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Promoting fluency and accuracy through planning, telling, transcribing and noticing by Scott Shelton


My interest in providing meaningful opportunities for learners in the classroom to increase both their fluency and accuracy began when I first started teaching many years ago. Early this year, I was introduced to the ideas put forth in this paper and the subsequent experimental lesson, which it is based on, at a teacher development seminar. Since then I have wanted to try these ideas out in my classes to observe how they work in action. I decided to make a fusion of the two central ideas I was introduced to and experiment with them in the classroom. In this paper, I will attempt to give the necessary background information in both the theory behind these ideas and how they can be put into practice.

Anecdotal activities

I have found, in my teaching experience, that in order to promote fluency students react better to and are more motivated by communicative activities and situations that they can relate to personally and which have an element of choice that they can exercise. Sue Kay (2001) brings out the point in a recent article and states:

Anecdotal activities create the necessary conditions for personal engagement by encouraging students to talk about things that really matter to them, rather than playing pre-assigned roles or exchanging invented information.

Anecdotal activities are extended speaking activities that allow students to engage in longer stretches of discourse than they are often required to do in the course of a typical classroom exchange between peers or initiated by the teacher as a response to a question or as part of a dialogue. These extended stretches of discourse in which the learner is required to be both fluent and coherent, help develop speaking skills and provide the opportunity to relate language and meaning, as the activity is purposefully learner centered and personally relevant to each student. It is also a type of discourse that is quite typical in real life outside the classroom as well and therefore important practice for the student and a practical way to spend classroom time.

Setting them up

The activities can be set up by either providing a theme and a set of guiding questions to aid in jogging memory, or by having the students choose a theme and writing the questions themselves. It is suggested that ten to twelve questions are an appropriate number.

An important element to bear in mind in these activities is to allow the students time to plan before they begin speaking. The planning should not consist of writing out exactly what the student wants to say, but making notes on both what they are going to say and how they are going to say it. If you have a class with a majority of students with a preference for auditory learning or wanted to work from this angle with a group that might profit from exercising this sense, the questions could be read aloud slowly or recorded and played while the students listen with eyes closed after being instructed to relax and visualize the answers to the questions. They would later have time to prepare before asked to engage in telling their anecdote.

The anecdote may be preceded by or followed up with a recording or a teacher telling a similar experience. In the first instance, it would be a valuable model which could serve both in the language likely to be used in their own telling and in activating their mental script or general framework for this kind of discourse which would help them be both better tellers and listeners. Another idea for follow up work could be asking them to transcribe all or part of their own or a classmate's story and subsequently work on noticing the type of language used and improving upon it if necessary.

Sue Kay (2001) advocates asking students to repeat the task a second time, insisting that in doing so, learners will become more adventurous and more precise in the language they use. She explains that:

The first time the students do an anecdotal activity they are more likely to concentrate on content whereas the second time, they have more time to process the language, increase the range of vocabulary and use more syntactically complex language.

In my interest to aid my students develop fluency and increase their level of accuracy and control of language, this kind of activity, used consistently in classroom practice should be of great practical use.

Promoting Complexity

Patrick Howarth (2001) takes a similar approach to combating the lack of appropriate complexity which often mars the speech of post-intermediate learners of English who, precisely because of their success at being 'communicatively competent', never seem to develop the more sophisticated language which would more appropriately reflect the time they have spent leaning it. This is often due to a lack of a perceived need on the part of the student to improve upon form. Why bother when what is desired, to be understood and to communicate one's message, is already easily achieved? Helen Johnson (1992) describes this as the fluent-but-fossilized student.

Howarth (2001) suggests that if we expect our students' grammatical and lexical systems to move on, teachers need to provide them with practice specifically aimed at giving opportunities to experiment. He puts forth an approach that is aimed at promoting complexity and suggests that this approach is more appropriate if our aim is not promoting accuracy and fluency, but complexity.

I think this is an interesting distinction, but not an entirely relevant one for the purposes of this paper. In wanting to promote both fluency and accuracy

through noticing, I believe that in effect, this is also promoting complexity in the long term. His model is called the performance process and is described such:

plan >> perform >> analyze >> repeat


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