Editorial on ELTNEWS.com
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Editorial

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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Comments

Steve,

I agree more attention has to be paid to "fluency" (though I still stick with the CC, communicative competence label)in our teaching and curriculum development.

I think that it can be done most effectively if we negotiate the curriculum with students AND do both a proper needs analysis of our students along with creating / providing content that the students themselves make and participate in creating. I call it Student Created Content (SCC). Lessons can be easily designed and it fosters fluency because students are talking about "their" world/life.

That's where I feel so many teachers err. All language should be developed through the inner life/will of the student.

David

I've always had a split personality regarding the relative importance of fluency and accuracy. With my adults, whose errors were pretty much fossilized and whose confidence had been trampled by the demands of accuracy, fluency was the goal.

With my children, however, I was a bigger fan of accuracy. I mean, they were learning everything for the first time, so it was just as easy to get it accurate as not. Fluency came after accuracy :-)

Recently, however, I've started experimenting a bit with extensive reading with my kindergartners. Of course, since they don't read it's a bit more like extensive listening with pictures! I've been curious to see what, if any, benefits there might be. After a month of simply asking them to take books home and listen to the audio while looking at the pictures, I asked them if they'd started hearing any distinct words when listening to the stories.

The first words they picked out on their own were "Oh, no!" and "Wow!" and other exclamations that had never been part of our lessons. The five year olds understood the meaning of these exclamations through the tone and inflection of narrator's voice, and the illustrations accompanying the narration. Recently, they've started sprinkling these exclamations throughout our class activities. Appropriately. The younger siblings who come along to class sometimes have now started picking up the exclamations from the older kids. Fascinating to watch (and hilarious to hear)!

It's too early to say whether this little fluency experiment will produce any more fruit, but I'm optimistic.

Thanks for taking on such a great subject, Steven!

Thanks David and Barbara,

You have both made an invaluable contribution by your comments. I agreed with most of what both of you said but realized that I must be much clearer in what I mean by a fluency-based approach or a focus on fluency in the classroom. I must also be clear about my respect for accuracy and also define the level and context of my students. We all know that what works in one situation rarely works exactly the same in other contexts.

I plan to come back to this topic in a later editorial. Thanks again for your thoughts.

Anyone else have anything to add to this topic?

Steven

@David - that was reassuring to read your comments with regards to some of my teaching contexts where (1) we negotiate the curriculum, and/or (2) we have Student Created Content (SCC), and motivation is high.

Your comments also spur me to reexamine other contexts where I teach in order to further promote (1) and (2), enhance motivation and learning.

One of these contexts is kindergarten and watching one of Paul Nation's talks on vocabulary (http://61.100.180.107/~compass/seminar/07_PaulNation.wmv) has also made me re-consider the approach that I've been following and aim for a better thought out curriculum and vocabulary component.

@Barbara - coincidentally, just this week in kindy, I've been teaching "No" and "Oh, no!" "OH, NOOOOO!", saying and gesturing in different ways - great fun and fascinating to see the children beginning to play with it and express "No" and "Oh, no!" in their own ways, too, for instance, when I pretended to get things they knew wrong (e.g. the order of letters in the ABC Song).

@Steve - thanks for starting this here and all the best with the presentation tomorrow!

With regards to fluency and accuracy, for a long time I'd been influenced with the notion of "fluency vs accuracy" and having "a fluency focus" OR "an accuracy focus", especially with regards to correction and feedback. Later, I learned that "accuracy can follow or flow from fluency" and Barbara's experiences show how we can also have "accuracy first", especially perhaps where learners can 'get it right' quickly and easily.

This leads me to see the fluency/accuracy relationship as much more dynamic than I'd thought, although I feel that the simpler concepts in my early teaching years nonetheless helped me with learning teaching.

One last point I would like to make about looking at research, literature and discussions on fluency is that it seems that most if not almost all attempts to define fluency have been by researchers/teachers and often from a questionable perspective of the 'native-speaker model', despite inherent issues in defining the linguistic competencies of a native-speaker and creating measurable constructs.

So, in our own language-learning experiences, what has fluency meant to us? Are there differences between first and second language fluency that undermine using a first language native-speaker model to define and gauge second language fluency?

Lastly, how do our learners define and perceive fluency? What does being fluent mean to them? How do they gauge their fluency development and what relationships does it have to other factors such as confidence and motivation?

For me, being fluent in either my native language (English), my second language (Japanese), or a new language I've just started learning, is very much related to how I feel at the time as well as context. Physical condition (e.g. hunger, thirst, tiredness) and emotions (e.g. shyness, confidence, excitement) as well as knowledge (including both linguistic and subject knowledge) all seem to be factors for consideration, together with the people I'm communicating where applicable. However, this does seem to return us to an increasing complex picture.

So to keep things simple, fluency for me is about flow and this can be applied reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Experiencing flow and noticing success help to build feelings of confidence, while confidence facilitates flow and success fuels motivation.

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