Is Fluency Achieved in or out of the Classroom?

Jason Levine headshot
Jason R. Levine

I was recently invited along with 33 other English language teachers to offer an opinion on how fluency is achieved. Jason R. Levine, a.k.a. FluencyMC, compiled 34 tips on becoming fluent in English.

Seeing the range of ideas as well as the striking overlap of viewpoints is exciting. In my opinion, the compilation is a starting point for more discussion. With so much value placed on real language and meaningful interaction, one might begin to question the need for a teacher or instructional publications. Is fluency achieved in or out of the classroom?

Obviously, we all believe teachers are a necessary part of the process. Otherwise, we’d each have a different profession! And as we do our job as teachers, we all make use of instructional materials, from textbooks to YT videos. But how much of a contribution does formal instruction make towards developing fluency?

The need for focused study. To varying degrees, all learners are able to pick up patterns from comprehensible input. However, even the most gifted language learners need the chance for practice with feedback. Being understood is one thing; articulating your ideas very clearly is another. In other words, fluency implies a certain amount of accuracy. One might be very functional in a language, but that’s not the same as fluency. Classroom study, be it traditional or virtual, provides a safe, comfortable environment to develop accuracy. A leaner benefits from feedback given from the teacher, even when it’s a classmate being corrected.

The need for confidence. In Jason’s article, Scott Thornbury refers to the relationship between fluency and the impression the speaker creates. Other teachers in the group also mention the role that confidence plays in being fluent. Does that kind of confidence develop only outside the classroom? Based on my observations, I believe that some people are adventurous and self-assured by nature. Mistakes are made and taken in stride. But for many learners there’s hesitation to speak or write due to lack of confidence. As adults, we especially worry about the impression we’re creating. The pressure mounts in a real-life situation: at work, in town, on the phone, or in a mainstream classroom.

The ESL classroom is meant to be a supportive environment in many respects. One of our jobs as teachers is to make our students feel comfortable enough to try. We want communication to flow easily, without fear of mistakes. We know that there are different types of self-esteem, and a person’s self-esteem can drop when they switch into another language or step into a particular situation. A positive classroom experience can help a language learner transfer confidence to real-world situations.

The need for guidance. Ultimately, we want our students to be independent learners. We hope to guide them to a point where they need our instruction less and less. Good study habits can be taught and practiced. This is my final defense of formal instruction. The ESL classroom isn’t an alternative to real-world practice and communication. It should be seen as a bridge. The wonderful thing about that bridge is that it doesn’t have be burned at any point. I’m happy to have advanced speakers of English turn to me with questions about the intricacies of the language. I supply an answer to the best of my ability, and then the learner continues on his or her personal journey.

Fluency is largely achieved through real-world interaction, but language study with a teacher makes that goal all the more achievable.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Changiz says:

    Hi my dear professor , Mrs. Jenifer , l do agree with all of your logical and useful points about learning English language . l am one of your students trough internet . l am grateful to you for your hard working to teach English . my original language is Farsi .

    1. Thank you for visiting this blog. Good luck in your studies. I wish you all the best!

  2. Hi Jennifer! I am working on learning French and certainly can relate to all of the points that you make. For me, having a one-on-one tutor to practice conversation with has been a huge asset to my advancement and it has everything to do with feeling safe and comfortable while practicing speaking! I wish every language class allotted regular practice time one-on-one with teacher and not just at exams (which is a sure fire way to associate conversational practice with fear and high pressure).

    1. Hello! I completely understand and agree with the benefits of a safe, comfortable practice environment. Some teachers are more challenged to provide speaking opportunities because of their numbers. I’ve never handled 30, 50, or more students at one time on a regular basis. Pair work and small group work are certainly options in those situations. One-on-one would be difficult without the help of aides/tutors.

      Good luck with your language studies and thanks for stopping by!

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