Fluency in EFL: Part 2

I’ve chosen to set the evening aside to return some of my own ideas to Matt, Marcos, Theron, Bernadette and Phil. Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful and helpful questions and opinions. I’m by no means fluent in this fluency discussion at this point, but I don’t mind jumping in and offering what I think. I hope we can all learn from one another, because until we EFL teachers figure some things out, we’ll just continue to fumble around with ESL ideas that never quite work.

This note will address questions and opinions raised in a previous facebook post Fluency in the EFL Context: a simple truth. Please start reading there if you want some background reading.

Matt wrote: As a result, I wind up teaching English once per week for 90 minutes to students who are only interested in raising their TOEIC scores from 300 to 400…despite the obvious fact that standardized exams cannot accurately measure productive language capacity from year to year, and despite the fact that TOEIC itself is well known to have an error margin of 50 points. So what I am to do?

Steven: Offering answers to rhetorical questions may be a death wish, but, of course, we’re all in the same “psychological” boat with our students, so I think it is OK just to share my approach:

From April 2010, I’m going into a university context with a full-scale, multi-fluency, TOEFL-raising, meaning-based, regular testing, high expectation, show me the results/ let’s be best friends forever approach. I plan to dogmatically promote the following:

1. Reading fluency – Nations speed reading program. This is a very easy sell to the students. They have years of experience not finishing the long essays on various tests. Everyone who makes an effort on reading speed improves. Seeing one’s own improvements builds confidence and increases motivation for overall learning.

2. Writing Fluency – I’ll continue my combination of 10-minute fluency writing in every class (and negotiate more for homework as part of their portfolio grade). I’ll also alternate between teaching writing conventions such as cohesion, coherence, organization, genre, etc., with doing timed test writing. Whatever students write will be read and evaluated and/or commented on by other students so as to encourage peer editing and to provide an audience for all writers.

3. Listening Fluency – I tell students that many English teachers (especially me) speak too slowly and too clearly. When they go abroad, “real” foreigners won’t edit their spoken discourse, so the onus is on the students to speed up their ears. I use a series of Steve Stories usually in one of three genres: My opinions, My life Lessons, Stories about my Kids. I ask them to listen, take notes in English, Japanese or by pictures, and then be ready to tell a partner what they could catch. I tell stories anywhere from 1 – 5 minutes. Here is an example of one I did just last week: Link to
Kid Story – Ren at KOSS

4. Speaking Fluency – The goal is to express oneself clearly and smoothly. I subscribe to the simplistic, demonstrable definition of speaking fluently as, “thinking and speaking at the same time” in one’s own relatively natural speed. I have students recycle things they have written as mini-speech presentations. We also do impromptu speaking, debating, persuasive speeches, and many other genre of spoken discourse that benefit from a fluency approach. As well as being practical, topics such as interviewing, small talk, news topics, pop culture, persuasion and public speaking are interesting and meaningful ways to focus on fluency.

From April 2010, I’m planning an almost “evangelical” message to my students about the importance of fluency. They will hear fluency over and over again, in many ways, shapes and forms for the first number of lessons. I’ll quote Jeremy Harmer who recently tweeted, “Yes, fluency is the success/failure divide for LL (language learning – my insert). My question is how come some SS get it, others not. I asked b4 on twitter”. I’ll tell stories of friends and students who believe in fluency as the key to their success. Fluency will be our “mantra”.

I base this approach on a certain level of success I had in the high school context recently when I invested time in explaining a simplified version of Nation’s, The four Strands – as a balance of INPUT (listening/reading) and OUTPUT (speaking/writing) with a focus on grammar and fluency. I knew that something was sinking in when I heard my message coming back to me, as for example, in a recording that students had to do in class:

Students talk Input/Output

I believe that teachers who go in with a strong plan fare better than teachers who don’t. Even teachers with plans that are faulty still seem to do better than teachers who “depend on the kindness of a teacher’s manual”. I’m willing to wage a beer or two on my strong plan coupled with a sincere message to students that I am on their side and I’m cheering for their improvement. The key, in one sense, is to get beyond the grammar and the vocabulary, to that zone of “meaning-based interaction” where sharing ideas, stories and opinions that are greatly enhanced by correct grammar and appropriate vocabulary.

Geez – that’s a 900-word answer to Q1.

Matt wrote:
Another issue is whether “fluency” itself can be defined. Skehan’s famous “fluency-accuracy-complexity” theory has often been tested in the ESL context, but can it be tested in EFL? Moreover, can “fluency” (whatever that is) actually be separated from accuracy and complexity? Japanese students have been well known in the past to favor accuracy at the expense of all else, but my experience has been that Japanese students are not too terribly good at ANY of the “Skehan 3.” Many of my current engineering students adamantly adhere to grammar-translation, but their grammar is actually quite atrocious, particularly when they try to write. Can fluency training help them?

Steven replies:
Can fluency be tested in EFL? Moreover, can “fluency” (whatever that is) actually be separated from accuracy and complexity? I’m gonna bail on these questions because I simply don’t know… yet. I am willing to say, “Let’s find out” by talking, researching, and making it our goal to leave an answer to this question for those who come after us.

As for, “Can fluency training help them?” Yes, I most definitely believe that it can.

Having done a fluency-based writing program for high school students since 2007, I have both quantitative and qualitative results that clearly show an increase in self-confidence in students’ English abilities in multiply ways: writing more, writing faster, writing longer sentences, writing better grammar, expressing opinions, enjoying English, and wanting to learn more about writing (see the I.DISS tab at Extensive Writing (EWr): An innovative approach to EFL writing in a Japanese high school)

So whether a fluency-first approach to writing improves written accuracy or complexity is still a fair question that needs further research. However, if as many educators believe, learner autonomy is one of the best things that we can “pass on” to our students, then a focus on fluency in any of the four skill is absolutely wonderful breeding ground for developing confident, motivated, autonomous learners.

One of my goals for the 2010 school year is to put these ideas into practice and do some classroom research on the efficacy of an approach that promotes fluency in EFL.

If anyone would like to join me, let’s start talking.

Steven Herder


One thought on “Fluency in EFL: Part 2

  1. I am really interested in the point of oral reading fluency for those who learn English as a Foreign Language . But I have a question” Actually, there are definite norms or benchmarks for the native english speakers in terms of the correct number of words they should read in English per minute through which we can determine the rate of the student’s reading exactly according to his/her grade, but what about those who learn English as foreign language how can we assess their reading rates , i.e according to which criteria as there are not definite norms for them like natives?, i think it will not be fair to deal with their reading like the natives? It is very important for me as an efl teacher to know what is the benchmark that i want my student to reach while he is reading English – as a Foreign language- text?

    would you help me know the answer,

    I ‘ll be so grateful, thank you

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