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Exercises for English Fluency

2015/03/29

A strong sign of fluency is how a speaker pauses while speaking. At the natural junctures of sentences? Or a halting mid-sentence train-wreck? Linguistic research suggests that this is because more fluent speakers have a greater repertoire of automatized language chunks to buy time to formulate their next sequence or phrase. This clause-chaining of lexical chunks combined with speech rate, length, distribution of pauses, non-lexical fillers, and overall length are the foundations of fluency. Therefore, these attributes might also become the targets for improving student fluency.

There are 4 conditions needed in activities to develop fluency. First, know your focus. If the focus is fluency, than the focus is not on introducing new and unfamiliar language. It's tempting to pile on new vocabulary with each lesson, but fluency depends on the mastery of what a speaker already knows. To this effect, the learners should also be tasked with understanding and conveying meaning over correcting their mistakes. There should also be some pressure on them to perform at a faster speed than usual to really engage their mind and get the blood pumping to build those fast-response mental pathways. Finally, there should be a large amount of input and output. Repetition and volume are needed to build lexical chunks for speakers to fall back on. Language activities which accomplish all of these would be ideal. But breaking these down further will help at an earlier stage.

Aural input on topics the students find interesting will become the basis of their own oral output. So ideal examples are of natural, real-life spoken samples, with clause-chaining and natural pause patterns demonstrated by fluent speakers regarding subjects that are interesting to the students. There are two main parts of the input stage. The first focuses on comprehension, so a pre-listening task where students are given the general topic and asked to make predictions about the content, brainstorm the vocabulary, or the teacher outright introduces the key elements before beginning the sample, will help get comprehension taken care of early on. The second part of the input stage, is to have the students consciously notice the features of fluent speech. Students could listen to a transcript, and highlight the pauses or hesitations of the speaker, or make note of the frequently used lexical combinations. Or students could go on a treasure hunt through some input looking for a list of expressions that occur and checking them from a checklist.

Whatever the activity, students should be able to comprehend it without too much effort, and instead focus on observing the natural breaks, intonation, and timing of the input. Then to practice these forms themselves through repetition until they are habitual or automatic. The following are some activities that have been used with these goals in mind.  

Disappearing Text - The text displayed on the board contains target expressions. The teacher reads aloud, followed by one or two students. Then the teacher erases some of the sequences and asks other students to read the text aloud, and try to recall the missing expressions. This continues until all the words have been erased, and the sequence is temporarily memorized.

Shadowing - Students listen to and imitate a recording until they have control over the speed, pauses and lexis of that particular formulaic language, and then perform the sequence for the teacher or class. Unplanned language samples can help more than a pre-programmed recitation or movie clip, so a good example would be from an interview or conversation with someone with very pronounced English... like Samuel L. Jackson.

Dictogloss - Students listen to the teacher "shadowing" a transcript at natural speed (see above), with natural pauses, and automatized language chunks. Following this, students then write notes about what the teacher said, where they paused or hesitated, and then form groups to try and reconstruct the text, or give a rendition. Finally comparing their reconstructions with the original performance, noting the differences in structure and phrasing.

Jigsaw - Students are assigned a sentence with target formulas. Then go around the class, without notes, trying to teach each other their expression. Back at their desks, perhaps as a group, students write down as many expressions as they can remember and present to the class.

Crunching - Give students a topic, and a few minutes to prepare for a 3 minute talk either with a partner, teacher, or in front of the class. Students are asked to talk about the same topic one more time, only this time for a little longer, such as 4 or 5 minutes. Finally, the same topic again, only in an extremely short amount of time, such as 1 or 2 minutes. The focus should be on expanding and contracting their lexical chunks, expressions, and filler sounds for each time limit. In larger classes, this could be done as a conversation, not a speech, like a tiny debate where both sides are asked to discuss their topics within varying amounts of time.

This sort of recitation repetition, and observing native-speech, are intentional ways of replicating and condensing the natural conditioning that native-speakers receive when growing up in English-speaking countries. By monitoring the speaker's speed, hesitation, filler sounds, and collecting natural lexical chunks to be practiced and internalized, your students fluency will be exercised.

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