Fluency in EFL

According to the Collins English online dictionary, fluency is defined as:
fluent (adj)
1. able to speak or write with ease,
2. spoken or written with ease,

In all my online searches, fluency always turns up in relation to speaking or writing output, never as listening or reading input. However, here in Japan, it is widely agreed that the flourishing extensive reading boom is a great source of reading fluency practice, while EFL professionals such as Rob Waring are promoting extensive listening, and I have written my MA TEFL dissertation and presented on extensive writing for many of the same reasons.

This topic is on my mind constantly these days. Not only because my colleagues and I have a call for submissions for a new book, Fluency in EFL, open until May 31st, but recently, I see all four skills coming together and benefitting from a fluency-based approach. Nation wrote a piece, Fluency and Learning, 20 years ago and I wonder why it hasn’t taken off or synthesized for more of my EFL colleagues?

One major problem is trying to define fluency. No one seems to agree and it simply never ends (see 91 entries on Scott Thornbury’s blog). Linguists are lost on how to test for fluency and often get caught up in trying to measure pauses, hesitations and the like.

Fluency also doesn’t get thought about very much in either the EFL or ESL worlds for very practical reasons: in EFL contexts, creating genuine situations for fluency practice to be real and meaningful is rather tricky, if not impossible; in the ESL world, students can get fluency practice opportunities 24/7 and so schools don’t even need to think about it.

Undaunted, since April 2010, I’m now experimenting with a fluency-based approach within a TOEFL iBT preparation course at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in the International Studies department. I am absolutely amazed at both my focus and the singular focus of the students within our curriculum. My fluency message, in contrast to the previous six years of accuracy focus, resonates strongly with my highly motivated and highly challenged students. In addition to a fluency approach towards reading, writing, listening and speaking, there is also a palpable understanding that other fluency-related skills are very important: so far speed-reading, touch-typing, efficient note-taking and timed exercises are all on my students’ radar.

On Sunday, May 23rd, I’ll be presenting on Fluency in EFL at the JALT Pan-SIG 2010 conference. It promises to be provocative at the very least: I’ll share what I’ve been learning about fluency and even attempt my own definition of fluency for each of the four skills. I’ll also make a pitch for a strong fluency-based approach within a TOEFL iBT preparation course. Finally, I will invite my audience to thicken my skin a little with any opposing perspectives. Yikes…

Come join me for a little professional development through collaboration.

Check in every weekend here for new thoughts by three of my innovative colleagues and me.

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