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What is fluency? Tips to help students speak more fluently.

Fluency is to some the holy grail of learning a language. However, it can be an elusive concept and different people see fluency in different ways. But what is fluency after all? And most importantly, how can teachers help learners speak more fluently?

In this post, we’ll include tips to help you plan and deliver lessons that will help your students achieve success.

The video below contains some definitions and tips, so make sure you check it out before you keep reading.

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Definition of fluency

Different authors refer to fluency in different ways, but some concepts appear in virtually all definitions. Here are some commonly accepted characteristics of fluent speech:

  • Sounds and words are mostly connected rather than produced in isolation or with breaks between them;

  • Ideas are conveyed without excessive hesitation. When hesitation exists, it is usually to look for ideas instead of attempts to find words;

  • Pauses are frequently filled with fillers and occur between sentences or clauses rather than halfway through them;

  • Speech is relatively effortless on the part of the speaker, and can be followed without strain or discomfort by the interlocutor;

  • It contains frequent use of formulaic language, or ready-made chunks that are accessed promptly. In that way, sentences are not build word by word by the speaker;

  • Slips, hesitation and reformulation does not affect coherence, so the ideas conveyed are overall clear.

What fluency is NOT:

Definitions of fluency do vary, with some authors placing more emphasis on delivery, while others reinforce the importance of memory and retrieval of information for fluent speech, and this may lead to some confusion. However, we should be careful not to mistake fluency for:

  • High proficiency level;

  • Accuracy, or reduced error density;

  • “Native-like pronunciation”, or copying the accent of speakers of English from specific varieties;

  • Speaking without any hesitation, false starts, reformulation or redundancy. These are essential characteristics of natural fluent speech. Disfluency appears when they actually impede or hinder communication.

How to develop fluency:

Helping students become more fluent can be challenging, as many factors affect the perception of fluent speech.

The development of fluency and accuracy will likely be concomitant and gradual throughout the learners’ linguistic development, just like the improvement in skills (reading, listening, speaking and writing) is usually linked to an improvement in knowledge of systems (grammar, vocabulary, discourse and phonology). However, it is common for students to develop some areas more than others, as learning is seldom linear.

Here are some ideas to help develop fluency:

  • Make sure you include fluency-oriented activities, or freer practice, in your lessons. Task-based Learning and the Communicative Approach are approaches that particularly focus on fluency.

  • Rather than teaching words in isolation or decontextualised grammar, consider teaching lexical chunks or phrases that can be more readily accessed by students. For example, an elementary student can learn that they could use “I’ve been to…” to refers to places they have visited without having to analyse (or “learn”) the present perfect.

  • Help students become more confident with sounds, features of connected speech, word stress and sentence stress. Drills can be quite useful to help students get their tongues around the different sounds in the English language.

I hope these ideas are helpful! Let us know in the comments what you do to help develop fluency or the challenges you face.

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