Developing Fluency at Intermediate Level

When I first came to live in Italy I didn’t speak any Italian at all, but gradually picked it up as I went along. One day, when I was at about Intermediate level, I had to go to the local Council offices to deal with something concerning my residence papers, and on the way found myself silently thinking through in Italian what I’d have to say, what the other person might say to me, how I’d reply and so on. At the level of fluency I’d then reached, I couldn’t have coped without this type of silent rehearsal.

Yet it occurred to me that I never gave my students at the same level the opportunity to prepare in this way. I’d set up a speaking activity and expect them to go straight into it. Was it, I wondered, the most effective way to develop their confidence in their ability to speak fluently and effectively in English?

The activity sequence that I’m going to describe here grew out of that realisation. It aims to give the students :
  • The chance to develop ideas so that they know what they want to say before they start.
  • The chance to rehearse silently what they want to say and think about how they can express more complex ideas, asking for the teacher’s help as necessary.
  • The chance to see their first attempt as only a rehearsal, to receive feedback and then have the chance to “polish” their performance until they are happy with it.
  • The chance to move to a more challenging activity as soon as, but only if and when, they are ready for it.
The sequence can be applied, with a few modifications, to most types of speaking activity, but I’m going to describe it here with one that I’ve found particularly successful : anecdote telling.

Anecdote telling is a natural part of everyday social conversation. One person starts talking about something that once happened to them, and while they’re speaking everyone else is thinking of a similar story that they can then tell themselves. This activity exploits this tendency and can easily be built into any lesson focusing on a specific topic or vocabulary field. It will not necessarily be instantly successful as, as with many classroom activities, it works best when students are used to it, and know what to expect and how to get the most out of it. The activity has five stages, and I’ll use the example of a lesson focusing on the topic of the weather to explain them :

Stage One - a Teacher Model: Start by telling the students an anecdote about a time you were once caught in bad weather. I usually choose from : the day I had to drive through Switzerland in a blizzard; the time my house got flooded during a day of torrential rain; the time when I got lost on a mountain in the fog; or the day when I flew through a sandstorm. Check comprehension afterwards by asking the students to compare with their partners what they understood. This sort of teacher model not only gives the students ideas on what to say themselves, it also provides excellent listening practice and, most importantly, is highly motivating: students love hearing about their teacher's 'real' life, and if you can catch their interest at this stage it can help motivate them towards the whole of the lesson.
Stage Two - Silent Preparation: Now explain to the students that you want them to talk about a time when they had a similar problem with the weather. Ask prompt questions (without eliciting the answers) to spark off ideas : Now think about a time when you had problems because of the weather. Have you ever had to drive in very bad weather, like I did? Where were you going? Who were you with? What was the weather like? What problems did it cause you? What happened in the end? Or have you ever been caught in really heavy rain? Or in a very bad thunderstorm etc etc.

Watch your students while you slowly ask these questions, and their body language will tell you when they’ve all thought of something to talk about. As a story comes to mind they will probably look up and to their left (1), and they’ll start to smile and to nod. (2)
Gaze left usually means recall
Once you're sure your students have all thought of something to talk about, ask them to sit silently and prepare what they want to say. They should mentally rehearse their ideas, and should identify anything that they don't know how to express. Tell them that at the end of the silent phase, you will provide any vocabulary that they need, but that you won't help at all during the conversation phase.
The first time you try this, don't expect it to work perfectly. Students won't necessarily see the point of the preparation, and may feel strange about sitting in silence. If you persevere with the technique, however, they will start to realise that the more they prepare in silence, the more successful their conversation is, and will start to really utilise the time you give them.

Stage Three - Vocabulary Input: Once the students have had a couple of minutes to prepare silently, ask them if they need any vocabulary or other help expressing themselves. If they ask how to say something using a verb structure which is too complex for them, reformulate it more simply for them (For example a third conditional If I’d known I wouldn’t have gone can be expressed using the simple past : I didn’t know so I didn’t go). Encourage them to explain the words they need using circumlocution strategies: What do you call the type of weather when little bits of ice fall out of the sky? If they can develop this type of strategy, it will help them greatly in real communication situations and it is in itself a way of increasing fluency.

Make sure that you do this part of the activity with the full attention of the class – the listeners as well as the speakers will need to understand the new vocabulary. List the words that the students request on the board and leave them there during the activity.

Stage Four – Storytelling and Feedback: The students tell their story to their first partner. Meanwhile the teacher circulates and notes down what the students say. Often this will be errors, but do try and note down anything 'impressive' that the students say too, for example if someone has remembered an expression used in a previous unit. Transfer your notes to the board and, after the conversations have finished, give language feedback. During the follow-up, the students can also have a second chance to ask for vocabulary.

Stage Five – Repeating the Story : Students then change partners and repeat the story. This time, their story should come much more easily to them, as they've now already had two 'rehearsals'. Again the teacher can monitor and do a follow-up as necessary.

Students then change partners again. If they still feel the need to 'polish' their own story, they can repeat it again. Stronger students, however, can have the option of now telling one of the stories their previous partners told to them.

This process can be allowed to go on for as long as the topic and the activity remain interesting to the students and they are gaining something from the activity. As the course progresses and students increase in fluency, the number of repetitions, like the silent preparation time, can be slowly cut down. However, the repetitions have two advantages :
  • Students are extending their vocabulary by using and hearing the words that arose in the vocabulary input stage again and again. Those students who go on to tell someone else's story will be using productively not only the words which they requested themselves, but also the words involved in the other person's story. Everyone, however, will have received a high 'dose' of vocabulary at the receptive level.
  • They can go on repeating their own story until they feel they've got it 'right'. This greatly increases their confidence in speaking English, and therefore their motivation. Stronger students don't get bored, because as soon as they want to, they switch to the greater challenge of telling someone else's story.
1. This insight comes from NeuroLinguistic Planning. For more on how NLP can be used in the ELT classroom, see Using NLP in ELT
2. Body Language is, of course, culturally determined and this may not be true for all groups. What signs tell you that your students are ready to start? Send us a comment!

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