Becoming a more fluent speaker of English is an important goal for the majority of English language learners. In this article, the concept of ‘speaking fluency’ is briefly defined, and four methods shown to promote speaking fluency are discussed. The teacher’s role in enabling their students to develop speaking fluency is examined, and some suggestions are made as to what the teacher should do to facilitate the process.
What is fluency?
Fluency is the area of language ability which relates to the speed and ease with which a language learner performs in one of the four core language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. Although the concept of fluency relates to all four language skills, it tends to be most closely associated with speaking.
What is speaking fluency?
Speaking fluency is ‘the ability to link units of speech together with facility and without strain or inappropriate slowness or undue hesitation’. (Hedge 2000) The speech of non-fluent English learners tends to be characterized by ‘frequent pauses, repetitions and self-corrections’ (Hedge 1993) Developing speaking fluency, therefore, entails developing the ability to speak without frequent pauses, repetitions and self-corrections.
How can language learners improve their speaking fluency?
1. Not worrying about making mistakes
Fluency is usually contrasted with accuracy, where the latter entails knowledge of ‘pronunciation, vocabulary, word formation, grammatical structure, sentence structure and linguistic semantics’ (Hedge 2000). Fluency and accuracy are often envisaged as lying on the two opposing plates of a weighing scale: as one side goes up, the other goes down.
Some learners of English are able to significantly increase their fluency by temporarily disregarding accuracy. As they pay less attention to the grammatical conformity of their utterances, and more attention to conveying meaning, the speed of their speech can increase, and hesitations and pauses can decrease. We should therefore encourage our students not to worry about making mistakes in situations where fluent speech is more important than perfectly grammatically accurate speech, such as informal conversations inside and outside of the classroom. As teachers, we should exhibit restraint in correcting students during language activities designed to promote fluency.
2. Learning ‘pre-assembled chunks’ of language
Fluency also improves when language knowledge has become ‘automized’ (Thornbury 1999), i.e. when the learner is able to produce language without consciously thinking about it. One way students can aid the process of spoken language ability becoming automatic is to learn ‘pre-assembled chunks’ of language.
‘Chunks’ of language are idiomatic phrases such as ‘as it were’ and ‘on the other hand’ which tend to be produced as a whole rather than assembled grammatically piece by piece (Nattinger and DeCarrico 1992). Because such phrases are stored in a ‘pre-assembled’ form in the brain, they can be recalled relatively quickly and effortlessly, thus helping to eliminate pauses and hesitations and increase the overall speed of speech.
Chunks of language can also help learners to compensate for lack of linguistic knowledge. If a student lacks the vocabulary to describe something, phrases such as ‘it’s kind of like…’ can be of some avail. If they lose their way in making an argument, gambits such as ‘the point I’m trying to make is…’ can be of assistance. We should therefore provide opportunities to our students to learn and practice idiomatic, pre-assembled chunks of language.
3. Planning ahead
If a student knows that they are going to be talking about a certain topic in their next English lesson, or discussing a particular issue with their company’s counterpart in America in their next teleconference, then planning for that topic or discussion is an indispensable way for them to increase their oral fluency when speaking in that situation (Kellem 2009).
Planning involves making written notes, composing written answers to expected questions, and rehearsal. If the student is giving a speech or presentation in English, then it goes without saying that they need to practice the speech multiple times. This is something that we would do even if we were giving a speech in our native language, and it is even more important to do when preparing to give a speech in a second or foreign language. We should therefore provide opportunities to our students for the planning and rehearsal of speeches and discussions before they take place.
4. Studying abroad
Research suggests that fluency can be significantly increased by studying abroad. In Wood (2007), Japanese students who spent time studying on a full time intensive ESL course at a college in Canada were able to increase their rate of speech, and length of time speaking between pauses, as well as making gains in other areas of fluency. The financial cost of studying abroad may well be worth it, then, in terms of the increase in speaking fluency the learner can expect to obtain. We should encourage our students to take such opportunities if and when they are able to do so, to improve their language skills in general, and speaking fluency in particular.
Acquiring improved speaking fluency is a very common and highly ranked goal among learners of English. I have argued that, as English teachers, we should:
- encourage our students not to worry about making mistakes in activities designed to promote fluency and informal conversations;
- provide opportunities for our students to learn and practice pre-assembled chunks of language;
- provide opportunities for our students to practice and rehearse speeches and discussions before they take place;
- encourage our students to spend time studying abroad where they possess the means to do so.
In these ways, we can help our students to improve their speaking fluency, and take important steps toward becoming more communicatively competent speakers of English.
- Hedge, T. (1993). “Key concepts in ELT.” ELT Journal 47(3):275-277.
- Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
- Kellem, H. (2009). “Principles for developing oral fluency in the classroom.” JALT Journal 33(1): 9-11.
- Nattinger, J. R. and J. S. DeCarrico (1992). Lexical phrases and language teaching. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
- Thornbury, S. (1999). How to teach grammar. Harlow, Pearson Education.
- Wood, D. (2007). “Mastering the English formula: Fluency development of Japanese learners in a study abroad context.” JALT Journal 29(2): 209-230.