Adrian Tennant presents an article covering what we mean by accuracy and how it can be developed effectively. The article rounds off with some practical ideas for the classroom.
Of course, when we are speaking it is not always enough to be fluent, we often need to be accurate as well. However, we need to be careful not to think of the two as being mutually exclusive. It is possible to be both accurate and fluent. But, in the classroom it is often best to focus on one or the other as it can be difficult to deal with both at the same time. In this article I’ll look at ways of developing and dealing with accuracy in speaking activities.
What do we mean by accuracy activities?
Clearly, by the word accuracy we mean speaking without making mistakes, or at least limiting the number of mistakes we make. But how does an accuracy activity differ from one which is designed to develop fluency? In some cases, there is absolutely no difference in the activity or task type. The difference is on the teacher’s role during the activity and on what the teacher is focusing on. For example, when accuracy is the focus the teacher will note down the mistakes made and may even interrupt the activity to correct the students, whereas in a fluency activity the teacher wouldn’t interrupt and would probably be more interested in the outcome of the activity. However, in some cases an activity is specifically designed to develop accuracy and would not usually be used for the purpose of developing fluency. An example of this would be a drill. For example:
Teacher: I like watching TV.
Students: I like watching TV.
Teacher: playing football.
Students: I like playing football.
Teacher: eating ice cream.
Students: I like eating ice cream.
Students: I don’t like eating ice cream.
If students make mistakes, the teacher can immediately correct them in this type of activity. In terms of meaningful communication there is very little value.
Does the teacher always need to control an accuracy activity?
No, not necessarily. It’s quite possible to do an accuracy activity in pairs with the teacher closely monitoring to try and pick up on any problems. In this format the students are also responsible for listening carefully to their partner. However, in most accuracy activities the teacher will either keep tight control or monitor so that there is little chance of mistakes (or at least persistent mistakes) being made.
Why are accuracy activities important?
From a classroom perspective, accuracy is often very important as many tests focus on this aspect of speaking. It is also quite easy to know if a student is accurate or not simply by listening to them speaking.
Accuracy can also be extremely important in the real world. This does not only apply to grammatical accuracy but also to formality, register, choice of vocabulary and pronunciation. If someone uses the wrong kind of language in a situation, then it can actually be worse than if they make a grammatical mistake. Just imagine someone meeting the Queen of England and saying 'Yo! Your highness, how’s it hanging?' Of course, this is an extreme example, but one that helps illustrate the issue. From a grammatical standpoint, if a student answers a question such as, 'How long are you here for?' (referring to the future) with, 'I’ve been here for six months,' (referring to the past) it’ll probably be picked up by the person who asked the question as an incorrect response. But, if they respond by saying just 'Six months' without the 'I’ve been here for…' part, then the questioner will be none the wiser. Quite clearly accuracy is an important factor in both these cases.
Activities that focus on accuracy therefore give both the teacher and the students an opportunity to look at what are the norms and acceptable forms of language items.
Should the teacher interrupt an accuracy activity if students are making mistakes?
In some cases, yes. For example, in a drill where the teacher is tightly controlling the activity, then whenever a mistake is made the teacher needs to correct the mistake and make sure that the student who made it repeats the corrected form. On the other hand, there are some activities where it may not be possible to interrupt the activity. For example, when students are working in pairs there may well be too much going on at the same time for you to stop each pair every time a mistake is made. In this situation it is important to note down any mistakes you hear and can’t deal with immediately and then look at them as soon as the activity has finished. Obviously, if there are a lot of mistakes being made, then you need to do something straight away. If it is one or two students, then you might simply want to work closely with them for a few minutes while the rest of the class carry on with the activity. If, on the other hand, it is a significant number of the students, then it is best to stop the entire activity and go back to a more teacher-centred one where you have more control.
What should I do after an accuracy activity?
If the activity has gone well, then it is useful to use a less controlled activity, and one that might focus more on fluency, to see whether students can use the language correctly in a situation which is less teacher-centred and/or more like a real life activity. It is quite possible for students to perform well during a controlled activity such as a drill where they know that the focus is on the production of accurate language and then during a freer activity to make as many mistakes with the language as they were before you did the controlled activity with them. If this happens, don’t worry! It simply means that they need more practice.
Similarly, if an accuracy activity doesn’t work, then you simply need to re-teach or review the language and use a few more controlled activities until the students can use the language accurately.
Can accuracy activities be creative and fun?
Of course they can. Even an activity that seems boring and dull such as a drill can be made into a creative and fun activity without losing its focus on accuracy. One way of making a drill more fun is to allow students to personalize it. This also has the added bonus of making it more memorable as it becomes relevant to each student. Making a drill fun can be done quite simply by having a pattern and giving some alternatives to be used in certain places. For example, imagine you are drilling a sentence like:
Last year I went on holiday to Spain. It was great.
Now look at the sentence again and see how many words are replaceable:
Now we can turn the sentence into something like this:
For each gap we can give a choice of words that students can use in each gap.
(1) Yesterday, Last month, A week ago, Two days ago
(2) to Thailand, to the moon, with my friends, on my own
(3) fantastic, boring, horrible, OK
By doing this we keep the structure but give several options, making the activity both creative and more fun. Of course, the next step would be to get students to put in words of their choice. Think about the accuracy activities you do in class. How could you make them more creative and fun?
Some practical ideas
Apart from drills, there are other activities that can be used for developing accuracy. Here are a few to try:
Guessing games / Question games
In this kind of activity students need to form questions to guess the answer. The focus can be on the question forms or, alternatively, on short answers. Question games can take the form of Yes/No questions, for example:
Or they can take the form of open questions, for example:
If you want this can be more tightly controlled, you can give students the basic form of the questions, i.e.
______ do you like doing on the weekend? ______ do you play?
Or by giving prompts,
What / like / do / weekend?
These are a kind of drill in that they follow a closely-controlled pattern and there is little room for mistakes. A good example of a chain sentence is with the second conditional. You start by saying a sentence, i.e.
If I won €1 million, I’d go on holiday.
Then a student continues by taking the second half of your sentence and making it the first part (if clause) and then adding second part, i.e.
If I went on holiday, I’d go to Thailand.
Then the next student takes the second part of that sentence and makes it the first part of their sentence and adds an ending, i.e.
If I went to Thailand, I’d…
This carries on around the class. In big classes, you can divide the students into groups and then monitor carefully.
Describe and draw
In this activity, students work in pairs. One student has a picture that they describe to their partner, who draws what is described. They can then check how accurate the description was by comparing pictures. This works very well for practising things like prepositions, i.e. There’s a table in the middle. On the table is a book. etc.
A variation of this is that Student B has a set of pictures and Student A is describing one. From Student A's description, Student B must choose the correct picture (this activity is good for students who don’t like drawing).
Finally, another variation is the map game where Student A describes how to get from X to Y and Student B marks the route on his or her map. At the end Student B shows Student A where they arrived and they see if it is the place that A wanted them to get to.
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Speaking matters: Developing and dealing with accuracy