Fluency Requires Practice

“To know and not do is to not know.” The Talmud

Fluency requires practice. Our students also know that speaking English can be both satisfying and stressful. Therefore, we require speaking activities in class – and strongly suggest ways to speak more out of class. Our students want to be fluent, but they often hesitate to practice their speaking skills. Many students do not want to risk making mistakes, being misunderstood, and feeling awkward. Some prefer to silently take notes, and speak as little as possible in their English classes. We have all probably faced this situation.

Yet, as far as I know, there is no magical shortcut to fluency except practice. Our English students must practice speaking – in pairs and in small groups – even if it feels awkward. “Practice makes perfect” goes a popular proverb. Although perfection seems like a dubious ideal, practice certainly makes progress. And our students want to make meaningful progress in their speaking skills and gain greater fluency.

That’s why creating a comfortable class atmosphere remains essential. One effective way to reduce grade anxiety or classroom stress is to clearly emphasize that some activities will focus more on fluency” and other speaking activities will focus more on “accuracy”. For instance, including one casual fluency activity per class helps students simply exchange ideas and engage in low risk, safe communication between themselves.

Speaking exercises can be added across the ESL curriculum. You can often drop a short communicative exercise even in acadenuc writing classes. Fluency, after all, requires practice. Casual, ungraded classroom conversations also increase student confidence and create a more lively ESL classroom.

Asking students to reflect and share their experiences as an English learner can often lead to fascinating conversations and compelling essays. Here’s a favorite fluency activity called Learning English that I’ve used with both intermediate and advanced ESL students in both oral skills and writing classes. When I taught advanced ESL at Santa Monica Community College, I often used Learning English to introduce their first essay. Students often responded with enthusiasm. Perhaps your English students will too.

Ask more. Know more. Share more.
Create Compelling Conversations.


  1. Thanks for the link to the worksheets you’ve created. I’m interested in the “TED Video Summary and Commentary” Assignment. You’ve provided the grading sheet/rubric but not the actual assignment details. Would you mind sharing them?

  2. One more question . . . . Would also mind elaborating on how you use a chapter from your book to introduce an essay?

    I love teaching writing and am always on the lookout for new and interesting ideas to make writing meaningful to students. So, specifically I would like to know more about how you go about moving students from a conversation with reflection to a “compelling essay.” How do you tie the two together?

  3. Amanda – Thank you for your comment and questions.

    It’s a pleasure to answer those questions. For the TED assignment, I ask students to simply choose a TED video and summarize it to share in groups. The next class the students choose another TED video and both summarize and comment on another TED – and present to the class. While I don’t give a precise time, the presentations are usually around 4-5 minutes. Depending on the class size, students might answer classmate questions about the video. The relative informality allows students to focus on the content while improving their academic presentation skills.

    My community college writing course met twice a week for 2 hours. On Monday, we used the conversation worksheets – this was before I co-wrote the book – to introduce the topic and exchange experiences. Students then wrote a rough draft (or outline) for the second half. Students completed their rough drafts for homework. Then, we reviewed the rough drafts in peer review on Wednesday, and students revised their essays in second half. The short essays were due at the end of the second class. You could, however, easily expand the format to last two week. The conversation questions, proverbs, and quotations can jumpstart their imaginations, and encourage critical thinking even on familiar topics. Or so I hope!

    Try it, and let me know what happens in your class.



  4. Eva Owen

    I love to tell my students a story about my father who is a professor of physics. He was given a ride in a small 4 seater airplane in the front seat next to the pilot. The pilot asked him if he would like to hold the stick/fly the airplane. My father refused. The pilot tried to convince him that flying an airplane is based on the laws of physics. My father replied that he is a theoretical physicist and flying the airplane is practical physics! This story usually convinces the students that practice is the only way for them to improve their English!

  5. Eva – What a great story! Thanks for sharing.

    You know I will have to use it in my classes. Many of us, I suspect, find it far easier to talk about doing something rather than actually risking doing it!

  6. Please email me with any hints on how you made your site look this awesome, I would be appreciative!

  7. My Chinese students in Jinan seem to think that just by watching movies their English will improve (as they are always hinting that they want to see movies all the time). I don’t think they get concept that watching a movie is a passive activity and then they need to actually produce English (by speaking themselves) to improve their English fluency.

  8. Excellent point! Learning English is not a spectator sport! Our students must learn to swim in pools of English words.

  9. As part of my Chinese students’ final test, I am having them do an oral presentation (besides a written exam on a different day)in front of their classmates. I think that getting them to speak English in front of a group of people will help them build their confidence in their English speaking skills.

  10. Good day! i’m at the job currently therefor i did not have the time to read all of your article, however i do appreciate the stuff i read and will read a little more on the site when i get home.. I got a lot of things to finish at work =) do you have an account at twitter? =) All the best, billiga resor till beirut

  11. Thank you for visiting. Twitter account is CompellingTalks if you want to follow my micro-blog where I usually recommend outstanding articles for English teachers, word mavens, or ELT experts. Enjoy.


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