Level of comfort.

Task achievement. 


Those were some of the words used to describe fluency (for this post, I shall stick to speaking fluency) in our last month’s COP meet while discussing Zoltán Dörnyei’s (2013: 161) chapter, ‘Communicative Language Teaching in the twenty-first century: the ‘Principled Communicative Approach’. 


I’ll come back to Dörnyei shortly, but I would like to mention here that the first-ever ‘definition’ I had read about ‘fluency’ was by Scott Thornbury in his ‘An A-Z of ELT’ (2006: 2), ‘the ability to be communicative in real-life situations’ It is simple, to the point. However, complications arise when you try to quantify ‘the ability to be communicative’, which, to be honest, has led me to write this post. 


Of course, before I could share my two cents, I had to do my due diligence. Thanks to James Chamberlain (one of our community members), I ventured on the herculean task of reading through Scott’sF is for Fluency’ post and the 94 comments that ensued. Someone would have mined a bitcoin faster than me reading through those 94 stimulating thoughts.  


One of the comments that resonated with me was Carol Goodey’s, “For me, fluency means that they don’t have to think. They don’t consciously think about which article they need or how to form the tense they want. They just speak and convey their message, and whatever ‘errors’ they make don’t get in the way.” I could relate to this more because that’s what I notice myself doing (or not doing 🤓) when I am involved in a ‘fluent’ conversation with my in-laws in Thai. 


I also enjoyed reading Eion Higgins’ comment, where he highlights the etymology of the word ‘fluent’, which comes from the Latin ‘fluentem’, from the verb ‘fluere’ meaning “to flow”. In other words, a ‘fluent’ speaker’s speech ‘flows’.  


Going back to the complication of quantifying ‘fluency’, Scott in his response to one of the comments, simplified it well when he highlighted Chambers 1997 research summary suggesting that the significant factors determining ‘fluency’ are: 


  • the frequency of pauses rather than the length
  • the length of run (the number of syllables between pauses)
  • the place of the pauses in an utterance
  • the transfer (or not) of pausing pattern from L1 to L2.



However, it was, once again, Scott who brought home the idea of language being a social construct when he responded politely to a rather aggressive comment. Scott wrote,

…, I think I agree that fluency is not some internalised attribute of the mind but is an interpersonal phenomenon, in which mutual familiarity (with each other’s idiomaticity) may play an important part…


To my mind, ‘fluency’ in real-life communication would involve a listener. Hence, I see a strong relationship between fluency and comprehension. From my experience, I could easily gauge if my Thai is ‘flowing’ by observing the strain my in-laws are under while trying to comprehend me. I could crudely quantify ‘fluency’ as ‘the higher the strain on the listener, the lower the speaker’s fluency and vice versa.’


James articulated it better,

Fluency is best measured by the interlocutor’s effort needed to comprehend what is being said; the lesser their effort to comprehend the greater the fluency.” 


He went on to shed further light on Scott’ idea of ‘mutual familiarity’. He believes, and I completely agree, that the relationship between the speaker and the listener would play a significant role. For example, siblings in their communication might come across as extremely fluent to each other than to an outsider or an observer. Ironically, I am much more fluent in Thai while communicating with my in-laws than with my wife 🤣 


Ruthie Iida (another community member) clarified the concept further by comparing speaking fluency with driving fluency,

‘… the ones who move and weave in and out of traffic really skilfully without even trying or look like they are not even trying, that’s like driving fluency…and they are in harmony with the rest of the roads.”

Love the analogy, Ruth. 😎


How do we develop learners’ speaking fluency? 


Coming back to Dörnyei, he categorises fluency under ‘skills learning theory’ and outlines three stages that could lead to the achievement of ‘fluency’.


Interestingly, Dörnyei draws a parallel between the above stages and an infamous methodology. Can you guess which one? PPPerhaps you need a hint. 😜


Here are some of my classroom practices and principles to develop speaking fluency.   


  • engage in small talk at the beginning of a lesson 
  • plan and implement fluency focused activities (avoid correcting grammatical inaccuracies at the end)
  • prime learners by providing a structure for speaking and the essential language required for an activity 
  • provide time for planning 
  • do task repetition (nothing beats this activity in building fluency)
  • take care of affective factors before anything else (an anxious and/or an insecure learner would never be able to speak fluently) 
  • create affordances for intrinsic motivation (autonomy, competence and relatedness)
  • know that fluency comes before accuracy 


The way I see it, a fluent and meaningful speaker is much more desirable than an accurate and dysfluent one; listeners are much more accommodative to the former. 


Just before I end this, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Scott, for the ‘F is for Fluency’ post, and the rest of the contributors to the post, because without them this post would have felt incomplete.



Arnold. J. and Murphey, T. (2013) Meaningful Action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 10: 161-171

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A-Z of ELT; A Dictionary of Terms and Concepts, Macmillian Books for Teachers

Thornbury, S. (2009) Link to the blogpost: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2009/12/17/f-is-for-fluency/

Chambers, F. (1997). What Do We Mean by Fluency? System, 25, 535-544.


Girish M