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I have taught ESOL (English for speakers of other languages who live in an English-speaking environment) for over 15 years. Many of my students have recently moved to England. Their reasons for learning English have varied greatly; from learning it out of necessity to learning it just for fun. Likewise, their learning backgrounds have been vastly different. Some students have had very little or recent education, while others have had higher education.  

The results of a needs-analysis questionnaire given to a recent group of students revealed that these new multinational students (who come from a variety of backgrounds), invariably had ‘improving their speaking’ as their main aim and main need. This was also highlighted as their main difficulty. Students commented on the fact that speaking was often a skill used to practise grammar, but that it was rarely used just for the sake of speaking. They therefore felt that they were unable to communicate outside the classroom effectively. This concern is voiced by Scott Thornbury in How to Teach Speaking: ‘This skill is always forgotten...All language teaching methods prioritise speaking, but less as a skill in its own right than as a means of practising grammar’ (Thornbury, 2005).

Fluency is often a skill we overlook.

The ability to communicate outside the classroom necessitates a degree of fluency. Hartman and Stock define fluency in the following way: ‘a person is said to be a fluent speaker of a language when he can use its structures accurately, whilst concentrating on content rather than form, using the units and patterns automatically at normal conversational speed when they are needed’ (Hartman and Stock,1976).

In this definition, fluency is measured in terms of accuracy. However many students, especially those who have just arrived in England, can be very reluctant to talk in class. This is because speaking is the area in which they have had the least practice. They have also felt intimidated as a result of trying to produce ‘accurate’ language in terms of form. In the following article, I intend to discuss how fluency in terms of content rather than form can be developed through a range of activities that allow students to communicate without interruption or intimidation.  

What exactly is Fluency?

The Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners defines ‘fluency’ as the ‘ability to speak a (foreign) language very well without difficulty and expressing yourself in a clear confident way, without seeming to make too much effort’ (www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/fluency.)

This dictionary definition mentions neither speed nor accuracy. ‘Very well’ is not a synonym for ‘without mistake’, so the emphasis of this definition is on the confidence the speaker has with the language. Student confidence can only come from practice. If the focus is always on accuracy, then practising fluid speech in class is impossible because students will be interrupted whilst trying to express their ideas mid-flow. Interestingly, Dave Willis, in Challenge and Change, suggests that accuracy comes from fluency i.e., the confidence with which students are able to communicate ideas. Once this is achieved, a focus on meaning and accuracy naturally follows.  

According to Skehan (1994, p.)  in Second Language Acquisition, ‘ fluency concerns the learners’ capacity to produce language in real time without undue pausing or hesitation. It is likely to rely upon more lexicalised modes of communication, as the pressures of real-time speech production are only met by avoiding excessive rule and computation.’

So, it is clear that whatever differences the various definitions of fluency have, the common, underlying theme is the communication of ideas without excessive computation. This is critical. Scott Thornbury (2005) has suggested that fluency means ‘to communicate effectively, regardless of formal accuracy or speed of delivery’. This is precisely the kind of fluency I wish to address.   

What communicative activities can we use to develop oral fluency?

‘A communicative activity is one in which real-life communication occurs’ (Thornbury 2005. p36).

Communicative activities can be used to develop fluency and give meaningful opportunities to practise language structures or items. These activities enable students to recall, recycle and reinforce newly learnt items, but they have a stronger focus on the communicative element of the activity. They also give students the opportunity to learn whilst speaking - either as their ideas are formulating, or when they are listening to their peers. All the activities mentioned below involve group work, thus maximising student interaction and enabling them to focus on the communication of meaning to their group, as opposed to the practice of language.

Role-plays and simulation – Learners simulate a real-life encounter, such as an interview, or an encounter on a train, and have to adopt a specific role of a character or play themselves. They must act as though this situation is real and behave in accordance with their role. This article has a resource attached for you to download which includes vocabulary building and role-plays for your ESOL learners. 

Debate or discussion – the debate or discussion can be about a real-life event or a simulated one. Learners can either voice their own opinions or play a role. This activity provides the students with a stimulus for communicative interaction, as students can express interests, opinions and beliefs to each other. Learners are also required to listen to each other, sustain interest in the topic of conversation and take turns. For a discussion to take place, learners must have prior knowledge of the issue whereas debates require students to have a certain difference of opinion. 

Communication games - these activities are designed to promote communication between learners. Frequently, they contain an information gap so that students have to talk to each other to complete the activity. An example might be solving a puzzle, so in this case, students are focussing on exchanging communication to achieve a goal and therefore fluency.

References

Bateman, D. (2000) Ideas and Issues, Chancerel International 

Bygate, M. (1987) Speaking, Oxford University Press

Bygate, M. (1996) in Willis (ed) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, MPL

Brown, JD. (1986) Fluency Development

Hadfield, J (1990) Communication activities, Thomas Nelson Ltd.

Harmer, J. (2001) The Practice of English Language Teaching, PEL

Hartman and Stork (1976) A dictionary of language and linguistics

Littlewood, W. (1998) Communicative Language Teaching, Cambridge University Press

Maggs, P and Hird, J. (2005) Speaking Activities, Scholastic Inc.

Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching, MPL

Thornbury, S. (2005) How to Teach Speaking, PEL

Thornbury S. (2005) A-Z of ELT, MPL

Skeham, P. (1996) in Willis (ed) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, MPL

www.onestopenglish.com

www.teachingenglish.org.uk

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