This post expands on the article I wrote for ELTA newsletter. The post consist of two parts (Part 1 here). Part 1 focuses on the definition and components of fluency, while Part 2 suggest practical ways of developing fluency and addressing specific issues hindering fluency.
In Part 1, I talked about what speaking fluency is and what might stop students from developing it. Now, armed with that knowledge, let’s see what we can do to overcome those difficulties.
Fluency Development Strategy #1: Repetition and time pressure
How many times have we heard repetition is the mother of all learning? Turns out, it really is! Paul Nation, my go-to source for everything ESL, suggest “repeated practice on the same material so that it can be performed fluently” as an effective approach to developing fluency (in Nation & Newton, 2009:157). To ensure that learners do not become bored with repeating the same message, they suggest changing the audience for each subsequent retelling, and introducing a time limit.
A technique that incorporates both suggestions is 4/3/2 where learners repeat the same text with the time limit decreasing from 4 to 3 and then 2 minutes, speaking to a different partner every time. Research (Nation, 1989) shows that 4/3/2 helps learners increase the rate of speech and reduce pauses and hesitations. In addition, repeat performances help learners build confidence in speaking.
I like to combine this technique with a task-based approach for a complete speaking lesson which can be done with minimum (or none!) materials and be tailored to any level/grammar or vocabulary area/subject matter.
In this example, pre-intermediate level learners are revising the use of past tense and the language related to people’s lives and life events by delivering a short talk about their personal hero.
The lesson handout is here: Personal Hero Lesson Handout and while it can’t be readily used by anyone else (because it talks about my personal hero who happens to be my grandmother), it serves as an example of how easy it is to create a lesson out of thin air, and may be used as a template of sorts.
- Warm-up: I set the stage by showing a picture of Superman and eliciting the word ‘Hero’ and then asking the students for suggestions on who might be considered a hero and what the different types might there be (a war hero, a national hero, a personal hero etc.)
- Optional: vocabulary pre-teaching (e.g. achievement, admire) + quick speaking task using the new vocab
- Task Model and Listening Practice: I told the students about my own personal hero. Students listened and completed a listening task. In my case, I told the students about my grandmother. For the first listening, the students had to put dates from the story in the order they were mentioned. For the second listening, and I asked them to recall what the dates meant (e.g. the year she was born, or the year she graduated from university). Finally, students had to create a short summary of the story.
- Language for the Task: Students looked at the full transcript of the teacher’s talk where some phrases were underlined and matched the underlined phrases with their purpose (Talking about life events, Structuring your talk etc). We then drilled some of the longer phrases in a back-chain drill for some of the longer phrases (The person I`m going to talk about is…) and then I let students practice these phrases individually for a few minutes until they I was satisfied that they were able to deliver them smoothly and with minimum hesitation. If you think your students might need more support with these phrases, try doing a substitution chain: when drilling a phrase, e.g. The person I`m going to talk about is…, point to various students to nominate them to say this phrase and say a name, e.g. William Shakespeare, Leonardo DiCaprio, my next door neighbor to get them to practice saying the full phrase (The person I’m going to talk about is my next door neighbor).
- Preparation for the Task: I directed the students’ attention to the task and the questions they had to think about to help them structure their talks. I asked them to recall what my answers to the questions were and asked them which of the phrases we had just looked at could be used in which part of their talk. I then let them prepare, circulating and offering help/encouragement as needed.
- Delivering the Talk: Here is where 4/3/2 came in, here modified to 3/2/1. When the learners first tell their story, they speak for 3 minutes, then for 2, and the last telling lasts 1 minute. Through reducing the length of time the learners are required to speak for, the pressure is on them to make their talk more concise, as well as to speak faster, thus potentially reducing the number of pauses and hesitations. In addition, repeated performance means that learners get more speaking time than if they told the story just once. I told the students they will get a chance to tell their story to 3 different people, but each time they’ll have less time to speak.
I divided the learners into Student A and B and asked them to find a partner who is a different letter from them (thus creating AB pairs). Note: if you have an odd number of students, have one group of 3 with ABB. Once the students are paired, explain that Students A talk, Students B listen and they will have to speak for 3 minutes. If they run out of things to say, Student B can help them by asking question but should not start their own talk. Start the countdown timer for 3 minutes and give the students a signal to speak. After 3 minutes ask students to find a new partner (again, making sure you have AB pairs) and say that Student A speaks AGAIN but this time they have 2 minutes. At the end of the 2 minutes, repeat the procedure with 1-minute time limit. Repeat the cycle with Student B, (if you have an odd number – step in for Student A).
- Group Feedback and Discussion: Ask some students: What’s one interesting thing you heard? Who said it?
How did you feel when you were speaking for 3 minutes? Was your last telling different? How? Give some feedback (examples of interesting vocabulary, successful usage of the new language). If you have time at the end of the lesson, you could ask some students to volunteer to deliver their talk.
The sequence of activities in this lesson is aimed at improving the learners’ speaking fluency by allowing them to speak on a familiar topic (more on why this is important below), providing language support and a preparation stage, and providing opportunities to repeat their performance. These features are important for the following reasons:
Nation & Newton (2009:9), suggest that in order to develop fluency, learners need to “make the best use of what they already know”. This applies not only to language, but also topics. This involves, for example, getting learners to recount personal experiences. Choosing familiar topics helps lessen learners’ anxiety about speaking because the content of the talk comes from their own experience.
Including a preparation stage
Before delivering a talk or having a conversation, learners are encouraged to write down useful words, opinions and questions for their partner. By allowing learners to take notes, they can marshal ideas and lexis for their conversation which helps them avoid getting stuck in search of things to say or how to say them. In addition, taking time to prepare before they speak helps learners feel more confident about completing the task. One thing to be careful with here is if students write down everything they are planning to say and end up reading the whole thing instead of saying it. What I like to do to prevent this is to provide students with very small pieces of paper (or better yet – Post-It notes!) to write on – try as they might, they won’t be able to write EVERYTHING down!
Goh (sited in Bohlke, 2014) suggests providing language support for fluency activities as a way to ease the cognitive burden on learners. This can include pre-teaching or reviewing key vocabulary and lexical chunks before speaking activities. For example, a short brainstorming session before a speaking activity can bring up useful language for the task, e.g. asking learners to suggest ways to agree/disagree before a debate. Alternatively, language can be explicitly presented, as it was in this lesson.
Another technique that makes use of repetition is pyramid discussion in which learners rank ideas of choose from a number of options individually, then in pairs, in small groups, and finally with the whole class. Learners have to repeatedly justify their choice, and the gradual increase in the number of people they talk to allows them to build up to speaking in front of the whole class. Again, this is an activity you could create from scratch based on whatever you are covering in class at the moment – e.g. food, furniture, or find a ready-made activity in a resource book/online. A classic example of a pyramid discussion is deciding what to bring to a desert island – the teacher either provides a list of items or ask the students to come up with their own list. Here is an example of a lesson plan based on this topic. Other ideas for a pyramid discussion include:
- deciding on a list of places a visitor must see in your country
- deciding on a way to spend money you won in a lottery
- deciding what furniture to buy first when you move into a new home
- deciding what the most important qualities in a leader/friend/partner are
Find Someone Who
If you have ever taught using a textbook, chances are, you came a cross a Find Someone Who activity at the end of the teacher’s book somewhere. This often undervalued activity involves repeating the same question(s) to different people in class in an attempt to find somebody who matches the description (e.g. Find somebody who has been to Paris). What is great about it is that it help learners acquire high-frequency chunks (Do you often, Have you ever) and get very intensive practice in saying them in a very short space of time. To make this acquisition more effective, I often precede this activity with a short drill, focused on connected speech features of questions (Would you /wʊdʒə/).
Rather than being an activity in its own right, fluency lines is more of a way of organizing a speaking activity in order to create opportunities for repetition and to maximize the speaking time. For this activity, students are organized into two lines facing each other and given a time limit to either ask a question/ a set of questions/tell a short story or a joke. At the teacher’s signal, the first student on one of the lines moves to the back of the line and the rest of the students in this line shift forward, creating new pairs. The procedure is repeated several times – you might stop after a few times or keep going until both lines have spoken to each other. An alternative arrangement is one where students form two concentric circles with the outer circle moving at the teacher’s command.
Developing Fluency Suggestion #2 Teaching communication strategies
Communication strategies are techniques which can be used to help learners get their message across when problems in communication occur (Dorneyi & Thurrell, 1991). In my experience, they can help learners sound more fluent by avoiding long pauses and getting stalled in search of a word. Such strategies include circumlocution (paraphrasing). Circumlocution strategies are categorized as achievement strategies, i.e. strategies that can help learners get the message across even if they do not have sufficient vocabulary (Dorneyi & Thurrell, 1991). Some useful language for circumlocution includes relative clauses (it’s a thing which), talking about functions (you use it to + infinitive) and vague langues (it’s sort of…). A great way to practice this language is by playing word-guessing games. My all-time favorite word-guessing game is Hot Seat. In addition to helping develop fluency, this game is perfect for revision of vocabulary, or it can be used as a gap-fill, or even as a fun way to spend a lesson. You don`t need any equipment beyond what you (presumably) already have in the classroom – a chair (or two), a board and a marker. You can either make the list of words yourself or ask for students’ input. The class is split into two teams. Two chairs are placed at the front of the classroom, with their backs to the board. A person from each team sits in a chair. The teacher writes a word on the board, and on the teacher’s signal the teams start explaining this word/expression to their respective players. The team whose player guesses the word first, scores a point. Alternatively, have just one student sit in the chair with their back to the board and the rest of the class explains the word to them. When students explain a word, they can use synonyms, miming and definitions, and mustn’t use their native language or words with the same root. After the student guesses the word, another student takes their place. I once played this game with a class of teenagers and they got so excited during the game that one of them fell over backwards in her chair!
Another fun word-guessing game is Pass the Bag. It involves a bag (or a box, or a hat) filled with cut-up words (perhaps more than one per card). Students sit in a circle and pass the bag to each other while the teacher plays some music. When the music stops, whoever is left holding the bag has to pull out a card and explain the word(s) on it.
To take word guessing to the next level, play Taboo. In this game, learners have to explain words or phrases for their partner(s) to guess but in their explanation they cannot mention certain words, e.g. if the word they are explaining is blog, they cannot use the words write, Internet, journal. By restricting their use of words, learners are forced to find alternative ways of defining something, thus training them in circumlocution. Higher-level learners can be challenged by introducing a time limit or ‘banning’ even more words that can be used for definitions. A fun way to create a set of Taboo cards is by asking students to work in groups and make some cards for the other teams – they will enjoy coming up with some challenging cards for their rivals! Here are some examples of Taboo cards from the English in Life blog.
While spoken fluency is a worthy goal, there is no one way of developing fluency and no quick fixes. The solutions offered here are a fraction of the multitude of ways to work on developing fluency. I hope my small contribution will be helpful for you and your students. I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic and learn about how you work on fluency in your classroom – comment below!
Bohlke, D. (2014). Fluency-Oriented Second Language Teaching. In Celce-Murcia, M.,
Dornyei, Z. & Thurrell, S. (1991). Strategic competence and how to teach it. ELT Journal, 45(1), 16-23.
Nation, P. (1989). Improving speaking fluency. System, 17 (3), 377-384.
Nation, P., & Newton, J. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL listening and speaking. New York: Routledge.
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