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What is Oral Fluency?: Comparing the Average Celta Course and the Four Strands

Unfortunately many language learners are not practicing what they know enough.

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What most people think fluency is…

When most people think about being fluent, they think of being able to speak rapidly without much pausing or thinking. A quick internet search will pull up range of definitions and different “ingredients” for being fluent: good pronunciation, being automatic with phrases, and being good at circumlocution (in case you don’t know a particular word).

Fluency means something different to many people. That goes for teachers and a lot of researchers too. For an idea of the many ways “fluency” is understood, take a look at this post on Scott Thornbury’s blog.

What most teachers are taught about fluency…

Many teacher training courses contrast fluency with accuracy. At least this is the case with a lot of teacher training courses that I’ve taken part in.

A fluency activity is not going to limit the students in what they can say. That means that learners can use any of their linguistic resources to do the activity. This might be better understood if you compare two grammar activities.

Activity 1

A screenshot of a social media post

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This is called a Find Someone Who activity. Students each get a copy and they ask each other questions: “Did you go to a restaurant last week?” Their partners answer “yes, I have/no, I haven’t.” When students hear a “yes,” they write down their partner’s name.

Activity 2

The teacher tells the students:

“Think about 3 activities you did last weekend. Talk to everyone in the class. Did anyone do the same activities as you?”

Activity 1 is clearly more controlled because it forces the students to transform sentences. In fact, it is used as a kind of controlled practice for the past simple. Activity 2 is freer and is often used as a freer practice for grammar lessons. Activity 2 has the past simple in the instructions, so there is a degree of control. Students will likely focus on being accurate with the past simple, but they are restricted much less in terms of talking about different activities.

We saw how Activity 2 allowed more freedom, but it’s still really about practicing grammar. It’s not just about speaking. Let’s look at an activity that would be considered a fluency activity on most Celta courses:

Students read about tips for language learning and they suggest more. Then they rank their ideas so that they commit to opinions. Their opinions (the ranking) will be different from their partners. They now have to discuss with their partners and come to some kind of agreement. This is called a problem-solving activity. I created this one based on what I learned in chapter 3 of “What Should Every EFL Teacher Know?” (see further reading below).

Activity 2 was all about talking about the past. The problem-solving activity is not making the same kind of language demands and students are free to speak in any way to complete the activity. On most teacher training courses, this problem-solving activity would be considered a speaking activity that is all about fluency development.

In short, most teacher training courses emphasize that working on fluency means that the students are engaged in communicating meaning and they are not letting “being accurate” slow them down.

I used to agree with this. I don’t anymore.

What is a better way of understanding fluency for language learning?

If you look at Fluency Development on the Four Strands, you will find quite a different concept for oral fluency development. For more information on the Four Strands, you can read my previous post on the Four Strands.

In fact, the problem-solving activity is a staple in the Meaning Focused Output Strand. That’s because students are focused on expressing messages and they are pushing themselves to use language in different ways. This does not mean they will be communicating quickly or without pauses.

For oral fluency development in the Four Strands, we need to do something more like this 4/3/2 activity. In the picture below, the same student speaks to three different students and repeats the same talk faster and faster.

With the Four Strands, Fluency Development in speaking requires that:

  • the activity is easy for your level (you don’t need to pause to concentrate on constructing different complex sentences for your level);
  • it repeats (this ensures that you are working to become more automatic with phrases); and,
  • it pushes you to go faster (each time you practice you aim to speak more quickly than before).

This distinction between Meaning Focused Output and Fluency Development is important and every course should have activities that help with both. Unfortunately many language learners are not practicing what they know enough. More class time should be spent with repeated activities to help with oral fluency development.

If you are an independent learner, you should insist on your speaking partners to repeat activities.

Teachers, we’ve got more reasons to justify repetition of doing something “easy” in class.

Further reading:

Nation, Paul. “What Should Every EFL Teacher  Know?” Compass Publishing

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