Adrian Tennant presents an article covering various aspects of teaching fluency in speaking, including sections on what is meant by fluency, why students find fluency difficult and the role of the teacher in fluency activities.
One problem that students often have is speaking fluently. This is common when lessons have focused on grammar and where speaking activities have been limited to drills or tightly controlled pairwork activities. In this article, I’ll take a closer look at developing fluency in speaking and provide some activities to help.
What do we mean by fluency?
The dictionary* definitions for the word fluent are 1) able to speak a (foreign) language very well without difficulty; 2) expressing yourself in a clear and confident way, without seeming to make an effort.
For many learners the words ‘without difficulty’, ‘in a clear and confident way’, and ‘without seeming to make an effort’ are all issues.
It is important to remember that speed is not part of any of the definitions and nor is accuracy, unless of course you take ‘speak a language very well’ to imply that this means without mistakes. If you think about it, even native speakers of a language make mistakes and yet you would usually call them fluent speakers. How fast you speak is also not a clear indicator of fluency. If you speak quickly, but lack confidence, and don’t express yourself clearly, are you any more fluent than someone who speaks slowly but effortlessly? No. So ultimately fluency is about confidence, effort and ease.
* Definitions from Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners.
Why do students find it difficult to be fluent?
One of the main reasons is lack of confidence. They might know what they want to say in their head, but actually producing it is something else. Students need to develop confidence in their ability to say what they want to say and to communicate effectively. Another reason is that often in a classroom everything a student says is scrutinized for mistakes. This not only affects their confidence, but also means that they spend time running through the words in their head before opening their mouth. Quite clearly then, two of the most important things to focus on when developing fluency are giving students confidence and enabling them to communicate their ideas and thoughts.
How can we help them become more fluent?
Obviously, the best way to help students become more fluent is to give them plenty of practice. However, practice alone is not enough as they may not take all the opportunities offered. If we go back to why students find it difficult to be fluent, there were two main reasons. If we deal with these reasons, then this will certainly improve their chances.
So, the first thing is to remember what the purpose of any fluency speaking task is. It is not to be 100% accurate and correct. If we, the teacher, focus on student’s mistakes and keep on correcting them, then they will lose any confidence they had, stop talking and the whole activity will fail. On the other hand, should we ignore all mistakes? Probably not. But there is a time and place to deal with these. I’ll look more closely at this issue in the next section.
Another thing that is important is that we don’t make students go into an activity ‘cold’. What I mean by this is that students aren’t asked just to speak without any time to collect their thoughts. Effective planning time will lead to a far more effective speaking activity and will help build students' confidence.
Finally, it’s essential that the activity you set is meaningful. Students won’t be able to speak about something that doesn’t interest them, or isn’t relevant to them. It’s quite useful to get students to suggest topics that interest them as they are more likely to contribute to the speaking activity.
What should I do if they make lots of mistakes?
First of all, don’t worry! Mistakes are part of learning. Whatever you do, don’t draw attention to the mistakes as the point of the activity is not accuracy but fluency. You’ll often find that if another student doesn’t understand what is being said, they will ask for clarification which will lead to the student who spoke either self-correcting or getting peer correction, both of which are far more effective than you interrupting.
However, it is useful to note down any mistakes you hear as these can be dealt with at a later stage (as long as you don’t make it too obvious that they were made during a particular fluency speaking activity). You can do this by carrying out a review activity on particular grammar points or vocabulary items that proved to be problematic during the activity.
One thing that you’ll often hear is the importance of giving feedback, or letting students know how they did. In a fluency activity, this doesn’t necessitate focussing on the mistakes that were made. In fact, it’s far better to focus on the purpose of the activity, which is usually to convey information etc. A simple response about how X was a very interesting point will show that you have been listening and will increase students’ confidence.
What’s my role as a teacher in fluency work?
Probably the most important role for the teacher is setting up the activity. If, for example, the activity is a discussion, you might provide the students with a short text, maybe a newspaper article, to give them some ideas. Then, you could put the students into small groups and give them some specific questions to discuss. i.e. What do you think about X (the topic)? Why do you think X happens? What do you think X should do? etc. Notice, all the questions are open-ended questions. This type of question encourages students to speak whereas questions that only require a Yes/No response are likely to get just that. i.e. Do you agree with the writer? Yes. Often it is good to give students a specific role. For example, if you have a discussion about endangered animals, you might have a role card ‘You work for a conservation organization. You think it’s very important. Think of some reasons why.’ ‘You live in an area where there are tigers. You are worried because they kill your livestock. You want to be able to hunt them.’ ‘You work for the government. It costs a lot of money to protect these animals. Is it really so important?’ etc. By giving students roles, you give them a starting point from which to think about a particular issue.
Get students to work in small groups either discussing a particular issue or planning what they will say in a debate such as the one outlined above. If the debate is going to be for the whole class, then there is another trap you must avoid. That is, don’t ask too many questions. If you ask a question, give students time to think about their answers. It does mean that there might be a few minutes silence, but usually someone will speak after a short time. If you immediately ask another question, then students don’t have time to think and it simply leads to more silence and probably you asking yet another question.
Some practical ideas
- At the start of the class
One of the best fluency activities is the ‘casual conversation’ at the start of the class. Simply asking students about their weekend or something you know they’ve recently done can be a very good activity. You could also do this as pair or groupwork i.e.
Ask your partner about their weekend. See if you can find out two things that you both did.
Giving the task a purpose (i.e. See if you can find out two things that you both did.) can add an extra focus so that students don’t worry about how accurate they are.
- A discussion
Your local town/city council have just found $10,000 and have decided to spend it on improving the town/city. They have come up with three ideas:
1) building a new cinema
2) planting some trees in the park and putting in a small lake
3) holding a big street party.
Which of the ideas do you think is good, and why?
By making the activity directly related to the students' own context i.e. your town/city, it means they are far more likely to have an opinion that they want to express. Remember, give them time to think and prepare and use pair or groupwork before opening it up to a whole class discussion.
- Using questions & prompts
Put students in pairs or groups and give them a set of questions/prompts to talk about.
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Speaking matters: Developing fluency