New study on speaking fluency development

Highway with fast cars

“Fluency” is an important concept in language education, and it can mean a range of things. Broadly speaking, fluency is the ability to think, speak and/or write in a smooth, straightforward way. It emerges as learners develop automaticity: subconscious activation of internalized knowledge and proceduralized strategies. The common comparison is driving a car: at first, you’re slow and jolty, but as you learn the rules of the road and experience hundreds of different traffic scenarios, you automatically respond to situations that emerge — often without giving it any thought.

As language educators, we know that helping students develop fluency is part of our charge. Paul Nation includes fluency development activities in his “Four Strands” of TESOL recommendations, and teacher-training guidance from the CELTA to M.A. programs emphasize its importance. Instructional measures that help achieve this are many: extensive reading and listening activities, low-stakes writing tasks, the opportunity to tell and retell stories, and classroom conversations about light, interesting topics are just a few examples.

Focusing on fluency with students

We know that learners develop fluency over time, often an outgrowth of other learning. But what we haven’t known previously is to what extent teachers could intervene directly in fluency development. Is our role just to provide low-stakes practice activities, or can we — should we — do more?

An article in the June 2016 edition of TESOL Quarterly reports that teacher intervention in spoken fluency development is indeed possible. Focusing on utterance fluency — “the measurable aspects of fluency such as speed, pausing, and hesitation” (p. 449) — University of Reading researchers Parvaneh Tavakoli, Colin Campbell and Joan McCormack set out to discover “whether pedagogic intervention can help enhance learner fluency over a limited period of time by raising learners’ awareness about different aspects of fluency and teaching them some fluency strategies,” (p. 551).

In an ESL-based setting working with international students from diverse backgrounds, the researchers worked with teachers to do an experimental four-week study: a control group received the typical curricular instruction, and the experimental group received this instruction with an added focus on targeting spoken fluency itself. These lessons targeted fluency in a direct, meta way, using instructional interventions detailed below:

“Activities to raise awareness of different aspects of fluency. Students listened to a nonnative speaker of English retelling a picture story and evaluated the speaker’s fluency in terms of speed, pausing, and repair measures. Students examined the transcript of the picture story retelling and identified where fluency had broken down.

Strategies that can be used for improving fluency. Using lexical fillers (e.g., well) and longer lexical chunks (e.g., let me think) and practising them in conversations. Avoiding repetitions and hesitations in conversations when possible.

Opportunities for practising fluency. In class: Retelling the picture story that they had listened to in exercise 1. At home: Retelling another picture story and recording their performance, listening to their own performance to identify fluency problems, and recording their performance of the same task again.” (p. 453-454)

Analyzing students’ success

Researchers tested the effects of these interventions by having all students — the control group and the experimental group — record themselves sharing one-minute (different) stories at the beginning and end of the four-week period. Using a range of analytical instruments, they measured fluency markers such as pauses, fillers like “um,” hesitations, false starts, and length of utterances, and they also used the common language-assessment instrument of complexity, accuracy and frequency (“CAF”) analyses to gauge students’ overall progress.

The results were clear: students in the experimental group displayed higher degrees of spoken frequency than those in the control group. The authors note that:

“The findings of the study confirm the hypothesis that the effects of studying L2 in the TL [“target language’] context combined with effective pedagogic intervention can provide conditions conducive to the development of speech fluency,” (p. 466). 

One unexpected side discovery was that the students in the control group showed slightly higher levels of accuracy in the CAF analysis than the experimental group did. The authors muse that the pauses the control group used may have helped them self-regulate to be more accurate — something the experimental group may have done less if they were aiming for fewer pauses. However, they note that research is insufficient to identify a clear trade-off between fluency and accuracy, (p. 466). This simply points to the need for a balanced focus on both.

Our takeaway

This study demonstrates that teachers’ fluency intervention is not limited to simply providing opportunities for students to practice speaking, writing and thinking quickly. We can target fluency directly, as well, by raising students’ metacognitive awareness of its features and helping them recognize and reduce disfluency markers in their speech.

This focus syncs with larger aims to empower students to take charge of their own learning. Strategies to practice and improve fluency on their own will add to learners’ self-development toolkits, improving the speed and efficacy of their practice. They’ll be ‘driving the car’ before they know it!

Discussed in this article

Tavakoli, P., Campbell, C., and McCormack, J. (2016.) Development of Speech Fluency Over a Short Period of Time: Effects of Pedagogic Intervention.” TESOL Quarterly. (50)2: pp. 447-471.