Reconciling Fluency with Form (Alan Marsh)

Opening the Door: The teacher as a human being

(Reconciling Fluency with a Focus on Form)

by Alan Marsh


Having an aim but going with the flow

An important aspect of teacher training courses is the need impressed upon trainees to have clearly defined teaching/learning objectives, often expressed in terms such as By the end of the lesson learners will be able to .. (e.g. use the present perfect to talk about holiday experiences)  or By the end of the lesson learners will have practised (e.g. skim reading for gist and scanning for specific information) At the same time, they are also told of the apparently contradictory importance of giving space to learners to talk about their own lives, experiences and cultures and to ‘go with the flow’ when in class something unplanned and interesting happens which engages everyone. 


But it must be confusing for teachers. On the one hand, they feel the need to have clear lesson aims set out in a lesson plan with clearly-defined procedures which need to be carried out within a clearly defined time frame (usually the time the lesson takes). On the other hand, they are trying to take on board the need to be flexible and versatile and to respond to the ebb and flow of the lesson with their trainer’s cry of ‘teach the learners, not the plan!’ ringing in their ears.



In recent years, therefore, I’ve been looking at ways of reconciling these two clearly-felt needs: how to set up communicative speaking activities which really engage learners in talking about themselves, their lives, beliefs and experiences in ways that are spontaneous and authentic while at the same time having language learning objectives which go beyond sometimes vaguely-defined (and hard-to-evaluate) aims such as promoting speaking fluency.


One difficulty, however, is that once you have an overt, explicit language-learning aim expressed in terms of a lexical or grammatical feature of the language (e.g. using do to ask questions about daily routines in the present simple) and you then set up a communicative, fluency-focused activity (i.e. one with no specific, overt or explicit  grammar or lexis aim), there is the danger that your learners will see the communicative activity merely as an oral controlled practice stage. The end result is likely to be very little spontaneous language use whatsoever.


One solution is to make the communicative speaking activity the focal point of the lesson and for the teacher to input or extract from it a grammatical or lexical (or phonological or discoursal) language point. If the communicative activity (normally an information gap) is intrinsically interesting, this will divert learners’ main attention away from the language point and towards the communicative objective.


Here’s an example (adapted significantly from an original idea in John Hughes’ excellent little book Lessons In Your Rucksack):

Activity: The Years of My Life

1      Review or introduce (i) the formation of past tense questions with did + subject + bare infinitive (e.g. did you go?) (ii) the lexical chunk were you born / was X born? (iii) how to say the year in English e.g. 1999 (nineteen ninety-nine), 2008 (two thousand and eight, 2014 (twenty fourteen)

2      Write on the board five (or more) dates that are personally significant to you (and, in a mixed nationality class, your country). In my own case these might include five of the following

      A. 1952        B. 1960         C. 1964        D. 1972        E. 1978       

     F. 1987        G. 1993 H 1994 I 2004

3. Ask your students to guess the significance of the dates by asking you   questions. However, they can only ask questions beginning with did   ….?    
Otherwise, you won’t answer! And to spice it up, give them a time       limit. The class fire a barrage of questions at you (make sure everyone           hears the questions and the answers). Tick off each date as they guess          it. And if you were wondering …. A. My mum and dad met for the first time (a bit more fun than I was born in ..!) B My football team, Burnley,        won the Football League C Malta     became an independent country D I travelled abroad alone for the first time E I started teaching (so           long ago!) F My first chiId was born G I came to live in Malta H My second  
    child was born I Malta became a member of the EU

      4  Put the learners into small groups to see if they can remember the       significance of each date. If not, they can ask other groups. Then elicit       question words including What … Why …Who …. Where …. When…          How long … How old … etc and write them on the board. In groups,   learners now think of any follow-up questions they want to ask you. Ask      each group to think of at least two questions. Give them a little time for this. You may want to ask them to write the question down, though this          may stifle the activity.

      5  Sit down if you can and answer the questions as honestly as you can.   Avoid short answers – expand and offer more information. Try and     turn it into a chat more than a question-and-answer drill. Allow more   questions if they are spontaneously offered.

      6  Now learners write their own (five?) dates. In small groups they repeat          Stages 3, 4 (where they ask spontaneous follow-up questions) and 5.        Make sure that plenty of time is given to Stage 5, as this is now the         communicative fluency stage and can become quite interesting for       learners – especially if they come from different countries. In recent      classes, as well as exchanging fascinating information about their own       cultures, learners have held their colleagues mesmerised with tales of   revolution (in Eastern Europe), romance, heroism and personal   achievement.

Opening the Door

The activity is intrinsically interesting as many learners are curious to know facts about their teacher’s private life. Indeed, they are sometimes amazed that we have hobbies, interests, children i.e. that we’re human beings at all! Needless to say, they are also eager to know more about their fellow-learners’ lives when they repeat the activity in small groups.

Because they are sometimes so eager to crack the dates puzzle in Stage 3, they sometimes forget to use did .. and will be reminded when the teacher refuses to answer. Already, learners are more interested in the real objective (cracking the dates puzzle) than in language practice.

Another issue that is worth pointing out is that by ‘opening the door’ and allowing learners into our lives beyond the classroom in this way, we are modelling the activity for the learners in stage 5, where we talk about ourselves quite openly (really useful ‘live listening’ practice, too). If we are ready to share facts about our private lives, then learners are in some way given tacit approval to talk about themselves too. The amount of (controlled) intimacy offered by the teacher is nearly always reflected in what the learners then share. However, this activity achieves its best results only when the teacher has developed a rapport with the class and when the learners have developed one amongst themselves. Interestingly, the activity itself (and others like it) also contributes significantly to the development of such a rapport.

The activity clearly has a language practice aspect (the rapid-fire did questions) but in reality this is mainly a preparation for the follow-up communicative speaking fluency stage, where learners ask and talk openly about their own and their countries’ histories, experiences and achievements. Objectives relating to both accuracy and fluency are achieved, and the meaningful exchanges that result contribute considerably to a richer learning environment.