Achieving conversational fluency

2017-07-03

If you ask students about their ultimate goal in studying English, many of them will probably mention conversational fluency. And indeed, this is a worthy goal, so it makes sense to stop for a moment and determine what it actually implies and how to get there quickly.

Determining your level

It's not uncommon to meet people who complain about some specific problems they encountered while studying English. Interestingly, many of them claim that these problems are absolutely unique and often insoluble. In reality, though, these obstacles are quite typical of B1 (or below) students. For example, students often claim that they:

  • understand 90% of what's written but cannot speak fluently
  • have lots of words in their vocabulary but don't understand native speech
  • cannot produce proper English sentences in writing even after reading a lot of books
Studying

Let's first take a look at first parts of these assumptions. "Understanding 90% of what's written" is extremely subjective and doesn't tell us much about the real level of a student. For the vast majority of people, passive vocabulary is greater than the active one, and there's nothing unusual about that. Having said that, does it mean that a typical intermediate student can answer even half the questions followed a proficiency-level text? Not very likely. Fortunately, it's quite easy to assess your reading comprehension. Just download a sample Reading IELTS paper (for example, from The British Council's website) and get through it. The Reading section consists of 40 questions, which vary in difficulty, and shows (with good enough accuracy) the level of a candidate if it falls within A1-C1 range. The table from the official website says that, for example, "Band 7" (the beginning of С1 in CEFR terms) requires 30 correct answers.

Listening comprehension is yet another skill that is easy to estimate using IELTS samples (for example, from the IDP Australia website). Keep in mind that since the questions are relatively simple, candidates are only allowed to listen to the recording once. And again, answering 30/40 questions correctly grants the C1 level.

Conversational fluency

Surprisingly, estimating the level of the student using the algorithm above usually eliminates all confusion. It often happens that the passive skills of a student fall within the typical range of the intermediate level. This is absolutely normal, therefore, that such a student cannot read unsimplified texts or speak fluently. Previously, we already determined that for reading non-graded books, learners need about 9000 words in their passive vocabulary, which roughly corresponds to C1/C2 levels on the CEFR scale.

It's more difficult, however, to estimate speaking and writing skills. Using answer key doesn't work anymore, but what we can do is look at the guidelines that IELTS examiners are supposed to use. For example, here is what the band description says about band 7.0 candidates:

[The candidate] speaks at length without noticeable effort or loss of coherence...uses vocabulary resource flexibly to discuss a variety of topics

This is basically the definition of conversational fluency. My experience suggests that it actually starts a little earlier and roughly matches the IELTS score of 6.5 (B2). In fact, this level turns out to be so important that is has its own exam - Cambridge First (or FCE). In my view, FCE is the best remedy for pretty much every single problem outlined at the beginning of this post. Here is why:

  • the test itself is very well structured and targets all the skills (reading, listening, speaking, writing) at the same time;
  • unlike IELTS, it contains grammar-related questions and therefore, encourages students to study it more thoroughly;
  • also unlike IELTS, it is often taken for personal reasons, and in this case, acquiring knowledge takes precedence over obtaining the necessary score;
  • candidates who passed FCE with grade A receive a certificate of the C1 level

Not surprisingly, the students who have passed FCE don't have problems with speaking or understanding native speech. Moreover, they usually know almost all grammar topics (except a couple of exotic ones) and their knowledge is very well organized. In fact, FCE can be seen as a threshold that divides language amateurs from professionals.

Conclusions

There is nothing unusual about intermediate students not being able to speak fluently. Conversational fluency only starts at the B2 level, and a great way to reach it is to prepare for and then take FCE. I usually recommend striving for grade "A" because it provides students with additional motivation to eliminate weak points. During the period of exam preparation, the students usually expand their vocabulary by at least 2000 words (from 4-5 to 6-7 thousand words), so it's usually better to assist such an expansion by using spaced-repetition applications such as Anki or Overfluent.

This article is also available in Russian.