Fluency in the EFL Context: a simple truth

It finally sunk in the other day. For the past few years I’ve been trying to define the EFL context for myself as somehow unique and wholly distinct from the ESL world. Suddenly, as clear and as simple as the greatest truths tend to reveal themselves, the idea of “fluency”, and the need for a more rigorous “focus on fluency” took shape.

The players
I have Philip Shigeo Brown, Paul Nation, Daniel Stewart, Rob Waring, and my MASH Collaboration cohorts Mark de Boer, Theron Muller, Gregory Sholdt, Colin Skeates and John Gunning, to thank for all coming together at JALT2009 to form this perfect storm of clarity. Phil gets top billing on this particular story. He has had an idea percolating in his brain for quite some time now. He has wanted to explore Paul Nation’s four strands approach as a classroom research project in order to get some real local data supporting our collective spider-sense feeling that the four strands are perfectly suited for the EFL context. He had been mulling over the simple idea that “fluency practice breeds confidence, which in turn, feeds motivation” in a virtuous cycle.

2nd Annual MASH Dinner
MASH collaboration was lucky enough to share a wonderful evening with Paul Nation at the recent JALT2009 conference. It was our 2nd annual dinner: a young, yearly tradition devoted to camaraderie. Towards the end of the evening Phil sprang his idea for a book on fluency to us all. You could see the collective light bulb flash, as we each saw a book that explored fluency in reading, writing, listening and speaking in the EFL context. How had fluency escaped me all these years?

Why fluency?
It seems that fluency is not a primary focus in either ESL or EFL, but for entirely different reasons. Fluency happens naturally in the ESL context 24/7. Learners who open their ears or their mouths have unlimited opportunities to practice and reinforce what they already know as well as what is just beyond them. They certainly get their fill of this necessary ingredient for learning a language without teachers actually building it into the classroom experience. On the other hand, the focus is on testing here in Japan, hence the heavy grammar-translation approach at the high school level, coupled with a lack of natural opportunities for fluency practice, has left the fluency component of language learning in tatters here and perhaps elsewhere.

The Power of Simplicity
Paul Nation went on tour with the ETJ Expos in the fall of 2009 doing presentations on reading fluency and the 10 most effective vocabulary learning activities. Listening to him is always so… darn… easy. He has mastered simplicity, clarity, rigor and practicality in his research, his presentations and his overall approach to teaching. I have come to realize that among the big names in ELT, he understands the EFL context better than any of the others I have read or seen. He advocates fluency practice should be one-quarter of a good language program. The more he talked about fluency, the more things began to take shape in my brain. Especially since I’ve already seen the power of fluency in both reading and writing in my own classroom.

ER in Japan
A few key publishers and researchers whom I’ve spoken to concur that Japan is on the cutting edge of both extensive reading programs and ER research. The unrelenting efforts of people like Rob Waring, Daniel Stewart, Atsuko Takase, and a whole network of others has been inspiring and meaningful. The underlying theory of ER is a focus on fluency practice. This realization was dramatically re-enforced when I began my own ER program at my high school in April 2007. Immediately, I had 100% student engagement. The power of ER through the sense of achievement that it delivers to students was immediately clear.

EWr or Fluency-first L2 writing
I’m currently in the third year of my fluency-first (Extensive Writing – EWr) program in the high school context in Japan. Research for my MA TEFL dissertation (2009) documents clear writing fluency gains as well as a very meaningful increase in motivation, interest and self-confidence among my L2 writers. Addressing the same need for fluency practice in reading among EFL learners, EWr meets the need for fluency in writing in an effective and meaningful way.

Call for submissions
So, now, with the posting of our Hyperlink to call for submissions for the book, Fluency in EFL, we get the chance to explore fluency together. So, what do you think? What questions and conjecture can you add to this discussion from your own experience?

Steven Herder

Fluency in EFL

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