For most language learners becoming fluent in their target language is one of the major ambitions and motivations. They are, of course, referring to being easily or naturally able to hold a conversation, watch a film or write a business email in their target language. But what they define as being fluent will almost certainly be different from someone else’s perspective. Similarly, it is not often agreed how to actually measure fluency in the first place.
Given this disparity, we’ve decided to devote this blog post to the topic of fluency in the context of language teaching and learning. In particular, we’ll try to confirm what fluency actually is, how to measure fluency and outline some ways it can be developed in the classroom. As you’ll see, it’s a topic that’s widely discussed but is actually quite poorly understood.
What is fluency?
Part of the challenge with the concept of fluency is that it is incredibly difficult to define. The Cambridge English Dictionary reiterates this, defining fluency as “the ability to speak or write a language easily, well, and quickly.” Which makes complete sense but doesn’t really help us simplify the concept. And it makes no reference to listening or reading skills either! Surely to be considered fluent in a second language, it’s important that students demonstrate expertise across all these core language skill sets?
In a 2020 blog post on the topic, Cambridge English argued that fluency is an “idea that is bound up in emotions and perceptions as much as, if not more than, with the actual use of the language. We see ‘fluency’ as a quality of the speaker rather than a skill that can be learned.” When seeking to teach or learn languages, this can create or cause difficulties and problems.
Firstly, fluency isn’t permanent – it requires constant work to maintain and even to improve. And it will vary significantly by learner, by task and by audience. Some learners may be fluent in written form, but stumble when speaking. Whilst others can talk fluently about film with their friends, but hesitate when talking about personal finances with their work colleagues.
Most importantly, it’s one thing for a student to be able to produce an impressive flow of words when speaking or writing. But it’s another thing entirely for the listener or reader to be able to understand them and the point they’re trying to communicate. Yes, fluency is about demonstrating those skills “easily, well, and quickly” but the language also needs to be relevant, accessible and understandable for the audience as well.
Of course, grammatically correct language usage is a key part of being understood by native speakers and arguably therefore should also be seen as a key part of being fluent. But we’re not going to get into the accuracy vs. fluency debate here – see our previous blog post about the differences between accuracy and fluency if you’re interested!
How can fluency be measured?
Given the challenge of accurately defining or describing what fluency is, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that it is quite hard to measure such an abstract concept. As a result, researchers typically assign what they describe as “observable variables.” In other words, data points that can be seen and actually measured by the researcher.
Experts typically identify two or three simple measurements when studying fluency.
- Speech rate – this can be defined as how much (effective) language a student produces or consumes over time, for example how many syllables per minute.
- Utterance length – this is, as an average, how much language a student can produce between disfluencies (e.g. a pause or hesitation).
- The third element is accuracy, which is not universally included by experts for obvious reasons but which indicates how grammatically correct / precise the student’s use of language is.
Despite the universal usage of the term, there are no internationally-agreed fluency metric levels, although the term appears throughout the common standards for describing language ability. For example, according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) a C2 learner (the highest level) is able to “express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely.” Yet there’s no definition for what fluently actually means or how to really measure it!
The English Proficiency blog (amongst others) does identify five levels of fluency. These are covered in detail on the site and are named as:
- Pre/early production,
- Basic fluency,
- Native equivalent.
Why does fluency matter?
It’s amazing that a word as widely-used yet as poorly defined as fluency has gained such a prominent position in the language teaching world! So perhaps it’s best to return to first principles. As Cambridge English points out: “Fluency is the bedrock of how we are perceived as communicators. And the bottom line for all our students is communication.”
Whatever language your students are learning – they’re studying it in order to be able to use it, in whatever context they want / need to. Building effective and relevant communication skills in their target language is therefore their number 1 priority. Perhaps as the Cambridge English blog post suggests we should therefore consider this sort of communicative competence and fluency as the same thing?
How can fluency be taught in the language classroom?
So if we start to see communicative competence and fluency as similar concepts, how can language educators help students to develop and improve? The expert opinion is that educators can best achieve this by creating the conditions for success and developing frequent opportunities for student to practice.
Writing in Tomlinson’s Developing materials for language teaching, Paul Nation (2003) identifies that the following conditions must be in place for educators to deliver effective fluency activities for their learners:
- All language items involved are already familiar to students,
- The focus is on communication (not grammatical structure) in real-time, and
- Supports are in place for students to outperform their normal proficiency
Fluency activities, therefore, tend to focus not so much on how students are communicating but on what they are communicating. Examples of fluency-building language learning activities include peer or group conversations, roleplays, debates, group projects, and presentations.
It’s also important to give students encouragement and opportunity to frequently practise all forms of language / communication. And, in particular, to give them time to plan and prepare before the activity. This helps build confidence which in turn builds fluency.
Finally try to maximise the engagement that students have with native speakers. The best way to build fluency is to regularly work through real-life situations and scenarios with them. This will help provide a real test of their fluency – can they hold a business conversation over dinner? Can they write a persuasive email? Can they understand a film without subtitles or read a newspaper without any support? If they can, then great. No further definition of fluency is required!
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