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Fluency, accuracy, and complexity in language

When we specify goals for students’ language production, we want them to use language correctly or accurately. We also want them to develop fluency and increasing complexity in their language.

Different language-learning tasks have characteristics that are more likely to promote one or other of these objectives.

Language-learning tasks can be structured to promote particular aspects of language development such as the following.

  • Communicative uses: reading, writing, speaking, listening, oral interaction
  • Language analysis: sounds, words, sentences, texts
  • Language production: fluency, accuracy, complexity


What are fluency, accuracy, and complexity?

Fluency is often associated with speed, but speed in itself has no value. What is important is the ability to work with the rhythm, pace, and accuracy that is appropriate to the purpose for reading or writing. Being measured and deliberate may be right for one purpose, and reading or writing quickly, or expressively, may be best for another. Whatever the purpose, fluency should not be thought of as separate from comprehension.

Ministry of Education, 2006, page 24.


In productive language, this can be simply a measure of how many connected words a person can say or write in a given time.

Fluency measures may also take into account the number of hesitations, self-corrections, repetitions, and space fillers like "um".

A person may speak quite slowly but be very fluent because none of these "interruptions" occur.


This relates to the number of mistakes a speaker (or writer) makes and to whether they use the forms that are expected for the type of text being produced.

For example, it would be inaccurate to use very formal language in a personal note to a friend, just as it is inaccurate to write *”he was falled down”.


This relates to aspects such as:

  • the number of different words a person uses (which reflects the size of their vocabulary)
  • the variety and complexity of grammatical structures they use
  • the complexity of their sentences and their texts.
  1. When an asterisk is written before a linguistic form, as in *”he was falled down”, the asterisk shows that the form is incorrect.

Characteristics of language-learning tasks

The table below draws on the research findings. The content is suggestions about how to devise tasks that promote fluency, accuracy, or complexity in your students’ language.

Characteristics of task Promotes fluency Promotes accuracy Promotes complexity
Contextual support (for example, pictures, diagrams) There is contextual support. The task has no contextual support. The task has no contextual support.
Number of elements There are only a few elements in the task input.   The task has many elements.
Topic The topic is familiar, or the topic generates debate.    
Shared versus split information     The information is shared.
Task demands The task poses a single demand.   The task poses a single demand.
Opportunity for advance planning The task allows advance planning. If the task allows advance planning, this may promote accuracy.  
Monitoring their own performance as they speak or write Tasks that involve monitoring (watching) while they are done impair (damage or weaken) fluency. Tasks that involve monitoring while they are done promote accuracy  
Task outcomes      
Closed versus open outcome The task outcome is closed The task outcome is open. The task is open and has divergent goals.
Inherent structure of the outcome The task outcome has a clear inherent structure. The task outcome has a clear inherent structure, and there is opportunity for planning.  
Discourse mode     Narrative tasks promote more complexity than argument tasks. Discussion tasks produce the least complexity of the three.

Example: Promoting fluency

To see the task features that are required to promote particular aspects of language, read down the columns.

For example, if you wish to help your students develop fluency in using the language they already know, you will design a task that has the features listed in column 2.

This means:

  • you will provide contextual support
  • there will be a small number of elements to input
  • the topic will be familiar or one that leads to debate.

In addition, the task will have a single demand, and the students will be able to plan in advance.

Also, the language-learning outcome will be closed, with a clear structure.

Terms used to describe tasks

Contextual support

Contextual support refers to material (such as pictures and diagrams) that supports the language of a learning task because they have some meaning. Using these methods reduces the learner's reliance on the language itself.

Shared and split information

If the information is shared, all the learners have access to the same information.

If it is split, the learners have different items of information and are not allowed to share it.

Split information tasks force all learners to participate; shared information promotes more complexity in the learners’ language (possibly because they each have to deal with a larger amount and diversity of information).

Closed and open outcomes

The outcomes of a task can be closed or open.

Closed outcomes to tasks are when there are only certain correct outcomes or solutions.

Problem-solving tasks often have only one or two solutions and are tasks with closed outcomes. Role-play and interviews, on the other hand, are almost completely open.

Inherent structure of the outcome

The degree of a language-learning outcome’s openness differs according to its inherent (built-in) structure.

For example, explaining to someone how to get to the ATM (automated teller machine) has an inherent structure, that is, the person pictures a map of the route to the ATM. Thus, the form is a mental map.

An interview has an open outcome in the form of the answers received; however, the outcome may have an inherent structure if the information gained is to be categorized.

If the students report back in any way they choose, no inherent structure exists. They will probably report back in relation to the questions they asked.

Task demands

Some tasks ask learners to do several things at the same time. A single-task demand promotes both fluency and complexity.

Thus, it is probably better to break complex tasks down into several tasks.

These single-demand tasks can then be completed one after the other. However, it will be important to make sure learners integrate (combine different things together to make them one) what they learn from the separate tasks and do not treat them as isolated events (that is, events that happen far apart from each other).

The "Say it" activity – example

This example of a "Say it" activity is based on “My Dad's Raw Fish” by Mata Mataio (School Journal 2.4.02).

My Dad's Raw Fish

   A  B  C
 1 Pretend you are Dad. Tell your daughter all the ingredients you need to make raw fish. Tell her something about each ingredient. Pretend you are Mata. Tell your friend the names of all your brothers and sisters. Pretend you are Mum. Tell your children what to do to get ready to eat.
 2 Pretend you are David. Tell your children about the other dishes they will eat with their grandfather’s raw fish. Tell your classmates about your own favourite meal. Tell them the ingredients you need for it. Pretend you are Dad. Explain why you leave the bones in the fish.
 3 Pretend you are Mum. Tell your youngest child why you say grace before you start eating. Pretend you are Denise. Tell your friend all about catching fish yesterday with your Dad. Pretend you are the youngest brother and introduce yourself to the group. Tell them about preparing the fish. Tell them how you feel about your job.


  1. Each cell in the "Say it" table is a little role-play.
  2. Working in small groups of three or four, the students take turns to speak according to the instructions in a cell.
  3. The cells can be chosen at random, by dice or counters in a bag.
  4. To begin with, everyone should be given a cell and have a minute or two to prepare by checking with the story. If you think your students need extra support, ask them to do the preparation in pairs.
  5. Next, the students take turns to speak.
  6. The students assign cells again and speak again.
  7. The group can do this several times so that each cell has been done more than once by different people.


"Impromptu" performance
After a few turns, your students might get so confident with the story that they do not need to prepare their role-plays but can do them straight away when they are given a cell number.

Perform for the whole class
They might like to perform some of them for the whole class.

Use as a writing prompt
Later, you might like to use some of the cells as a basis for writing, as well.

In their own words ...
When students are familiar with doing "Say it" activities, they might like to write their own for texts they have read.

Simpler "Say It"
A "Say it" can also be much simpler than this one, with only four cells and very simple instructions. For example: "You are Denise. Say who you are. Say what you did yesterday with your father."

More difficult "Say It"
A "Say It" can also be much more difficult, based on senior secondary curriculum material and objectives. For example:

  • "You are a geologist. Explain to the engineers planning a bridge what the rock types are in this area."
  • "You are a geologist. Explain to the engineers planning a bridge whether the rocks in this area present problems for bridge construction."

How "Say it" supports students

The "Say it" activity provides three types of support for student output.

Emotional support 

This is an important factor in language learning. Emotional support is a deliberate, thought-out, and planned way to show care for others. You can show emotional support in verbal and nonverbal ways.

The "Say It" activity makes room for emotional support through the following.

  • Small audience: The students talk in small groups, not in front of the whole class and teacher.
  • Chance to practise: The students have several turns at speaking, so it does not matter if they do not speak very well the first time.
  • Familiar content: The students talk about material they have already become familiar with.

Cognitive support 

Cognitive support refers to mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension. The "Say It" activity has this type of support for the following reasons. 

  • Known content: The students are working with material they understand because they’ve already explored it in class with their teacher.
  • Specific focus: Each speaking task limits the content to one perspective and covers only part of the material.
  • Shifting perspectives: Exploring the material from different perspectives, and having several students do each task, widens comprehension of the material.

Linguistic support and guidance 

This type of activity promotes noticing, where students note something in the language, and hypothesis testing, where they try out something that might express what they want to say.

Through the "Say It" activity, students notice new language items as they search for words and phrases they need in written material or in what other students say. They try out new language and test their hypotheses by observing whether the other students understand them or not. 

  • Written language items are provided: The students can refer to the written text to find the language they need for their mini role.
  • Spoken language items are provided: The students hear other members of the group and can use some of the language items they hear them use.
  • Opportunity to reuse items: The students have several turns at speaking and can improve their fluency as they reuse words and phrases several times.
  • Opportunity for feedback: Other group members can ask questions or help out if they do not understand what was said by a student or want to know more.

Exploring your practice

Fluency, accuracy, and complexity in language

With a colleague, study the accuracy, fluency, and complexity of some of your bilingual Pasifika students' language production. Doing so should give you a sense of their strengths and weaknesses.

If you have a bilingual colleague who can help, you may be able to get a picture of their relative strengths in accuracy, fluency, and complexity in two languages and compare these.

You might ask, for example:

  • Is the student who is fluent in English also fluent in Sāmoan?
  • Does the student who uses complex language in Tongan also use complex language in English?

When you have collected your data, analyse the results and interpret them.

  • Do these students have strengths and needs in different areas?
  • Does your data suggest that you should target particular aspects for further development?

Improving learners’ fluency, accuracy, and complexity

Different input, conditions, and output requirements promote fluency, accuracy, or complexity in the language students produce as they carry out a language-learning task.

If you want to help your students become more fluent in using the language they know, the task should:

  • have contextual support, such as a diagram, picture, or table
  • have limited input (only a few elements)
  • be based on familiar topics and/or generate debate or conflict
  • require only one thing to be done, rather than several
  • have only one correct answer or correct solution
  • require the use of a clear structure (for example, a list of items, steps in a process, or a table or simple diagram to be completed)
  • allow for planning time.

Best practice for promoting accuracy or complexity

Characteristics of language-learning tasks has a table which shows the characteristics that best promote accuracy or complexity.

  1. Choose an aspect of English language – fluency, accuracy, or complexity – that you want one or more of your students to develop further.
  2. State the evidence that leads you to believe your student/s need to develop this aspect of their English.
  3. Use the information in the table Characteristics of language-learning tasks to devise a relevant, curriculum-related learning task that will promote that aspect of language.
  4. As the students complete the learning task (and again later, as they complete other similar learning tasks), monitor their progress in the target aspect of English and provide explicit teaching when appropriate.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you see an improvement in the students’ performance?
  • Can you attribute the change to the kinds of tasks they have completed?
  • Can you attribute the change to any particular characteristic of the tasks they have completed?