Most teachers have heard of fluency in terms of speaking but what does it mean when applied to writing? In this article we examine the concept of fluency in writing.
We often talk about the importance of fluency over accuracy when we discuss speaking activities for the classroom. By this we mean that our students should try to say something (convey a message) without worrying about every mistake. Fluency can be important because if we only focus on how we say something, rather than what we say, we may fail to communicate properly.
Why is written fluency important?
But fluency isn’t only important in speaking – it has its place in writing as well. For example, there are occasions when we have a limited amount of time in which to write something (e.g. when taking down a phone message) and what we need to write is simply the content or information and grammatical accuracy becomes less important.
How do I get my students to write fluently?
Speed writing is one way. Choose and discuss a topic – it might be a good idea to brainstorm ideas in groups and then write these on the board. Set a time limit (e.g. 10 minutes). Your students should now spend this time writing down their ideas without worrying about the spelling or grammar. The aim is for them to write as many ideas about the topic as they can. During this speed writing phase they cannot cross anything out or correct any mistakes. If they cannot think of a word or a phrase, they should leave a blank space or write it in their own language. Once the time is up, shout, ‘Stop!’ Students should now work in pairs or small groups and read out what they have written, with the other students just listening. Next, as a group (or pair) the students should work through the text, correcting mistakes, changing punctuation, translating words or phrases into English, and filling in the blanks. This reviewing stage is important but should be done at the end and not while the actual writing is taking place.
Another way of helping your students to write more fluently is to adjust the way you mark their written work. Instead of focusing on their mistakes, look at the content. Respond by writing a reply to them rather than covering their piece of work in red pen.
But what happens if they make lots of mistakes?
There are a few points to make here. The first is that the aim is not to produce an accurate piece of work, the aim is to collect as many ideas as possible. Secondly, you can build a review stage in afterwards where editing and accuracy can be the focus. In fact, it’s important to see the fluency stage – or speed writing – simply as one step in the process of producing a final piece of writing. It is not an end in itself. Finally, if students are making lots of mistakes it is worth going back to the task itself. Is it too difficult? Was there enough preparation? And so on. More often than not, if students fail at a specific task, it means that there was a lack of adequate preparation or that the task was not the right level.
Will developing fluency lead to a lower level of accuracy?
Not necessarily. In fact, it’s not helpful to see the two aspects as diametrically opposed. It is quite possible to be both fluent and accurate at the same time. It is also possible to be inaccurate and not fluent. The important thing to consider is that when you are trying to develop one aspect, then activities should be designed for that purpose and comments should be targeted to work towards that one aim. As soon as you start looking at other aspects or commenting on other issues then students start to get confused.
Can fluency lead into developing accuracy?
It’s probably worth drawing a comparison here between fluency and accuracy in speaking activities and fluency and accuracy in writing. When we focus on fluency in speaking we don’t ignore the mistakes our students make, we either note them down to deal with later or we use unobtrusive strategies, such as asking a question, so that the student reformulates what they have said (and hopefully corrects themselves in the process). With writing, the same techniques can be applied. If the mistakes are impeding communication, we can indicate that we don’t understand the message by writing questions to the student, such as: Do you mean …? and When you say …?
The main difference between writing and speaking is that in the latter the feedback given to speakers is often immediate, whereas in written communication there is a time delay. However, writing does have an advantage in that it is easier to review because there is a permanent record.
When should we shift our attention to accuracy?
We must remember that activities focusing on fluency are simply one part of a process. In other words, when a student has finished a piece of written work where the focus is on fluency, they can return to the same piece of work at a later stage and focus on accuracy. In fact, this is a natural process that most writers go through in their L1: brainstorm, draft, review, order ideas, link ideas, review again, redraft, and so on. It is very unusual for someone to write a perfect piece straight off.
But isn’t this all too time-consuming?
The answer to this is both yes and no. If all the stages are completed in a linear fashion then the task will take quite a long time. However, there is no reason why a piece of writing can’t be filed away to be returned to at a later date. In fact, it may well be extremely beneficial to take such an approach to language teaching. Instead of seeing language as a linear process we can see it as a cyclical one. This approach is often advocated with the use of portfolios. Students are asked to keep a personal diary of their learning and a collection of some of their work. This collection can be added to, things replaced and so on, at any time.
We can take this idea and develop it further with a particular focus on our students’ writing. For example, in lesson one we get our students to brainstorm ideas on a topic, discuss these ideas in pairs, think about how the ideas could be organised, etc. For homework we ask them to produce a piece of writing. In lesson two we put students into pairs and get them to compare their pieces and discuss the content. Then we collect them in and look at them. At this stage we focus on the ideas and whether the message is clear. We then return the pieces and ask the students to put them in their portfolios. A few weeks later we may be doing a lesson on spelling. We then ask our students to look at two or three pieces of work from their portfolio and correct any spelling mistakes they find. Again, this reviewing stage can be done in pairs. We are thus encouraging our students to regularly review the work in their portfolios, and rather than simply discarding pieces and replacing them with new ones, we ask them to spend time reviewing and improving what is already there.
Can all activities develop written fluency?
The simple answer is no. There are many activities where accuracy is required. For example, filling in a form. It is pointless to do this type of written task quickly, without attention to writing the correct information. However, many activities do lend themselves to a fluency-first approach. Tasks such as discursive essays, letters, stories and even short pieces of writing such as notes are great for this approach.
Some practical ideas
1. Lists: This type of activity works at all levels, but is particularly good at low levels. Tell students you will give them a category and you want them to write 10 words connected to the category. You will give them a time limit of 30 seconds. Call out a category such as colours, transport or adjectives. Students should write as quickly as possible without worrying about spelling at this stage. Put students in pairs and get them to compare their lists. Now ask them to look at their lists again and check the spelling. The first two steps focus on fluency and the final step on accuracy.
2. Pros & cons: On the board write up a statement, such as: Money can’t make you happy. Ask students to work in pairs and write down as many ideas as they can to support or attack the statement. To encourage them to write as much as possible make it competitive by telling them that the pair with the most ideas wins. After collecting the ideas students can review them to see which ideas are good, etc. Then they could think about which ideas they would choose and how they would order them if they were to write a short essay on the topic.
3. Dictation: Here I’d like to mention two ideas: dictogloss and phone messages.
- Dictogloss – Ask your students to put their pens down. Explain that you are going to dictate a short text (maybe a sentence or a very short paragraph) and you want them to listen but not to write anything. As soon as you’ve finished dictating the text, ask the students to write down what they can remember. For a fluency focus, explain that you want them to get the main ideas down, but not worry about grammatical accuracy. After a few minutes, pair the students and get them to compare their ideas. Finally, ask a few students to tell you what they wrote and as a class discuss the key content.
- Phone messages – Tell the students you will phone them and give them a message. Explain that they won’t be able to write down everything as it will be too fast. Tell them to focus on the key information and just to note this down. You might want to brainstorm what kind of information could be key, e.g. who is calling, for whom, what about, any important times. This is similar to the dictogloss activity above in that you want students to focus on content rather than grammatical accuracy. Of course, accuracy in terms of having the correct information is important.