Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fluency first: Fluency as a construct

Student weblogging for fluency, skills, and integration

The following was written in preparation for TESOL 2007 in Seattle: Student weblogging for fluency, skills, and integration. Demonstration, Writing IS, CC 3B, Sat. Mar. 24, 10:30-11:15.
It appeared at until 2010 and was restored here in 2011. The homepage for this presentation now is here.

Fluency first: Fluency as a construct

The concept of oral fluency rode a wave of popularity into the perceptual fields of English teachers with the arrival of the communicative revolution in language teaching, and its corresponding "Fluency First" movement, which is still alive and well. That philosophy in its essence told students who had studied grammar and vocabulary for years, that all this stored knowledge would be of no use if they couldn't master the environmental characteristics of face-to-face, oral conversation. In essence it added weight to the teacher's load, since the teacher now had to prepare the student to go out into the world, and survive various face-to-face encounters, getting what they wanted, getting more input, and in general succeeding in their new environment with their new language and new skills. Oral fluency was thus defined in terms of various abilities: the ability to respond appropriately in the oral environment, the ability to get and keep the floor in a discussion; the ability to speak smoothly (as opposed to quickly, or even accurately), thus holding the attention of the listener; the ability to use alternate ways to express an idea, thus communicating effectively in spite of any number of other handicaps. It was pointed out, correctly, that some learners were surprisingly fluent in many ways, while still weak in traditional skills such as grammar, vocabulary, reading or listening (or, at least weak in performance of the traditional tests that measured such things); other learners found the face-to-face sensitivity the hardest part of mastering a language.

Not surprisingly, when fluency was actually quantified and measured, it posed some difficulties for raters; the first was that fluency scores varied widely from tape-recorded tests to live interviews, and in fact had to be almost entirely redefined when one couldn't see the face of the testee. This discrepancy pointed out the variation in interpretations of fluency, depending on environment, and proved to be a precursor of what is to come. The central problem is this: the introduction of technology has forced communicators to master a variety of media, many of which are new, and require skills that have not been developed, and for which people have no models.

Our students will have to master not only face-to-face interaction and small scratchy cassette recorders (not to mention the phone*); but also a redefined kind of fluency that will be interpreted in terms of new environments that they will be expected to communicates smoothly in. Their world will demand fluency in a number of environments, but the oral one may not be prominent, first, or most important as can be considered today.

Writing fluency

Before I argue for the range of fluencies that my presentation will introduce, namely, mastery of the technological media that our students will need in the future, I want to say that in my day job I'm a writing teacher, and frequently a Reading/listening teacher, or a grammar teacher, and my concerns are primarily those of any and every other esl/efl teacher in that position. Basic writing fluency means the same thing to me as it would to any other writing teacher; I want my students to put together meaningful sentences readily and easily, and have them easily understood by most of the people in their environment at any moment.

I define writing fluency in these terms: A high-level writer, when asked to produce a paragraph, essay, or anything else, should be able to sit down, either with pen and paper or at a computer, and be comfortable writing meaningful, understandable English in a reasonable period of time. I'm not talking about refinement here, or organization, or styles of argument. I'm referring more to comfort with the medium of communication, comfort with one's own voice and ability to communicate, and ability to use the medium effectively, in a given standard time frame.

In spite of the joy you'll see in my defining of new kinds of fluencies (below), I want to say that this basic kind of writing fluency is most important to me; I have seen, more and more, higher-level students who are virtually paralyzed by simple writing assignments, and I've reached the point where I compare this to the new driver who is on the highway before he/she really has a feel for brakes and gears of a car. By all means, Fluency First. Don't raise the pressure, enumerate the requirements, or refine the expectations until there is at least some reassurance of this kind of fluency.

Other fluencies explored

It has always been assumed in linguistics that the oral language preceded the written language (historically, it no doubt did); that dialectical variation was primarily an oral phenomenon, often referred to as accents- and, that though written versions of a language could show dialectical variation, generally the written form of a language, in our case English, could be considered more stable than the spoken forms, more common throughout the nation, so that, for example, we here in Illinois have no trouble reading the New York Times, whereas we might have some trouble, if placed in the middle of New York City to ask someone for directions.

These assumptions about the relationship between aspects of a language will all be coming into question in the coming years. In the world our students are coming into, the written language will be much more fluid, transient, and affected by environment, whereas the spoken form, backed up by worldwide media giants and the movie industry, will be more standardized, more stable. Such innovations as text-messaging, chat, and e-mail have created online environments that will ultimately develop their own written dialects, changing due to their potential isolation and the traffic they carry in terms of communication; spoken English, on the other hand, will be used less, and with greater standardization expected.

The concept of fluency, defined usually in terms of one's ability to communicate smoothly, find alternate ways to express a point or communicate in spite of inevitable barriers, thus maintaining and carrying conversations to their ends and to desirable results, can now, I believe, be safely be applied to other environments, particularly the ones in which people are most likely to meet each other first. That is to say, fluency is much more critical, much more of an issue, with the people we first meet, since those we know and love have more tolerance for our bumbling and mistakes, when they occur. But a person expecting to be well received in different environments must be able to get in the door, and to this end will need various kinds of fluency.

Siemens (2004) made the best first step in beginning to define the changes in learning and adapting that young people will be facing in the future. He stressed, among other things, that being able to find information will be more important in the future than actually storing it; being able to make connections and handle incoming information will be more important than it used to be; that, in essence, technology is rewiring our brains, and we are, in response, developing into the kinds of people that can adjust to large amounts of information and the ability to get at it fairly quickly.

In light of this, the following suggests a number of possible kinds of fluencies or skills that will be useful to some degree to almost all of us. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list.

FIrst, basic keyboard fluency (in English) will require the ability to find any given letter, number, or symbol, without the hunt-and-peck delays that plague low-level typists. Second, a kind of interface fluency is necessary for most online functions; students must know how to log-on, how to open up a browser, how, in the case of weblogs, to distinguish "draft" from "publish"; sometimes these skills involve knowing vocabulary, but other times they simply involve having functioned successfully in similar environments previously. For example, a student my forget his/her password because he/she is unaware of the meaning of the word "password," or rather, just because the skill of having, keeping, and being able to access a password from memory or from wallet-hiding-place is undeveloped. Such students deserve our sympathy, since most of us would be similarly non-fluent, in a computer lab in their native country.

Interface fluency includes a kind of browser fluency, which, in this situation refers to the ability to recognize when one browser, in our case Safari, is having trouble with a certain function, and the situation can only be rectified by access to and understanding of other browsers. Browser fluency is good for web developers, and in general for people who have reason to know the difference between, say, Firefox and Mozilla, and who are able to exploit that knowledge to their benefit. I am not saying that this is a good thing to teach our low level students; it may, however, be a good thing for teachers to be aware of, if not master.

Search fluency is a kind of language fluency in that it includes having a good enough command of vocabulary to pick out the appropriate words for an effective search; it also includes being able to scan the possible choices (from pages and pages of Google listings, for example), and choose ones that will be close to what one is looking for. Similarly, one has to respond when a search is not fruitful: what other words or combinations will work better? Provide more refined choices? The original oral fluency was once defined for me as being able to have several ways to meet a communicative goal: several ways to tell the plumber you've dropped your contacts down the drain, for example. To me, that concept, that of being able to reach one's goal, given the limits of the medium, can be applied to all of these fluencies.

Chat-line fluency or a term similar to it could be applied to the ability to understand and use acronyms and emoticons, but also to the ability to recognize and respond appropriately to different tolerances of chat-speaking and abbreviation. Many of us may have experienced the awareness that a chat environment has different rules from a weblog environment; that one has to get used to each; that chat abbreviation will be useful in some environments, stigmatized in others. The concept of register thus may be understood differently in written and electronic environments than in spoken environments.**

Link fluency or hypertext fluency can be seen as simply the ability to use that third dimension effectively in one's writing. In a place like Wikipedia, it may not hurt to link every single word that could possibly be linked; in a class weblog, this wouldn't be necessary, but a few well-placed links would show much more clearly what a student is talking about, and thus learning how to link weblog entries is a useful skill in this exercise and, I would maintain, for students' future. It so happens that on macs in our era one must still learn some basic html code to do this, but if this is a student's only exposure to html in his/her lifetime, I'll still be proud to provide it.

I should mention, before closing, that these are by no means discrete and separate; such skills and copy/pasting url's in chat environments, for example, can easily fit into several of these fluencies. At the same time, any given one could be seen as consisting of numerous smaller abilities, some discrete, separate from the others, or never learned, much to the detriment of the user. In our program, we have trouble with electronic double-space (not readily apparent on Word for macs); our students who do papers at home on PC's have trouble with the right-justify function which seems to be a default on these computers, but the disabling of which is similarly not readily apparent. Any time computer users have trouble communicating, because of format, appearance, or delivery-mechanism problems, this is a fluency issue.

I think back to the "Fluency First" days of esl/efl, and the beginning of the communicative movement, which basically added things for teachers to teach. It told teachers that students can learn vocabulary and grammatical rules, but it won't do them any good if they don't have any face-to-face communicative skills. These, of course, included all nature of environmental adjustments one had to make when actually using English in a discussion or conversation. And it was slowly realized, and accepted, that successful communication included successful adaptation to, understandng and use of discourse conventions, non-verbal cues, speaking adjustments, hmmms and ahhhs and please repeat thats. The same, I believe, applies to the new environments students are finding themselves in. The usual fluencies that we teachers are used to: being well-spoken in both formal and informal environments, being masters of the one-dimensional written word, may not be enough for our students anymore. As a teacher I see the parallels between the days that I had students with years of grammar instruction yet no ability to produce small-talk in crucial informal environments, and class days now, in which I see students and teachers both, with fairly good general fluency, sometimes in both spoken and written English, but virtually no ability to transfer these skills in an online environment. And, I tell them mostly the same thing: you have a long way to go, before you can consider yourself truly fluent. Our jobs are larger, for we, as leaders, may have to learn some of these fluencies ourselves, before understanding what it is we're teaching.

*A small subset of esl/efl teachers has in fact recognized how important the phone has been in modern life, and has tried to systematically teach students how to handle conversations in which one cannot see the partner's face. This is difficult even for natives, but especially crucial in the modern world, especially in business. There are many parallels between what these phone pioneers did in their classes, and what I do in mine, not the least of which is logistical problems, of getting enough real, live phones to work with at a given time.
**It is in the chat environment that one can see that technology has influenced our concept of fluency the most. Time was always an important element of oral fluency; one had to speak smoothly, without excessive hesitation, in order to maintain conversations, and get more input; it was assumed that in the writing sphere this sense of urgency, as applied to the need to respond appropriately just didn't exist; the written language, even including e-mail, allowed for thought and consideration, even translation or interpretation if necessary, before publishing. Not anymore!


Leverett, T. (2006a, Aug.). This is your class on weblogs. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication.

Leverett, T. (2006b, Aug.). Three ways to integrate weblogging into your writing classes. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication.

Leverett, T. (2006c). Daring to enter the blogosphere. Prog. Admin. IS, Paper, TESOL Convention, Tampa, FL, Mar.

Leverett, T. and Montgomerie, J. (2005). Teaching teachers to use weblogs, Internet Fair, CALL-IS, TESOL 2005, San Antonio, March.

Seimens, G. (2004, Dec.). Connectivism : A learning theory for the digital age. Accessed 3-07.

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