Posts Tagged ‘fluency’

Last night there was a great webinar on developing speaking skills by Adrian Doff. Adrian analyzed what language students need for fluency, shared some materials (conversation snippets) that exemplify that language and suggested a number of teaching activities to help students master it.

I teach English in a non-English speaking environment and fluency has been a major issue for a lot of my students, so developing fluency is one of the areas that I’m very interested in. I even picked this area as a focus for one of my Delta Module 2 lessons and wrote a series of posts about my attempts to work on fluency in class.

So all in all, this was a very interesting topic for me – and an extremely interesting webinar. I liked Adrian’s ideas a lot (some reinforced what I’ve already been doing in class, and others were very fresh but at the same time simple and intuitive), and I’m going to bring a lot of what he shared to class.

Below is a summary of the webinar – the recording will be available on CUP blog here: The summary turned out quite long – mostly because the ideas are very valuable and I want to have a detailed record to refer to when planning fluency activities.

The main question that Adrian was addressing: How can we improve speaking skills? ‘Fluency activities’ do help, but how to do that in a more focused way?

In the webinar Adrian


Question for the audience: What language (grammar, vocabulary, expressions) might you need to invite someone to your home? What language would the other person need to respond effectively?

Obviously, functional expressions (e.g. Would you like to come round for lunch? / Thanks, I’d love to. How do I get to your house? / Take the train…), but a typical coursebook dialogues exemplifying those functional expressions might not quite sound like a real, natural conversation – it’s a bit robotic (does the job but it doesn’t really flow).

Adrian went on to compare a coursebook dialogue with a natural conversation:

A: Would you like to come round for lunch? A: Oh, by the way..
B: Yes?
A: I was meaning to ask you – would you like to come round for lunch?
B: Thanks, I’d love to. How do I get to your house? B: Oh.. Oh yes, thanks. I’d love to. Are you sure? It’s very nice of you.
A: Of course.
B: OK, great – How do I get to your house?
A: Take the train to Park Street. Go out of the station and turn left. It’s Queen Street, number 10. A: Well, let me see.. Take the number 15 bus to Park Street then you..
B: OK, the number 50 bus.
A: No, not 15 – 50.
B: Good. B: Oh right.
A: I’ll see you at 6.
B: See you, then.

We see that what’s missing from a coursebook dialogue is Speaking strategies that ‘oil the wheels’ of the conversation (in this particular case, expressions for introducing a topic / responding positively / giving yourself time to think / clarifying / correcting).

Adrian went on to analyze speaking strategies in a number of conversation snippets:

  1. Look, I’m not sure how to put this…
    What is it?
    Well, the company hast to make cuts.. ( Strategy: introducing bad news / softening)
  2. So you press this button – OK?
    B: This button here? (Strategy: checking that you’ve been understood / rephrasing)
  3. Well, anyway.. (Strategy: changing the topic / going back to the original topic / a way of closing the conversation in a polite way: Well, anyway, I must be heading on).

Are these necessarily only for advanced students? No: at lower levels s/s will need at least expressions for

  • Attracting attention (Excuse me)
  • Expressing uncertainty (Er, I’m not sure)
  • Giving yourself time to think (Well)

At advanced levels, s/s will need more advanced expressions.

[Comment: this last remark reminds me a lot the insight that I got from analyzing my own attempts to master German: I analyzed the transcript of my first ever speaking lesson, during which I code-switched to English all the time and my teacher was providing me with German equivalents of the expressions I was looking for. It turned out that the majority of the expressions were not ‘topic vocabulary’ but language for evaluation (it was ok/worst of all was that../it was terrible/ it was challenging), sentence adverbs (unfortunately/ luckily/mostly / also / at least), meta-language to clarify the use of some expressions and manage the lesson (informal/this isn’t used like that/irregular comparative forms/I’ll delete that/cross that out) and a lot of expressions to compensate for lack of vocabulary (this is something like…/the opposite of…/I can’t think of a good English equivalent-word/there’s no equivalent in English). So maybe if we allowed the students to code-switch, a lot of strategies would come up naturally.]

Teaching speaking strategies

Adrian went on to suggest some teaching activities:

Activities for noticing that the speaking strategies are there: 

  • through a gapped transcript of a dialogue – give out a gapped transcript, ask s/s if they remember what’s in the gaps and/or play the recording to let s/s fill the gaps;
  • such tasks are appearing in coursebooks; but anyway coursebook transcripts that are meant to serve a different purpose – e.g. introduce a grammar point – are very often good for exploring strategies too, so explore coursebook transcripts
  • through prediction: play a dialogue line by line and get s/s to guess what is going to be said next (e.g for a phone conversation); play around with with what the possibilities are – great for turn-taking expressions and adjacency pairs (Here you are / Thank you; How are you? / Fine).
    [This is something that I’ve never done and I really look forward to trying this out in class! Especially with language for natural reactions, and telephoning / teleconferencing.]

2. Activities for practicing the speaking strategies
Mini exchanges (all s/s get a piece of news on cards (e.g. Someone’s just stolen your iPhone / You’ve decided to get married / They’ve discovered life on Mars); s/s share their news and practice reacting in a mingling activity (Do you know? They’ve discovered life on Mars! Oh, that’s interesting.)

3. Using strategies in communication

When it comes to freer activity, in the heat of communication learners are quite likely to forget to use the new expressions.

E.g. it’s a common situation when learners have been presented expressions for polite disagreement but in the middle of communication the learners will slip back to their comfort zone. [Yes, this is something that’s been a struggle for me ever since I started teaching Business English, really!]

So what are some possible ways to make them stick?


  • Less is more! Reduce the number of expressions to two to three
  • Empower the students – let them choose 2-3 that they like and want to use;
  • Get feedback After the activity ask the s/s what they used – write them up on the board [Nice!]
  • Make it a game / use an observer (a group is having a discussion, while one student acts as a dedicated observer who notes down what strategies have been used; another example: one student tells a story, other people respond / show interest, the observer gives feedback on how they did this) [I’ve tried this a few times and really liked how it went, so note to self: use this activity more consistently.]
  • (an idea that came up at the end of the webinar during a question/answer session): Have s/s write a dialogue, then put it away and have this dialogue again in speaking (so that it ends up as an improvised – though rehearsed – conversation). [This is something I’ve never had the courage to try, as the activity would take quite a lot of time and because it feels unnatural to write spoken language – but come to think of it, the activity would give students firm confidence that they can use the target language, which would be extremely valuable, so I’ve finally resolved myself to try it.]

Psychological preparation.

How to introduce preparation for fluency activities? In foreign language it’s extremely difficult to think and speak at the same time. Example: let’s say we have a discussion activity: ‘How important it is to have privacy?’ If we just ask students to talk about this, this might run dry: some people won’t have any ideas / some people will be shy etc. The answer: allow students preparation time. How?


Hand out a cline: How important is privacy to you? Mark your place on the line.

Very important 5 ____4____3____2____1 Not very important

Now sit with other students; show them where you put yourself on the line and why.
This activity is a lot more likely to work because the students have had the chance to think.

Another example:

Project an image of a house. Purpose: to get the students to discuss Who lives in this house? / where is it? / …  Preparation stage: Take the class through some questions (don’t get any responses – just ask the questions and allow some thinking time:):

Where is it? Why is it in this place? What is it used for? Now imagine you get into the house: what’s in the house? How many rooms are there? What objects are there? Is this a beautiful house or not a nice place to be? Just get a mental image. Now turn to your partner and exchange what you’ve imagined.

What I especially liked about Adrian Doff’s ideas is that they’re little tweaks or short activities that could be easily used with existing material (or as short warmers) on a regular basis. In my experience it’s such little tweaks (e.g. pronunciation slots/ways to re-phrase instructions/etc) – and self-discipline on my part to apply them consistently – that make the most difference to my teaching. Thanks a lot to the presenter and to Cambridge University Press for organizing the webinar!


Update. Thanks for stopping by! I was delighted to hear that this post has been shortlisted for TeachingEnglish blog award! =) If you like it, you can vote for it on Teaching English – British Council Facebook page.
Just a short addition to the previous post in which I described how my B1-C1 students work on fluency by mining texts for related expressions, organizing them into mind maps and retelling the texts several times to different classmates.

I use a very similar procedure with my group of pre-intermediate 7 graders to help them remember functional expressions used in social encounters (and generally in ‘Conversation Strategies’/’Everyday English’ sections of coursebooks).

The general lesson plan is

  • [gist] Students listen to a dialogue from the coursebook and answer gist questions
  • [analysis] The teacher helps them to analyze what kind of expressions are present in the dialogue and sketches a mind map on the board; the students copy the mind map and use the transcript to find expressions in the dialogue to add to the mind map.
    Usually I try to set up the gist questions so as to guide the group towards the structure of the mind map (e.g. ‘How many speakers are there? Who are they?’ or ‘How many questions do the speakers discuss’?)
  • [pronunciation] The teacher models & drills the natural pronunciation of the expressions; students practice pronunciation in pairs, challenging each other to pronounce expressions as fast and naturally as they can; a fun variation is to challenge the students to say each expression on their map twice in under 60-120 seconds – the goal here is to encourage the students to pronounce fixed chunks of language fluently.
  • [practice] The students act out the dialogue from the coursebook without looking at the text, using their mind map instead
  • [recreating the map ] They turn their mind maps over and try to recreate them from memory; after a few minutes, they listen to the dialogue again and add the missing expressions. The students will need lots of support and encouragement the first time they do it – I don’t expect them to remember more than 1/3 of the map when they first reproduce it, but this stage does prime them to notice language while they re-read/re-listen the dialogue and does encourage them to use the expressions during the production stage
  • [improvisation] The students act out similar dialogues (e.g. if the topic is ‘buying clothes’, they change the items/colours/sizes/prices either based on verbal or visual cues)
  • The students repeat the map recreation +improvisation stages once or twice or, time permitting , three times, each time with a new partner. This can be done in an ‘onion’ activity: the students are seated in two circles, those from the inner circle pairing up with students from the outer circle; the inner circle rotates between the stages so that each time each student works with a new partner; the level of challenge can be increased by introducing increasingly tight time constraints
  • They do it again for homework and, finally, again in a later class. 

A few tips:

  • [source] Use complete dialogues. It sounds tempting to organize all functional expressions used in a particular situation into a mind map, but in my experience unless there’s a text to organize the map, it becomes impossible to remember and reproduce. The only thing I add is alternative answers (E.g. ways to say ‘yes’ if the person in the dialogue said ‘no’).
  • [personal experience] Try the procedure out on your own before the lesson.
  • [preparation] Mind-map the coursebook dialogue before the lesson. Choose gist questions to direct the students towards the structure you’ve chosen.
  • [minimal preparation] For the improvisation stage, have students produce the prompts: bring in slips of coloured paper, ask them to brainstorm alternative items that can be used in the dialogue and write them on the slips (e.g. types of clothing on blue slips, sizes on green ones, prices on yellow ones etc), redistribute the slips
    Alternatively, brainstorm situations for students to adapt the dialogue to – board them and ask the student initiating the dialogue to choose one
    (e.g. for ‘buying clothes’: brainstorm ‘how you might spend a day off’ – e.g. in the forest/at home/at the beech/in the opera etc; the students initiating the dialogue choose a situation and buy clothes appropriate for the situation;
    for ‘buying food’ brainstorm a list of animals/meals; students buy food for the animal/ingredients for the meals; etc
    for ‘at the doctor’s’, brainstorm reasons why people get ill or, again, types of vacation
    for ‘having friends over’, brainstorm famous visitors, etc)
  • [personalizing] For some topics, to personalize the improvisation stage, ask the students to think about their favourite item of clothing/dish/place so that they buy a replacement for that item/order that dish/book a ticket to that place.
  • [fueling imagination] Use picture prompts for the improvisation stage: project a picture of a person in a difficult situation and ask the students to buy/order/book something for that person. Compassion is very memorable!

  • [revision] Insist on revision. Take a photo of a good mind map and upload it to the class blog. Tell the students that you’re going to ask them to reproduce the mind map from memory at the beginning of a next class. In my experience, when these two ingredients are in place (there’s a course blog/file where the learners know they can find the language dealt with in class and there’s a test, even a short and informal one, coming up), this does encourage at least around 60% both teenage students and adult Business English learners to revise.

I like this activity more than the more traditional sequence suggested in some coursebooks, in which learners just read the dialogue a few times substituting individual items and then act out their own dialogue using functional expressions given on the page, because when they mind map, it gets much less mechanical (as they are forced to think about the structure of the dialogue and process the functional language deeply), it challenges them and strains their memory and helps them to memorize the expressions much better, as well as giving them the confidence that they do remember them – having tested themselves a number of times. I’ve noticed that when the students improvise, they use the expressions that they put on their maps quite confidently and fluently, but if they choose not to write something down deeming it ‘obvious’, they might have problems with that language.Here are a few examples of mind maps my group has produced and used.

Example 1. This was the very first mind map we tried. It was at the very start of the course and the students really struggled with this one.

We used the following dialogue from our coursebook:

From Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford

From Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford (CUP)

Based on Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford (CUP)

Based on Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford (CUP)

Example 2

A few months later – the students coped much better with this one although it’s pretty huge!


Example 3.

The latest one that we’ve been using this week:

Based on Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford (CUP)

Based on Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford (CUP)


Update 07/05/2014 Since writing this post, I’ve been experimenting with this technique more, trying it with my Business English groups. Here’s a 45-minute lesson for an A2+ group  focusing on talking about advantages and disadvantages.

Talking about advantages and disadvantages
Discussing advantages and disadvantages: teacher’s notes.
Discussing advantages and disadvantages: the worksheet. 
I think I’ll use the same approach with my IELTS students, giving the students ‘narrow’ practice in the same type of question, e.g. pros and cons, comparing the past and the present, talking about differences between A and B and so on.


This is one of the posts in the series of posts on spoken fluency. Click here for the links to the remaining posts

Another one in a series of fluency-related posts – more links here: contents.

One of the most widely known classroom activities that target fluency is Paul Nation’s 4-3-2 technique: students tell the same story (or do the same task) under progressively stricter time constraints. The idea is that students are pushed to perform faster and are forced to restructure the ‘routines’ they use, and so the ‘formulation’ phase of speech production speeds up.

With my B1-C2 level students I use a slightly more complex procedure. Students find interesting articles online in order to share them in class, but instead of just reading and retelling them them to their classmates using more or less what linguistic resources they currently have, they actively mine text for collocations. This tweak to the activity seems to tie in nicely with a lot of insight into fluency described in the previous post. A variation of this technique which I think really does help to teach functional language at lower levels/to students preparing for exams such as IELTS is described here.

The full version involves some homework on the part of the students and takes around 80/90 minutes of classroom time, although there are some shorter alternatives that do not require homework.

Homework stage:

  • Students choose an article on the internet
  • They mine the text for sets of related expressions (big thanks for this technique to Mark Rooney and Ewan Dinwiddie, in whose Delta Module 2 lessons I first saw it) and organize these expressions into a mindmap. For example, in this online article on education, one predictably finds lots of expressions connected to studying (e.g. ‘grant you a college degree’, ‘take a year-long course’ and ‘broaden your knowledge’) and the internet (e.g. ‘without ever leaving your computer’, ‘bring free education to the masses via the internet’ and ‘available under open licences’), but on closer look lots of other related sets emerge, e.g. ‘quality’ (‘top-notch education’, ‘featured courses’, ‘which few you might want to steer clear of’), ‘quantity (‘it can get quite overwhelming’, ‘over 22 universities in the US alone’, ‘courses on tons of subjects’) and so on.

Classroom stage:

  • Students attempt to recreate their mindmap from memory (~10 minutes) and then look through their original mindmap and, ideally, through the text to see what’s missing (~5 minutes) – they won’t remember more than 30-40% at this stage, but this ‘test’ stage primes them to benefit more fully from revising the map
  • Students practice pronouncing expressions from their mindmaps as fast and fluently as they possibly can (this can be tied in with work on connected speech, e.g. they could be asked to look for instances of linking/weak forms and practice pronouncing those)/resolve any queries regarding pronunciation with the teacher’s help (3-5 mins); I also share this resource that automatically transcribes lists of expressions, so that students can check pronunciation at home
  • In pairs, they retell their article to a partner trying to use the expressions from their mindmaps – there’s always some discussion going on, but this is primarily a monologue (6.5 minutes/each monologue for average-length articles)
  • They look at their mindmaps to see what they forgot to mention/what expressions they didn’t use and why (5 minutes)
  • In new pairs, they retell their article (5.5 minutes/monologue)
  • Having briefly looked at their mindmaps again, in new pairs they retell their articles in 4.5 minutes

For this activity students are normally seated in two circles facing each other (so at each stage those sitting in the inner circle move to the next partner). By the end of the activity those students who sit in the same circle haven’t heard each other’s stories, so they can pair up with someone from the other circle and share what they’ve heard/what they liked the most or found the most surprising (this normally takes another 10 minutes or so).

Here are a few mindmaps produced by my students. What I’ve been noticing is that over time students start producing much better quality maps in terms of expressions they notice.





In my experience, for the activity to be a success, the following factors/steps are quite essential:

  • [a shorter version] start with shorter texts or integrate this with jigsaw reading (lists of places to go to/things to do/films to see etc lend themselves to this, e.g. in a recent class, my B1 students read one tip each from 10 Things to Do in New York City, shared these tips mindmapping between changing the partners and in the end decided which of those they’d like to do the most).
  • [introducing the activity: a lesson plan] try the whole procedure out in class, training the students in sub-steps: first introduce the idea that texts contain sets of related expressions and give them practice in identifying these; then give them practice creating mindmaps; then run the whole activity (mining the text for expressions + minmapping + recreating the mindmap + retelling the text) on the same text together – I’ve used coursebooks texts and also the first two paragraphs in this text, which was more than enough material for a ninety-minute class of B2 students.
    I usually try to first draw the group’s attention to the fact that they don’t remember the expressions from the text; to do that, I ask them to close the text and shout out words and expressions that were there; I board their suggestions and then I ask them what sets of related expressions they see – this helps to introduce the idea of lexical sets and a mind mapping; I draw the draft mindmap and ask students to copy it and to complete it with more expressions from the text. Here’s the draft mindmap we created for the text on education linked to in the previous paragraph:
    After that, the students finished their mindmaps – an average one looked something like that:
    online courses final
    Having done that, they recreated them and retold the text to each other, I then split them into groups: these groups read different paragraphs from the text, repeated the cycle of mining for vocabulary/mindmapping/recreating the mindmap etc helping each other, and then they retold these paragraphs to people from another group
  • [collocations – NOT unknown vocabulary] This activity works great with collocations, but only as long as they don’t contain completely unknown words. If they do, I’d suggest using the keyword technique to learn them first.
  • [safety net] I haven’t needed this yet because my students normally do find and read the articles, but probably it’s a good idea to keep a few interesting print-outs to hand. In that case students who come unprepared can read an article to share while those who did prepare are reproducing their maps; I also ask my students to share the links to the articles they’ve found, as well as photos oftheir maps, in a dedicated thread on a class blog – so I know whether they’ve prepared or not
  • [making the activity methodologically meaningful for students] It’s important to let the student know the rationale behind the activity and explain that they need to speak faster and faster – otherwise they will just skip some parts
  • model the activity: tell the students a story based on an article, encourage them to ask questions/interact with me/clarify unknown vocabulary; share sources (e.g.,, for longer articles and lifehacker.com and for shorter/more fun articles and lists)
  • [personal experience] it was very important for me to try out the entire activity on my own first, so that I knew of the likely difficulties and was able to reassure those students who thought it was impossible to recreate the maps; it is impossible to remember more than 30-40% on the first try, but after a couple of retellings it becomes pretty easy. What I did was pretty extreme, as I tried the activity with a 3-page article from New Yorker on a ramble through the city, and although there was no real plot in the article and although there were over 60 collocations on my map, third time I tried I could retell it using a significant proportion of collocations
  • [catering for tastes] some students don’t like mind-mapping – it’s ok to be flexible, as expressions can be organized into short lists, for instance
  • [revision] encourage the students to revise their mindmaps for a few days and store them safely/upload them to a group blog

Some of the articles my students have brought to class (might be useful to get the process started):
3D printers get cheaper, faster – and more mainstream

Apple iPod creator launches intelligent smoke alarm

Dark energy A problem of cosmic proportions

‘My iPad has Netflix, Spotify, Twitter – everything’: why tablets are killing PCs

Why Do Our Best Ideas Come to Us in the Shower?

Brain-to-brain communication is not a conversation killer

Shodan: The scariest search engine on the Internet

Male brain versus female brain: How do they differ?

A few words on why I think this activity makes sense in view of fluency research

In my previous post I wrote a lengthy overview of what factors are known to influence fluency and how these are mapped to the stages an utterance undergoes before being said. To sum it up  very briefly, one needs to

  • conceptualize/macro-plan: come up with what to say and how to structure it
  • formulate: micro-plan the utterance, retrieve vocabulary in chunks (as opposed to individual words), automatize grammatical processing
  • pronounce chunks fluently
  • monitor after saying the utterance

A regular 4-3-2 activity supplemented with mind-mapping

  • promotes out-of-class reading and gives the students practice in discussing some general interest stories, which might conceivably help with coming up what to say
  • encourages students to notice vocabulary in texts, write it down, and test themselves,  and provides students with a cognitively engaging exercise of identifying lexical sets present in the text (I personally don’t feel bored after a whole hour of doing that), all of which improves retention; promotes learning vocabulary in chunks, which leads to fluency gains
  • helps students to automatize grammatical processing through pushing them to perform faster and faster
  • encourages them to pronounce chunks naturally through the pronunciation practice stage, which improves perceived fluency

In the next post I describe how I use this activity with lower levels to help them with functional language used in social encounters.

A few interesting references
To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test – on the effect recalling and subsequently re-reading a text has on retention
Nation, P. Learning Vocabulary in Lexical Sets: Dangers and Guidelines  – Learning vocabulary in lexical sets (e.g. ‘apple, pear, plum’) is counter-productive, learning thematically related words (e.g. ‘frog, pond, green, slimy, hop, croak’) produces the best results.

This is the second post in a series of posts on fluency: it’s about key insights from literature into what factors contribute to (or detract from) fluency; I illustrate most points on a number of real life examples that I used with my students in awareness raising tasks.

I wrote about what motivated me to start ‘digging’ in the first post here – I’ll also add there  the links to the remaining (more practical) posts when they appear.


Working on Fluency. Part 1: the theory

Fluency: what are we talking about?

Fluency is ‘the [person’s] capacity to produce language in real time without undue pausing or hesitation.’ (Skehan, 1996, cited in Thornbury, 2000). It can actually be objectively measured with a number of variables, such as speech rate (the number of syllables per second – including pause time) and the mean ‘length of run’ (the number of syllables between pauses).  However, there’s also perceived fluency (that is, whether the listener considers the speaker to be fluent), which is of course subjective and much less clear-cut, but nevertheless there has been some research into what features of speech influence the listener’s perception of fluency.

There’s also another important aspect of speech, suggested by Michael McCarthy, who calls it ‘confluence’. Confluence concerns the way the speaker maintains (or fails to maintain) the flow of conversation, linking what they say to what the previous speaker said.

Understanding fluency through understanding what we do when we speak

In order to understand where fluency can ‘break down’, its useful to look at a ‘break down’ of the skill of speaking. Here is a model of speech production proposed by Levelt (1989), according to which an utterance goes through the following stages:

1. Conceptualisation (aka macroplanning: taking decisions what to say, which communicative intentions are to be realized)
2. Formulation (micro-planning at the level of an utterance) Retrieving vocabulary and grammaring it up.
3. Articulation, which is pronouncing the utterance
4. Monitoring. Checking that what you said conveys what you meant, with a reasonable degree of precision, and repairing the utterance if need be.

There are two fundamentally different ‘resources’ that we draw upon to carry out the stages outlined above. We draw on our knowledge (e.g. the knowledge of the way conversation is structured in L2 culture, or the knowledge of lexical items) and automatic routines(which include ‘grammaring’ the lexis up and using our speech organs to pronounce the sounds). We draw upon different types of memory, located in different parts of the brain (called ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ memory) and employ fundamentally different processing (‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ processing).  This distinction is important because it provides insight into the limitations of the human brain that are directly related to fluency. By way of a grossly oversimplified summary, in order to formulate an utterance, we use working memory for planning as well as storing lexis; we can only store ~7 items retrieved from explicit memory in the working memory at a time, while grammatical processing does not take up working memory unless one consciously recalls and applies a rule.  The distinction is also important because explicit and implicit processing is developed/automatised in different ways, and thus they call for different treatment in class (see this book for a fascinating summary of recent research; there’s more on explicit and implicit memory/processing in the books referenced in this post).

Getting closer to a fluent speaker’s performance

Stage of of speech production: Conceptualisation

  1. A fluent speaker…
    knows about the socio-cultural conventions for how conversations and monologues of different types are structured, e.g. uses scripts  and the structure of genres. For instance, when we walk into a restaurant, we know what we’re likely to say/what the waiter is likely to say and in what order this will be said – and this might be different in different cultures. In Russia we do not make small talk while buying groceries, so a Russian English language learner might be startled and might fail to respond altogether, let alone fluently, to an amiable English groceries seller.
  2. Implications for learners & teaching I haven’t learnt much on macro-planning yet, but clearly it’s useful to raise learners’ awareness of genre structures and give them a chance to refer to the structure as during planning stages of speaking activities.I also recently came across this presentation by Barry Tomalin: What do you say after “Hello”? Successful networking techniques. His ideas sound absolutely brilliant, I really want to try his framework with students to add some ‘meat’ to classes on ‘socializing’, but haven’t yet.

Stage of speech production: Formulation

  1. A fluent speaker…
    for efficient planning: uses spoken structures, which are much ‘looser’ than written grammar, stringing together a sequence or relatively independent clauses, or using ‘frames’ with slots
    for efficient vocabulary processing: stores in memory and retrieves lexis in chunks (formulaic speech units), which allows them to operate more than 7 words at a time (Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992, cited in Wool, 2012)
    …formulates thoughts with varying degree with precision, sometimes resorting to very vague language
    for efficient grammatical processing
    …uses proceduralized routines, in contrast to consciously applying ‘rules’Here’s an example from a conversation between Oprah Winfrey and JK Rowling in which some of these features are evident: there are lots of short clauses linked together by conjunctions (and, but) and sentence adverbs/fluency markers (well/obviously); there are some sentence frames (conditional clauses, as well as relative clauses); there are lots of collocations (e.g. ‘a flash of clairvoyance‘) and some vague expressions (like)
    Winfrey: So, didn’t you know?
    Rowling: No.
    Winfrey: Wasn’t there part of you –
    Rowling: Part of me –
    Winfrey: Subconsciously, that knew? Yes.
    Rowling: I + I remember once + and it was like + it was likewell, like + I’m going to call it clash + a flash of clairvoyance now. + Obviously if [it hadn’t come true] it would just be some crazy thought + I had . But I do remember one day+writing Philosopher’s StoneI was walking away from the café + where I’d been working on +
    Winfrey: Philosopher’s Stone + which became Sorcerer’s Stone.
    Rowling: Which became Sorcerer’s Stone, exactly.+ So that’s the first novel. + And I had this moment where + I suddenly thought + It was like another voice speaking to me + and the voice said + “the difficult thing is going to get published. + If [it gets published] [it will be huge.]”
    Winfrey: Wow.
    Rowling: And [that is] + exactly what it was.
    ==================================================The complete 40-minute interview is available here:

    Implications for learners/teaching

  1. Planning. I believe that one important step is for students to become tolerant of spoken grammar and, instead of trying to produce syntactically complex structures characteristic of written language, analyze real speech for typical patterns of reasoning/’frameworks’ and practice using these simple frameworks to structure their own short utterances. For example, when practicing discussions/decision making, a typical argument might be broken down into ‘suggestion + reinforcement (state why suggestion is advantageous) + summary, e.g. I suggest you + (use skype) // which will (save you a lot of money) /make it (easier) (for you) to //so you’ll be able to…).When I was teaching IELTS students, it helped a lot to categorize the typical questions asked in the spoken part of the exam, provide students with a framework for each questions type and train them extensively in using this framework. Below is an example of materials I was using (adapted from Clark (2007)). It felt a bit like cheating at the time, but now I think that this might have mirrored the way skilled speakers micro-plan their utterances, as it allowed the students to plan at the level of a clause, moving ‘from column to column’ concentrating on producing one or two clauses at a time.
    Solutions: introductory sentence Introduce one option Explain what effect this solution would produce Link to another option
    Well I suppose there are a number of actions that could be taken.

    Well, I personally believe that there are [two] possible ways to tackle/address these problems.

    Well I think we could go about this in a number of ways.

    One way to …. would be

    An obvious measure/answer would be to
    One possibility/option is to

    By doing this, we would

    This would enable/help [us] to…

    As a result..

    This would have a huge impact on

    This would have a (profound) effect on

    Another solution would be to..

    A further step to [eliminating poverty sth] would be to

  2. Vocabulary. Noticing formulaic language is tricky because, at some level, it’s ‘obvious’: in contrast to individual ‘new words’, students often understand collocations and thus don’t identify them as ‘new’ language. Moreover, in my own experience this is almost impossible to do on first read/listen/watch: while your brain is totally engaged with meaning, it won’t notice anything that does not pose difficulty in that respect.When I asked my B2/C1 students to identify collocations in the following extract from the interview with JK Rowling, they
     tended to notice smaller chunks and ignore the ‘bigger’ picture (e.g. That was – That was easily the most frightening thing I’ve done in my life.) they identified the expression ‘in my life’ as a chunk, but didn’t notice the frame ‘That was [easily] the most [adj] thing I’ve [V3] in my life.);
    • also, their estimate was that they understood around 90% of these expressions and used around 10%.
  3. An awareness raising task
    Underline fixed expressions that contain the words in bold (suggested answers are in the third column):

    1 Rowling: Yeah, hugely. Hugely. But the odd thing is that that’s just life, isn’t it?  the odd thing is that…
    it’s just life
    2 The books wouldn’t be what they are if she hadn’t died. I mean her death is on virtually every other page of the Harry Potter books, you know?  wouldn’t be [] if
    virtually every // on every other page
    3 At least half of Harry’s journey is a journey to deal with death in its many forms, what it does to the living, what it means to die, what survives death – it’s there in every single volume of the books.  … in its many forms
    every single volume
    4 Rowling: A little. That was – That was easily the most frightening thing I’ve done in my life. Easily. It felt very exposing because this wasn’t me reading-out words that had already been approved. Do you know what I mean? I used to be borderline phobic about public speaking. [easily] the most [adj] thing I’ve [done/V3] in my life
    this wasn’t me v-ing
    public speaking
    5 Winfrey: Wow, really?
    6 Rowling: Yeah. Really. Like shaking so badly I couldn’t – I didn’t know what sentence I was on. So I’ve come a long way. I’m still not – public speaking I’ve got better at but there are things like having to give a speech on T.V. still scares me so much I can’t deal with that very easily.  I’ve come a long way
    I’ve got better at
    to give a speech on T.V.
    can’t deal with [that] [very easily]

    I’ve been trying to ensure students focus on collocations ever since I started teaching – more on that on the more ‘practical’ post on fluency – but some of the techniques that I personally obviously undersuse are:

    > Horizontal alternatives to vertical lists Providing collocations to all new vocabulary
    > Consistently training students to use collocations dictionaries and other lexical resources ( is a recent exciting addition to that list)

  4. Grammar It’s been suggested that in order to achieve automatization, students need to speak under time pressure, as only then are they forced to ‘restructure’ the procedures they currently employ by ‘assembling’ them into larger units. I try to use this insight by regularly giving the students the chance to repeat tasks under tighter time constraints, but one most important lesson I’ve learnt here is that it’s important to  take students on board – that is, make them aware of the rationale behind the activity, as otherwise they don’t see the point in making that extra effort,  cutting corners and meeting the tighter constraints simply by omitting part of the message.

Stage of of speech production: Articulation

  1. A fluent speaker..
    (a)  uses prominence to direct the listener to the words carrying meaning
    (b) chunks their utterance into units (pauses at clause boundaries and not inside clauses)
    (c) pronounces highly frequent chunks, including stretches of function words, such as ‘I’m in my’, fluently (This was what struck me most in all research into fluency – the observation that the listener’s perception of fluency hinges on how fast and naturally chunks are pronounced: ‘It can be stressed that it does not matter how slowly and carefully the rest of the utterance is, or needs to be, constructed. Provided the ‘chunk’ is said fast, the utterance will sound natural; the opposite, a fast message with a slow chunk, will sound completely unnatural and non-fluent.’ (O’Keefe et. al,. 2007)Awareness raising task
    I useed this video to raise awareness of various features of pronunciation (especially fast pronunciation of chunks)

    Students listened a number of times
     first time to respond to the message/understand the gist and talk about their experience with obsolete gadgets
     second time they were provided the gapped text in the first column below with ‘|’ marks showing pauses deleted and asked to mark the pauses; then they listened again and underlined stressed syllables
     then they listened one more time trying to complete the gaps (almost impossible), and one more time listening out specifically for speed (it’s only now that most students realize that the gaps are so difficult to fill not just because the words are ‘swallowed’ but that they’re specifically pronounced much faster than the rest of the utterance;
     they then practiced reading the passage: first time concentrating on the pauses, then on the pauses and stress and finally, having practiced the pronunciation of ‘fast’ chunks separately, all of it;
     finally, they discussed their favourite gadgets – the task was to talk but also to try stress the important words as they talk

    Louis C.K.: Ya, because | Everything is aMAzing right now | and NObody’s happy. | Like | in MY LIfetime | the CHANges _______ world _________ inCREdible. . Louis C.K.:  Ya, because | Everything is aMAzing right now | and NObody’s happy. | Like | in MY LIfetime | the CHANges in the world have been inCREdible. .  /ɪnðə/    /həvbɪn/
    _________ kid ________ ROtary PHOne. |We had a phone you had to STAND NEXT to | _________ DIal it, (yes) __________. |___________REalize how PRImitive, when i was a kid we had a ROtary PHOne. |We had a phone you had to STAND NEXT to | and you had to DIal it, (yes) you know |you know, you ever REalize how PRImitive, /wənʌwəzə//əntə/
    /jənə/  / jəve/ 
    ______ making SPARks _____ phone | and you actually would HATE people with ZEros ______ NUmbers’cause it was more (right) oh, __________ two zeros, | screw THAT guy, ____________, ugh… you’re making SPARks in a phone | and you actually would HATE people with ZEros in their NUmbers’cause it was more (right) oh, this guy’s got two zeros, | screw THAT guy, why do i wanna ugh… /jə     /inə//inðe//ðɪsɡaɪzgət//wʌɪdəʌwənə/
  2. Implications for learners & teaching(a) Learners need awareness raising activities in which they identify prominent syllables and practice highlighting prominent words in while engaging in a communicative task; I think that, as it often said about pronunciation activities, the best approach here is ‘little and often’.
    (b) I notice that my students often make in-clause pauses when they are searching for vocabulary; what they do is produce the ‘grammatical part of the clause’, which, having been drilled repeatedly, is the ‘easy’ bit,  and then drag out the final function word while formulating the rest of the clause (e.g. /I have tooo [pause] get up early/). So far I haven’t come up with any ways to address this (at least practicing the correct pronunciation of the structure doesn’t produce any visible effect, as the students revert to unnatural pronunciation as soon as they concentrate on the message).
    (c) Regarding chunks of function words, McCarthy suggests the students practice saying them over and over again  (He lists the following chunks as top priority chunks, as they are top 20 3-word chunks in Cambridge and Nottingham Corpus of Discourse in English:I DON’T KNOW | A LOT OF | I MEAN I | I DON’T THINK | DO YOU THINK | DO YOU WANT | ONE OF THE | YOU HAVE TO | IT WAS A | YOU KNOW I | YOU WANT TO | YOU KNOW WHAT | DO YOU KNOW | A BIT OF | I THINK IT’S | BUT I MEAN | AND IT WAS | A COUPLE OF | YOU KNOW THE | WHAT DO YOU | AT THE MOMENT

    (McCarthy, 2006)

    Cauldwell(2013:315) lists another list of clusters of 3 and more words commonly squeezed together.

    > To help the students to produce these chunks with natural pronunciation, it might be useful to raise their awareness of features of connected speech and, in particular, the way diphthongs ‘lose’ weak vowels (/aɪ/ in ‘I’ll’ becoming /ʌ/, /əu/ becoming /ə/ in ‘you know’, etc)

    > I think it’s also paramount that students are made aware of the effect non-fluent pronunciation of chunks produces on the listener’s perception (at least if they do aim to sound fluent), and are consistently encouraged to practice fluent pronunciation whenever they study  functional language and formulaic expressions, either in class or on their own – at least my students normally try to shirk at this point of the lesson because they feel extremely self-conscious; in my experience, rationalizing the need for pronunciation work does help> Adrian Underhill repeatedly makes the point of the need for placing a physical demand on top or the cognitive demand  and challenging students to pronounce what they say with maximum fluency and connectedness possible (e.g. Underhill, 2013:215) and for me the way he demonstrates this is an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Stage of of speech production: Monitoring

  1. What do a fluent speakers do?

     monitor their message after it’s been formulated and uttered
     use spoken structures that are characteristic of spoken language and that mirror the way attention shifts e.g. those olives, how much are they? (the topic is identified first, then the question is added – cf how much are those olives?); my brother, his wife (cf ‘my brother’s wife)  they are nice, those olives (the sentence starts out with the speaker’s perspective, and then gets ‘clarified’ to include the listener). In the interview extract above, JK Rowling freely starts a sentence and then changes it mid-way:  I remember once + and it was like + it was like + welllike + I’m going to call it clash + a flash of clairvoyance now. Language learners, on the other hand, often feel that they have to speak in full, ‘correct’ sentences and attribute their failure to do this not to natural limitations of the human brain, but to their own lack of proficiency – in short, very often they have unrealistic expectations of what they are to produce.
     Uses a range of expressions to signal the need for extra interpretation on the part of the reader (e.g. ‘you know’/’do you know what I mean?’)
  2. Implications for learners / teaching
    For me as a non-native speaker insight into monitoring was the most revealing. I realized that I, in contrast to Levelt’s speech model, was vehemently trying to monitor utterances before uttering them, because I was never sure would be able to finish the sentence I’d started – a fear that, I suspect, was well-grounded, as my speech was lacking all the features of spoken language outlined above.  

Stage of speech production: linking to the previous speaker’s turn

  1. Fluent speakers…
     react to what the previous speaker said (‘yeah’/’no’/’exactly’/’it is!’)
    comment (‘we’ll need to …’/’which won’t be easy’)
    reformulate (‘Was it good?’ ‘Yeah, amazing!’)
    repeat (Winfrey: Philosopher’s Stone which became Sorcerer’s Stone./ Rowling: Which became Sorcerer’s Stone, exactly.);  backchannel to show interest (mmm/really?)
     use discourse markers and sentence adverbs to start turns (‘well, basically’/’actually’/’so’/’right’).Awareness raising task (adapted from one of Michael McCarthy’s tasks in an IATEFL webinar)
    Again, the interview with JK Rowling mentioned above is a striking example of that – here’s a random sample. I asked students to underline look at the starts of turns and compare that to a transcript of A2 students speaking (I couldn’t produce a transcript of the students themselves due to time constraints, but it would’ve been better: record them doing a task, ask them to analyze turn beginnings in the interview, then listen to their recording to see what features are present.
    Winfrey: Are you in a place now where you can accept that you will always be rich?Rowling: No. Are you?Winfrey: Kind of. Getting there.Rowling: Really? I hope – I hope I – that sounds good.Winfrey: Unless I’m a complete fool.Rowling: But that’s it! Unless I’m a fool! And you know what? I’ve never been a fool with money so why worry? But I do. I think ‘God, if I blew this, how could I look everyone in the face?’Winfrey: But, you know psychologically it’s a difficult thing to come to terms with because it’s like saying – not allowing room for never say never.Rowling: Exactly.Winfrey: You know?Rowling: Exactly. And you feel – I feel – I don’t want to get complacent.Winfrey: Right.

    Rowling: I don’t want to take things for granted.

    Winfrey: Correct.

    Rowling: I just – I just – and after all. Well, you do know what, I’m talking absolutely rubbish, aren’t I? I’m talking rubbish. I mean really would have to be very stupid but, yeah, I do still worry.

    Winfrey: Really?

    Rowling: Yeah. Not all the time. I mean mostly I feel great.

    Winfrey: What do you actually think money has done for you? What does it do?

    Rowling: It frees you. That’s what it does. It frees you. That’s why it’s like a super power. You don’t – it frees you. I mean we don’t have to – the luxury of literally being able to sit down and say “where should we go for a holiday?” and not be, in any way, limited.

    Winfrey: I hear you don’t drive.

    Rowling: No, I don’t drive. No. Cars terrify me. I am really frightened of cars.

    Winfrey: So do you have a driver?

    Rowling: I – of – lately I have had a driver. Very lately.

    Winfrey: Is it true that you still take the bus? I read that you still take the bus.

    Rowling: Occasionally. Within the last year I have taken the bus. Definitely, yeah.

    Winfrey: Did you ever imagine your life being the way it is now?

    Rowling: No. Never. And I really, really mean never. It overshot the mark so ridiculously that I – I was so unprepared for it. This is a thing I think I’ve never really spoken about. I was a writer. I had no one near me professionally or personally who could in any way help me when I had questions like “what do you do when the press is searching your bins?” You know?

    Winfrey: Mhmm.

    Rowling: Really crazy stuff that happens. The stuff that makes you feel –

    Winfrey: But that doesn’t happen to most writers, you know?

    Rowling: Exactly. Exactly. So it took everyone around me totally by surprise.

    Winfrey: It’s not like if you’re an actress you could have expected that.

    Rowling: Of course! Of course. You know that if I’m wildly successful that stuff will happen. I’m not going to like it but that will happen. But as a writer there’s no way of thinking “if I’m wildly successful they will want long-lens photographs of me on the beach in my bikini. Never occurred to me in a million years.

    Winfrey: So you weren’t prepared for it.

    Rowling: Totally unprepared. And really running scared for a while.

  2. Implications for learners / teaching
    Again, based on my conversations with B2 learners, it is evident that they have skewed perception of this feature of speech: they felt that fluency markers are ‘rubbish words’/signs of inferior speakers; that adverbs like ‘absolutely’ and ‘exactly’ are too expressive; I personally also feel that we non-native speakers might be feeling the need to prove our linguistic ability by saying something new/driving the conversation forward. My point in that conversation was that if you don’t use those ‘small’ words, your speech does not sound ‘clean’ – it sounds non-native.

    An observations that I’ve made since I learnt about confluence is that I myself completely fail to notice these features, as well as expressions like ‘you know’ and ‘do you know what I mean’, unless I’m paying conscious attention. So reading the transcript of the interview with Rowling (or, more specifically, reading only the starts of turns) was incredibly revealing – even though I’d seen the interview, which suggests the need for explicit conscious raising activities.Another interesting fact is that film English is bad for exploring these features: at least in Friends, a well-known sitcom, these features are drastically underrepresented.

Personal conclusion Looking back up the changes my daily teaching underwent in light of the insights outlined above, I see that I’ve (1) started to use task repetition much more, making sure I inform the students of the rationale to persuade them to cooperate; (2) treat pronunciation of formulaic language much more consistently and (I hope) more persuasively, although prominence and appropriate pausing definitely deserve more attention; (3) see the need to increase learner autonomy in working with lexical resources, although I haven’t figured out how to do this in a systematic way (4) see the need to research typical ‘micro-frameworks’ to help learners with micro-planning. In the next couple of posts I’ll write about some other practical activities that target fluency.


Cauldwell, R. (2013) Phonology for Listening. Speech in Action

Clark, M (2007) IELTS Speaking

Levelt, W.J.M (1989) Speaking. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

O’Keeffe, A., McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (2007) From Corpus to Classroom: Language Use and Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M. (2006) Explorations in Corpus Linguistics

Quaqlio, P. (2009) Television Dialogue: The sitcom Friends vs. natural conversation. Studies in Corpus Linguistics

Thornbury, S. (2000) Accuracy, fluency and complexity. English Teaching professional, 16 (available for download here).

Skehan, P (1996) ‘Second language acquisition research and task-based instruction’ in Willis, J and Willis, D (Eds) Challenge and change in language teaching  Heinemann

Underhill (2013) ‘The Inner Workbench: learning itself as a meaningful activity’ in Arnold, J and Murphey, T (Eds) Meaningful Action. Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Wray, A. (2005) Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Cambridge University Press

More resources:
cognitive bases

McCarthy, M. (2009) Rethinking Spoken Fluency


When I was administering the end-of-year Speaking test in one of my Upper-Intermediate groups last spring, I was struck with how non-fluent my students were: around half of them were speaking slowly and with frequent pauses, which made a sharp contrast with their overall language proficiency. It was evident that there had been something fundamentally wrong with my teaching – apparently, using lots of authentic listening in class and for homework, as well as providing the group with lots of genuinely communicative speaking activities of all sorts, was not enough to help my students in this respect. One of the reasons might have been that, as they were living in a monolingual environment and only used English in class, when they engaged in speaking activities my students always felt too safe and took their time to formulate their thoughts, and thus did not progress.

So, when it came to doing a Speaking skill assignment on Delta Mod2, fluency was the obvious choice. A week of frantic digging in literature ensued, and I didn’t regret the choice of topic for a second as it turned out to be a fascinating area.

I’ve been using the insights from that week’s reading for over seven months now in a variety of ways, ranging from little ‘tweaks’ to full 90-minute activities to, recently, a series of workshops for higher level students, so now I want to re-examine that experience. There’s quite a lot, so I’m splitting this into a series of posts.

Part 1. The theory, a post about key insights from literature into what factors contribute (or detract from) to fluency, illustrated with a number of real life examples that I used with my students to raise awareness of these factors (the longest post in the blog – not for the faint of heart!)
Part 2. The practice (I’ll add the links when the posts have been finished):