Number one for English language teachers

Staging fluency activities

Type: Article

Maria Leedham's article about staging fluency activities suggests some practical steps to maximize the participation of all students during speaking lessons.

Getting contributions from all

I did an activity where students are divided into two teams and each team argues for the merits of a specified thing - its importance to mankind. One team might argue for the sea; the other for the flute, then they’re given different things to argue for. The argument was dominated by three students (in a class of nine). How can I get a better spread of contribution with this particular activity? any thoughts on seating arrangements; modifications to the activity; anything else?


Richard – Your activity sounds interesting and stimulating, with the proviso that the students need to be outgoing enough to contribute. Clearly, some of them have decided to sit back as it’s an easier option. I’ll suggest some changes to this activity first, then consider other fluency activities you could use to get everyone talkinng.

Pre-task preparation

To start with, the warming-up phase is the most important part of any skills activity. You could begin by asking students to tell their partner what things they think are important to mankind then eliciting these to the whiteboard. Then set the scene for the task by taking in a picture or even a flute if you have one! (Realia always grabs people’s interest, especially when it’s something unusual for the classroom!).

Make sure students are equipped with the vocabulary to carry out the task. With your task they need some language to do with the sea (breaking waves, tide coming in, vast oceans, etc.) and music (pop, classical, rap, write lyrics, etc.). Teaching these in chunks rather than single words helps them to stick in learners’ minds and aids recall. You don’t say what level the class is and this of course has a bearing on the lexis you teach. Students also need to be equipped with the language of persuasion (But don’t you think… , I agree in part but on the other hand…). You can extend what they have already here.

Think carefully about your instructions before you issue them. Sounds basic but it’s one I still hold to after fifteen years of teaching. Think through the words you’ll use beforehand – no need to actually write them out unless it helps you to remember. How will you check students understand? Modelling is one way, or you could ask a student to repeat what they have to do. At this point you should be clear on whether you want to impose the two positions on students or whether you’ll give them the choice. A free choice is more natural, but you may find the numbers don’t work. Alternatively you could put students into two groups and ask each group to decide on the object or entity they’re going to defend. 

Once they start on the actual activity give students plenty of time to think and prepare in pairs before they do the scary part of speaking in front of the whole class (see Martin Bygate in Challenge and Change for more on this). Perhaps they could write down their own ideas individually, then share these with a partner before getting into their groups of four and five. This way students have practised formulating their ideas once, and next time around the content will come easily so they can concentrate on how they express the ideas. It’s a big confidence boost too, as they know their ideas are valid and comprehensible before they put them forward to a larger group. This organization from individual to pairs then fours and finally whole class is often referred to as a pyramid discussion.

Classroom layout

Seating is important for the main task, as you recognize in your question. Until now, students have probably been in circular groups. If the chairs are fixed or there’s not much room (you’re probably OK with just nine but this applies to a larger group) then you could get alternate rows to turn round and talk to the row behind them. For the main task, then, the two groups could turn and face each other in two lines as here:

Teacher / Chairperson

X                X
X                X
X                X
X                X
X                X

This looks a bit confrontational with more than 8 or 9 students – you could have them behind each other in that case:

Teacher / Chairperson

XX               XX
XX               XX

Having students in a line or groups facing each other is helpful as they form two distinct ‘sides’ and you’ll hopefully get a heated argument going!

The task

It’s good if each person within the group has a part to play – maybe they can divide up their points so each student has an argument to put forward. Or you could make it a game and insist that everyone speaks! This obviously has to be done in a light-hearted manner so you don’t seem overly fierce. Each person could have a counter which they put down when they’ve contributed, or two or five counters. Will you act as chair or will one of the class? It’s a good role to include if you have odd numbers and one member is more articulate / confident than the rest. It’s hard to know how long the actual debate will take, probably a case of playing it by ear and moving on when students dry up. You could then take a vote and see if anyone has swapped sides! Or both sides could simply agree to disagree. So at the end of the task, what then? A summary of the debate is useful – either by you or the chairperson if you have one or each side could sum up their position.

Next it’s time for a focus on form slot. Research shows that this is helpful in pushing forward students’ learning (look at Peter Skehan’s chapter in Challenge and Change). I think it’s appreciated by students too – and it makes your class different from a nice chat down the pub! This language slot could be simply items to correct that you noticed during the discussion. If you’re really organized you could write them straight down on an overhead transparency (OHT) while students are speaking as this saves time later. I divide my OHT into sections beforehand: vocabulary that I noticed students searching for or misusing, grammar areas to work on (write down the incorrect utterance) and pronunciation (I write items down in phonetic script). Stick the OHT on the projector and give pairs time to discuss it before looking at it together as a plenary. I never name names on the OHT and no-one seems to mind if their incorrect language is up there!

A different focus on form could be achieved by recording part of students’ talk. The pairwork part is probably easiest as two people are clearer on a tape than nine. Students can transcribe their share of the talk – or just a two-minute stretch if it’s a longer than this – then they can work on improving their collocations. These words which go together (strong sea not heavy sea, for example) are tricky for students to get to grips with yet vital for them to sound natural. I’ve listed a helpful website in the references which you can direct students to.

That could be the end of the activity. Or, you could complete the task loop in true Task Based Learning style by listening to a native speaker recording of the same task – this could be part of the focus on form section (look at Jane Willis’ very readable account in Framework for guidance here). Pick out language the speakers used to help them to persuade others. Following this – or instead – you could provide a practice opportunity for the extra language taught by giving a second similar task.

Here’s a quick overview of the lesson structure I’m suggesting:

5-10 minutes       warmer
5 minutes             vocabulary eliciting
5-10 minutes       setting up the task and thinking individually
5-10 minutes       pairwork on the task
10 minutes          groups of 4 and 5 exchange ideas and prepare their arguments
15+ minutes        the task as a whole class
10 minutes          focus on form – correction, teaching extra language needed
?? minutes          repeat the cycle as in task-based learning

Other fluency activities

Now I’d like to turn to other fluency activities, all of which will hopefully get students talking. I’ve divided them into sections. Here goes:

A well-worn topic for ranking is the desert island challenge where students have to rank items in order of usefulness on a desert island, e.g. water, food, a boat, clothes, rope, a tent, a compass, etc. There are variations such as items to take on holiday, into space or to the Arctic. Pyramid discussions are a good way to organize this as you can get students to list their own order then they can try to persuade their partner. With arguments rehearsed they can then work as a four, and so on.

Information gap
This is a really basic idea and you probably do this without even thinking about it. In any pairwork activity there should be a gap between what one student knows and what their partner knows. You can achieve this by giving partial information to each student, e.g. half of a picture each, or a text with two different versions, or a spot the difference puzzle each. Opinion gaps are a special type of info gap but here the 'gap' is between one person’s opinion and another's. So any contentious subject should provoke a variety of opinions and thus provide gaps between one person’s viewpoint and another’s. Jigsaw tasks work on a similar basis. Each person – or group of students – has a different text. They read and digest, then recount their text to a person from the other group. It works well with listenings too, but it can get logistically complicated with the multiple tape players and headsets or rooms needed.

Q and A
Question and answer games are many and varied. They range from the EFL essential of “Find someone who…” where each person finds someone who… plays the guitar / rides a bike / has been to Italy, to full-blown student-devised questionnaires. Asking a question demands an answer, so in a simple way any Q and A activity prompts conversation. Equip your students with follow-on questions such as “Really, how well can you play?” or  “When did you learn to ride?”

Any kind of assigning a role to students counts in this category. So if you tell them they’re in favour of the sea over the flute, that would count in my book. You’re telling them what to think or say in some way. Conventionally a role play gives a role or part to a student such as sister / father / shop assistant or whatever. It could be as simple as telling one member of each pair to be a customer who wants to buy stamps and the other to be a post office worker. Or it could be something that student improvise themselves, involving writing the dialogue, deciding who plays which part and finally performing it for the class.

Giving students a task to do in pairs or groups should be a sure-fire way of achieving fluency. As with all fluency activities, the important stage is the setting-up. Once this is done then it should flow. Problems could range from following instructions and building a model out of lego or cuisenaire rods to working out a solution to a logic problem. Make sure students do in fact have to talk to each other to achieve the end result. Perhaps give some information to each student so that they have to pool this to find the solution. A good example of this type of task is ‘Detective Work’ in Hadfield’s Intermediate Communication Games.

This should be intrinsically interesting for students. Stories could range from anecdotes (short, personal accounts of an incident from real life)to long and meandering sagas using pictures or words as prompts (see ‘Sci-fi dominoes’ in Hadfield’s Intermediate Communication Games).

And finally, look in the books below for more ideas of fluency activities. You’ll soon get an idea of what works with your group. Perhaps they’re more into team games with points, or maybe they like co-operative games. Whatever the activity, think through the language they will need to complete it and include some kind of post-activity focus on form slot. Variety is important as anything can become dull if it’s done too often and is thus predictable. Vary the task, the seating arrangements, group size and materials used.

Good luck!

Maria Leedham, Oxford, UK


Bygate, M. (1996) ‘Effects of task repetition: appraising the developing language of learners’ In Challenge and Change below.

Hadfield, J. (1990) Elementary / Intermediate / Advanced Communication Games, Nelson. These contain photocopiable activities so there is lots of chopping to do. But once you have them cut up you can use them again and maybe set up a resource bank with other teachers.

Klippel, F. (1984) Keep Talking, CUP. This is packed with good ideas for fluency activities and also has a good introduction with sound advice on how to organize an effective fluency class.

Skehan, P. (1996) ‘Second language acquisition research and task-based instruction’ In Challenge and Change below.

Willis, J. (1996) A Framework for Task Based Learning, Addison Wesley Longman Ltd. This is a very readable account of TBL and has useful advice on transcribing students, recording native speakers and devising your own tasks.

Willis, J. (1996) ‘A flexible framework for task-based learning’ In Challenge and Change below.

Willis, J. and Willis,D. (1996) (Eds.) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, Macmillan Heinemann. Lots of good sections in here on the importance of repeating a task, focussing on form, etc.

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