Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Accuracy vs. Fluency

Tutor Andrew Froiland posed a question that many tutors struggle with. It concerns the tension between accuracy and fluency. He wrote,
B— is very intelligent and is very concerned with grammatical correctness in her English use.  This, of course, is great!  But I'm concerned she is too preoccupied with getting everything 100% correct to the detriment of learning the language as a whole…
I feel like she needs to get to a place where she is speaking English in her mind, rather than thinking in Korean and then translating.  When communication becomes more comfortable, then she can focus on grammatical correctness.  Is this fair?

It's interesting problem. A tutor and a learner find themselves somewhat at cross purposes. She wants grammatical accuracy. He perceives a greater need for fluency, i.e. expressing her ideas naturally, conversationally. First, I advised Andrew to talk it over with her and to come to an agreement about what they work on and how they do it, because she is an adult learner with lots of say in the learning process.  

But his question got me thinking about how word games get people to work on fluency without neglecting accuracy. One such game was “The $100,000 Pyramid,” a game show from decades past. The players have to figure out how to give a clue without speaking certain words. This is much the same way language learners have to use limited language to talk around the gaps in their vocabulary.

The game has a pair of players working together, a sender and a receiver. The sender has to give clues for his partner, the receiver, to follow without saying any of the words in the clue. She, in turn, has to guess what idea or thing he’s trying to communicate. It's a kind of mental exercise. Struggling to express yourself through the restrictions makes for an exciting challenge.

Here is a link to a video of people playing the game: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRcWYdOmcdQ to give you a better idea how it works. If you search for a minute you can find a much younger David Letterman taking a turn as a celebrity player. It turns out that you can actually play a version of the game on Facebook. Here is a link to the page where I found it: http://www.gamezebo.com/games/100000-pyramid.

You could play it on line if you like but you and your learner may find it simpler to play face to face. Create little cards—perhaps index cards cut in quarters—with topics or questions on them.  A long list of conversation topics can be found here: http://iteslj.org/questions/.  The links for these conversation topics are single words or short phrases. Here is a sample: 

So, if the learner pulled a card saying “Inventions,” she could look up the word, if she doesn’t know it, then give you clues like, “The light bulb, the wheel, the Ronco Pocket Fisherman, pre-sliced bread, etc.”  Switch positions from time to time so that she is both sending and receiving. You can look for other games specifically designed to teach and reinforce grammar patterns in a book called Grammar Games by Mario Rinvoluccri  Click on the link to find a copy on Amazon.

The idea behind playing games is to get a person to think faster, to worry less about details and more on getting the big picture.  There is a wide variety of games out there to play. You can find many at Dave’s ESL Café. Keep learning. Keep having fun.

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