“High” and “low” resolution YouTube: a metaphor for balancing accuracy and fluency in the classroom

I left university without ever having used YouTube or owning a mobile phone. My grammar knowledge was not up to snuff either. But I now teach English to children whose entire lives have been intimately involved with screens in general, and online video in particular. Some of my students even have their own YouTube channels!

YouTube, for better or worse, provides content on demand and is now an integral part of many school classrooms. There was a time not long ago, however, when video was not always this smooth. A time when you would have to wait for the video to buffer, an annoying consequence of limited bandwidth and inefficient video compression algorithms. It still happens, but YouTube, Netflix, and other video streaming services have gone through great pains to smooth out this experience. They will automatically detect your network connection speed and adjust the resolution accordingly.

Now here’s the metaphor from the title of this article. Some English learning students, particularly older students, or those who have received a grammar translation approach to teaching English, will speak English in a similar way to the early experiences of streaming video. Their approach is like a video streaming service that favours high resolution at the risk of having to buffer more frequently. The message they desire to express takes up more bandwidth than is available. The end result can be an unnatural, stuttery, or delayed output.

Other English learners seem to prefer and are better able to produce English using the “lower resolution” approach. They don’t need all the details in order to access and produce meaning. I find that these students are often the ones that are more outgoing, orally proficient, and likely have picked up much of their English through social interaction. They often tend to be younger learners as well. Whether it’s the content being shared, or the lower expectations of the English speaker,  the “low resolution approach” can be highly effective at communicating for narrow purposes. After all, how much of the content on YouTube really needs to be consumed at such high resolution?

So which is better? Or is it just a matter of preference? My mother wouldn’t stick around to watch this 4K Video in UltraHD if there had to be a delay.

But no one needs to watch this hilarious video clip in HD to appreciate the humour.

A balanced approach

Ahh, balance. Isn’t that always the answer to everything? Well, it often is.

What I find with my own practice, however, is that we do need elements of both strategies; lower resolution versus a choppy but higher resolution video stream. The closest technical terms that correspond with my metaphor would be accuracy and fluency.

Accuracy is like the high resolution video stream that is at risk of needing buffering. Fluency is like the lower resolution video that delivers content at a lower quality. Some messages need that high accuracy in order to be effective, and life, just like YouTube, might be better if everything was delivered in high resolution. But in the process of learning, practice, and even assessment a hi-res approach is not always necessary.

Teachers need to accommodate for both types of learner and speaking in the classroom. We must be aware of what degree of fluency or accuracy is necessary for the task. We also need to be on guard that our own bias towards either fluency or accuracy does not distort any valuable learning.

Students need chances to be corrected in order to maintain “high resolution” or accuracy, but they also need opportunities to express themselves, flaws and all.

When it comes to writing, where accuracy becomes more important, students should not become crippled by too much grammar correction, and yet at the same time they need to be able to express themselves with enough “resolution” in order for the point to be made.

Here are some tasks where a “high resolution” or focus on accuracy approach can be used:

  • performances, where there is a chance to rehearse
  • written assignments that are graded or are assessments OF learning, which have already included many chances to practice

Students need fluency, or “low resolution” approaches too:

  • regular informal writing and speaking practice with a focus on communicating meaning
  • show and tell, circle sharing, group discussions

This metaphor can also apply to different types of learner. Some students just like those details and get hung up on them. In my experience, these high-accuracy preferring students do a great job on worksheets, and are quite responsive to grammar feedback in writing. But they’re speaking is often less fluent, and their brains are involved in much more translation before they open their mouths. They need safe spaces and opportunities to speak out and make mistakes.

Other students, often the ones who are more fluent orally, may have mastered getting what information they need across. They understand the “low resolution” strategy is effective for communication. But for these students, and especially in their writing, pursuing greater accuracy is within their interest as a student in the same way that no one would want to return to watching VHS tapes after encountering HD or 4K resolution videos.

So what? Well, as with all things teaching, it’s important to understand your goals for the learner and to employ the correct tool or method to help achieve those goals. And vice versa. Our students need to understand when fluency is more important than accuracy. Tell me what you think in a reply below or contact me through twitter @grahamwnoble.

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