sentence structures etc.  Then in-between and while one is doing this, one makes sure the bricks stay in place by adding cement (the glue) – here the teacher will practice the rules and the application of the rules learned in the previous stages with many different activities and comprehension tests.

Then, to make sure the students stay focused and motivated to continue learning, the teacher will award the hard working students, those who show that they are doing their best in the class, with more nice and enjoyable activities (which will further “cement” the language), praises and prizes (which will make the students work even harder and do even better).  Coincidently this will also make the “slackers” in the classroom work harder.

At elementary level a primary objective is to give students confidence and enthusiasm for continuing to learn the language beyond this level.  When a student / person knows that he / she had, or is getting, a proper and good education in a second or new language, and that he or she has a good spoken language, he or she will automatically have lots of confidence to speak that language, and also enjoy doing it.

Why do I feel like this? Well, if Korea’s whole objective is to raise global leaders – individuals who can live and work abroad and who can compete in the global markets, which is something that the Korean government is striving to achieve – then accuracy is very important.

It is much easier to become a global leader, and play on the global economic and political fields if one can speak English properly.  Another reason is that the Korean government is spending literally billions of Won every year on Korea’s English learning program, with little affect.

English is the number one international and universal language, the language of business and commerce, the most widely spoken language in the world and will increasingly become more and more important.  Being able to speak a proper and correct English will open doors for learners on economic and political levels, in the future.

It is thus clear that students who’s English education is solely based on fluency, or fluency with little accuracy, will not only lose out on major aspects of the English language but also on future international economic and political prospects and opportunities.

Now that you have read though my thoughts and ideas, I’d be interested in hearing yours.  Please vote in the poll at the start of this article and leave a comment about your own thoughts and experiences.

Here’s a couple of further questions to get you thinking:

  1. Should English education in public schools start at an earlier age (ie grade 1 or kindergarten)?
  2. Should more time and classes be allocated for English education at elementary level?

Written by SuperStarTeacher


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