Help! My Students Can’t Speak Fluently.

Help! My Students Can’t Speak Fluently.

After teaching for several years, you may have noticed that your students continue to have difficulty expressing themselves in English. They can’t seem to respond to questions quickly, they pause frequently when they speak, they often stumble for words. When they finally compose themselves and express their thoughts, they sound stiff and unnatural.

You feel frustrated because your efforts to improve your students’ fluency do not seem to work. Similarly, your students feel the same way. They feel frustrated and discouraged too. Some may lose their motivation to learn English with you.

Fortunately, we can turn to the ELT professional literature and glean from research into the development of speaking skills in EFL contexts.

ELT experts agree that students need a lot of practice to develop their accuracy (the ability to say things correctly) and fluency (the ability to do things in English quickly and easily). Their recommendation is that we need to include both accuracy and fluency practice in our speaking lesson.

However, what often happens is that we tend to emphasize accuracy over fluency, thus giving students little opportunity to speak quickly, easily and coherently.

What can we do to give students more speaking practice in a single lesson? I describe below a simple procedure to increase the amount of speaking practice.

Procedure

  1. Warm-up: Get your students interested in the lesson.
  2. Explain clearly the key take-away of the lesson, e.g., using polite language accurately and fluently to present an argument on the need to go green
  3. Ask students collect relevant information on the internet with guidance from the teacher
  4. In small groups, students discuss ideas they collected from the internet. For optimal group interactions, each group member is assigned a role e.g., question commander, summarizer, focus keeper and gatekeeper (whose job is to ensure that every member contributes equally).
  5. Once the group discussion is finished, each group member finds someone from another group to share the key points form their group discussion.
  6. Students repeat number 5 three times with a different partner. To make the task more interesting, students repeat the task at shorter times, e.g., 5 minutes then 3 minutes then 1 minute. This provides an excellent opportunity for students to express themselves using different vocabulary and sentence structures.
  7. Students return to their groups and reflect on the learning points of the day. The teacher can provide feedback focussing what students did well and what they need to improve on.
  8. If time permits, invite one or two students to share with the whole class before the end of the lesson.

Steps 5 and 6 above are known as a fluency-focused activity. The first time round, students may stumble a bit when sharing their ideas. After they have done it two or three times, they will get better and become more able to express themselves more smoothly.

In fact research shows that doing the same task several times can help increase not only their accuracy and fluency, but also complexity of their speech. In other words, students may be able to speak more accurately, fluently and also use a wider range of vocabulary and sentence structures in their speech after presenting the same ideas several times.

Do give this a try and share with me how it works with your students.

Further Reading

Goh, C. C. M., & Burns, A. (2012). Teaching speaking: A holistic approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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