English Fluency for ESL Students
Becoming fluent in English is the dream of many an ESL/EFL student. As a teacher, you want to give your students the best chance of success.
This article will help all teachers deliver high-quality lessons on fluency. Extra tips and information provide guidance on how to approach this topic for optimum outcomes.
Recent research has shown that the more students speak in class (and the teacher less), the more they gain confidence. This is logical, but needs careful planning and implementation. [Wang, Z. (2014). Developing accuracy and fluency in spoken English of Chinese EFL learners. English Language Teaching, 7(2), 110-118.]
Out of the six elements that make up the art of speaking, fluency and confidence are viewed as most important. The other four elements – grammatical correctness, vocabulary, understanding, and pronunciation – come lower down the priority scale. So it's really vital that students get to communicate aurally on a regular basis.
But is it possible to measure fluency? According to author P. Lennon, fluency:
“can be measured both impressionistically and instrumentally by speech rate, and by such dysfluency markers as filled and unfilled pauses, false starts, hesitations, lengthened syllables, retraces, and repetitions” [The lexical element in spoken second language fluency. In Perspectives on fluency, Ann Arbor MI, UMP, 2000 (p. 25)]
Sensitive monitoring and appraisal, together with sound evaluative methods, will establish whether or not your students are progressing. Monthly reviews, video recordings (if agreed to), and aural tests can help gauge improvement.
To attain fluency in English, your student will gradually have to immerse themselves in the language — firstly through listening, then by speaking with native and local people above all.
The more they listen and speak, the better their chances of progress from basic to independent to proficient. Writing exercises can benefit some students, but overall communication is best.
Here is what author Eva Sandoval, writing on BBC Future, says in her article "How Do We Measure Language Fluency?":
Proficiency scales provide an excellent gauge for assessing L2 ability, but I believe that the quickest, dirtiest fluency and accuracy “tests” are real-life situations with native speakers. How smooth and lengthy are your interactions in your L2? Do you avoid or “blank” at certain topics and situations because you don’t have the words? Do you find yourself grasping for “key words” and content yourself with understanding “the sense” rather than the entirety of the conversation? How well can you understand a film without subtitles or read a book without a dictionary? If you write an email and ask a native speaker to proofread it, how many errors will they find?
Encouragement and motivation are key. Confidence can grow when your students are learning as a group but also when interacting with local native people. In order to get your students warmed up, you may want to try some quality icebreakers.
8 Steps Towards Fluency In English
- Listening - through conversation, reading and response.
- Speaking - to encourage confidence, eye contact and body language.
- Practicing - role-play scenarios.
- Learning - fillers and phrases that help keep language flowing.
- Interacting - mistakes and how to correct with videos of realistic dialogue.
- Perfecting - in a Study group for example.
- Exploring - new areas of conversation and listening to different accents.
- Sustaining - conversation within native and non-native speaking groups.
Time - 10-15 minutes
Fluency – fluid – flow. To improve the flow of your students' English you need first to assess their listening skills. This can be done either through :
- an informal conversation
- reading from a suitable simple text.
An introductory chat with your students will allow you to gauge their ability to listen and comprehend. Are the students comfortable with the language? Do they make eye contact when they are speaking? Do they finish their sentences? Are there fundamental errors you can work on?
Encourage the flow by asking questions, making observations and not interrupting! If you choose to read a text ask your students to sit and listen and then ask questions to see if they've understood.
- Make notes and list everything you deem in need of improvement, from grammar to gesture, use of language to pronunciation.
- If necessary record the conversations. It may come in very useful later on in the course. Don't be too concerned with any errors at this early stage.
Simple written English texts can be found here:
Time - 10 minutes
Encourage your students to talk about something that is :
i) Personal - a memory, a family member, an incident/event.
ii) Impersonal - politics, sport, a book review.
The emphasis is on the use of language that's simple but helps bring the subject to life. For example you may suggest that your students tell you a little about what they are wearing. So they could describe a jacket, sweater, shirt, a tie, a watch, a ring. Let them decide. And when they've finished ask a question or two, or give your opinion. Be honest! Say that you think the orange flowers on the purple jacket are way too big!
You may want to limit the time for this exercise but be realistic. Give adequate freedom and try not to stress your students out!
If your student forgets a particular word or doesn't know the name of something get them to describe the object or thing, help them to explain or even reword what's on their mind.
Practicing: Role Play Dialogue
Time - 10-15 minutes
Using simple role play can be an effective learning process as it allows the students freedom to think for themselves within a given framework.
The following example could be used as a template. Get your students to think creatively for both roles - in this short role play both tourist and local are in London, but you could choose any great world city or place of interest.
You can develop this idea to include : Tourist and Policeman, Tourist and Waiter, Tourist and Museum Guide and so on. Try to get your students to look at each situation from a different angle by swapping roles, changing the set up, using a range of props.
Tourist and Local
Excuse me, I think I am lost. Can you help me please?
Certainly. How can I be of help?
I am looking for the British Museum. Is it far from here?
Yes! You can walk there but it will take you one hour.
I must be there in twenty minutes to meet my friend! Perhaps I should catch the bus?
The tube (metro) is quicker. They leave every five minutes from Waterloo underground station. Just around the corner.
I’m so sorry, I don’t understand. Can you speak a little slower please?
Learning: Everyday Fillers
Introduce your students to new phrases that are often informal and used all the time by native English speakers. Like these fillers –
One moment please.......
Let me see…….
It might just…….
Bear with me….
It's best if you…..
Learning to use such ' homegrown' fillers as those above could be a good mini target set over a few sessions and would be a great boost for confidence. You could write them down on a white card and have them as visible reminders. Over the weeks your students should be able to pick some up and use them regularly in conversation.
You also need to make sure your students' pronunciation is good. It’s all well and good being fluent when nobody can understand what you’re saying!
English Fluency Test
Interacting - Learning From Mistakes
Time - 10 minutes
Have a look at this paragraph:
In fact to be honest the best thing that helping me to say better sentences were the dialogues I did repeat in the early weeks of group class all those was so useful allows my words to be heard especially when dealings took place with most others.Yes? Actually if not for the advices given and such I ain’t for sure been able to learn nothing that was on the agenda the basic stuff like what you all fire off no thoughts of mistakes talking and that business with the language with the English?All that many hours together and isn't it great English now so much better I can speak all about things and people understand. That's so right.
- break the text down into manageable sentences.
- restructure sentences using correct grammar.
- have your students read the corrected version.
What’s wrong with it? Well, on the one hand it kind of makes sense, on the other there's no sense whatsoever!
Get your students to read it out loud then try to analyse it together. If one of your students had spoken like this in reply to a question I wonder what your response would have been?
I hope you'd correct them. You can learn more about how to correct students here.
Perfecting: In A Study Group
A special study group could be the ideal place in which to perfect and enjoy English. Encourage your students to meet regularly when convenient. A study group should:
- be informal, relaxed and friendly
- have shared realistic goals
- be a forum for ideas
- have a set time span
- be held in an open safe space.
Exploring: 5 Exercises From One Photograph/A Walk Around Town
Time - 5- 10 minutes
Split the group into smaller groups, say 3-4 people each. Give each group a topical photograph, preferably with people in it! - and spend half the session as follows:
1. Have a brief conversation about the photograph.
2. Progress onto Question and Answer Time – you ask simple questions and the students answer.
3. Watch out for use of adjectives – encourage use of describing words for certain aspects of the photograph, for example, what are the people doing, what’s in the background or landscape.
4. Create dialogue – choose two people in the photograph and imagine what they might be saying to each other.
5. Written exercise – set a 50 word/100 word/ short paragraph exercise for your students to attempt in the 1st person.
When they have all finished choose one or two students from different groups and ask them to deliver a short description of their photograph.
A Walk Around Town
Take your class out for an hour or so and let them hear and interact with locals. Talk about what you see and hear - buildings, shops, stores and so on. Spend some time in a cafe where your students could order for the group or individually.
Arrange a visit to the town hall or community hub. Better still, encourage your students to arrange the visit!
Sustaining Fluency: Session Round-Up
At the end of the session make time—just a few minutes—for informal learning, relaxed round-up of your time together? This can be a fruitful exercise and help bring closure for your students.
Encourage ideas and future topics to flow, perhaps in readiness for further exploration in a study group.
Throw out some general questions:
- Did the students enjoy the session?
- What worked well?
- What could be improved?
- What's next?
CEFR - Common European Framework of References for Languages
A1: Capabilities range include basic introductions and answering questions about personal details provided the listener speaks slowly and is willing to cooperate.
A2: Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her past, environment and matters related to his/her immediate needs and perform routine tasks requiring basic exchanges of information.
B1: Can deal with most daily life situations in the country where the language is spoken. Can describe experiences, dreams and ambitions and give brief reasons for opinions and goals.
B2: Can understand the themes of complex texts on both concrete and abstract topics and will have achieved a degree of fluency and spontaneity, which makes interaction with native speakers possible without significant strain for either party.
C1: Can understand a wide range of longer texts and recognise subtleties and implicit meaning; producing clear, well-structured and detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2: Can understand virtually everything heard or read, expressing themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, while differentiating finer shades of meaning even in highly complex situations.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Andrew Spacey
Liz Westwood from UK on October 13, 2021:
This is a very helpful and interesting article.