The Power of Fluency (with Paul Nation)

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By Ross Thorburn and TEFL Training Institute. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Paul Nation is one of the world’s leading researchers on and writers on vocabulary, reading and fluency, has written dozens of books and been publishing research on these topics since 1970. Paul is Emeritus Professor in Applied Linguistics at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (LALS) at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand and has taught in Indonesia, Thailand, the United States, Finland and Japan.

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Tracy: Hey everybody. Welcome to our podcast.

Ross Thorburn: Hey everyone. On our podcasts, I think we spent a lot of time talking about speaking, but we haven't ever really directly tackled the idea of fluency.

Tracy: That's true.

Ross: Today we've got, once again, Paul Nation, emeritus professor at the School of Applied Linguistics and Applied Language at Victoria University, New Zealand, to talk to us about fluency and vocabulary and how those two things link together.

Tracy: Paul is one of the world's leading researchers and writers on vocabulary and fluency. We are incredibly lucky to be able to have him on our podcast.

Ross: As usual, we've got three areas that we'll cover in the podcast. Firstly, we will ask Paul why fluency is important. Then secondly...

Tracy: ...how can teachers help students develop fluency, and the third one...

Ross: ...what are some common mistakes that teachers make in teaching vocabulary and helping students become fluent?

Why is fluency important?

Tracy: Hello Paul.

Paul Nation: Hello.

Tracy: How are you doing?

Paul: Good.

Tracy: Before we go onto fluency, let's start off by talking about vocabulary.

Paul: No problem.

Tracy: Why have you dedicated so much of your career to vocabulary and vocabulary research?

Paul: There's a couple of reasons why I focus on it. I guess being important is one of the reasons. The vocabulary knowledge underlies every language use skill, and without vocabulary, you can't do much in the way of listening, speaking, reading or writing.

The other reason I'd probably focus on is that it's been a very poorly researched area in the past. In fact, some of the worst researched areas that I know of in applied linguistics are actually in vocabularies.

Ross: Can you tell us a bit about fluency then? To start off, why is fluency so important?

Paul: One of my favorite stories about that is when I was in Japan. We went on a train. We weren't quite sure whether we were going to the right place or not. I looked around the carriage, and there was a very studious looking young woman there wearing glasses, looking like a student.

I asked her, "Is this the train to Osaka?" She looked at me, and a look of dismay came over her face. She buried her hands in the face. "Oh my goodness, what have I done?" If I caused her to lose face, what's going to happen as a result?

Anyway, someone further down the carriage, a man said, "Yes, Osaka." As the train went along, this woman pulled out a book and started reading it. Being nosy, I dropped my pen on the floor and had a quick look at what the book was.

She was reading a book called "The Macro Economics of Agriculture" in English. I couldn't read a book called The Macro Economics of Agriculture in English, even being a native speaker. When we got off the train, she came up to us and said, "Where are you going?" I bet that she'd been practicing that sentence for the last 20 or 30 minutes before we got to the station.

I said the name. She said, "Follow me." We had a conversation. Here was someone with enormous knowledge of the language and yet not fluent in some of the basic things that she could have quite easily become fluent. It meant that these avenues of use of it were closed off to her.

I think it's important that about a quarter of the time on a course to spend getting fluent in reading, getting fluent in writing, using just the little bit that you know even, but making sure that you can use it.

Ross: Paul, with fluency, I think there's this concept that, for students, they only really become fluent or develop fluency at maybe intermediate or advanced levels. You wouldn't think of a beginner as being fluent. When do you think it's useful for students to start to develop fluency?

Paul: I can't talk about anything nowadays it seems without having to get onto what I call the four strands. The four strands are simply learning through input, learning through output, deliberate learning, and developing fluency.

Each one of those that I call a strand, which in the basic principle is that in a well‑balanced language course there should be roughly equal amount of time spent on each of these four strands at every single level of proficiency.

If you're learning a language for survival, David Crab and I did some research to set up a survival vocabulary for foreign travel, which is about 120 words and phrases, that if you know those, you can do quite a lot in the language.

You can travel around. You can get food. You can find accommodation. You can be polite to people and so on like that. The thing is, you could learn those, but the other thing is you've got to learn them fluently.

That means that you can say them in a way that people will understand. When people reply, you need to be able to interpret what they say at a speed which will make it useful for you. Even then learning, a survival vocabulary, you've got to get fluent and that kind of fluency is quite easy to develop.

You keep getting people to repeat it over and over again to you and get faster and faster and faster. You keep practicing and practicing and doing that. It's very important because a lot of students have quite a lot of knowledge of English, but they don't have the fluency to put it into practice.

How can teachers help students develop fluency?

Tracy: Paul, can you please share some practical activities which teachers can use in the classroom to help their students and develop those skills to be more fluent?

Paul: I've written lots of books, but the one that I liked the most, one that gave me the greatest satisfaction having written it is called, "What Should Every EFL Teacher Know," because of near I sort of wanted after training teachers and teaching English and that for well over 50 years.

I thought if I can sit down, reading all the research, and say in a simple, clear and direct way what do I think EFL teachers should be doing, then there's something wrong with...I haven't spent my life well.

I wrote that book and then as, part of doing it, I sat, and I thought, "Well, what if I had to choose 20 teaching techniques and activities, what would they be? The top ones that people should know."

I came up with a list of those which are in the book. The ones for speaking fluency, one is a very interesting technique called Four, Three, Two, where the students choose an easy topic, and then they sit down with a partner and teacher says, "Go."

For four minutes, they have to talk about that familiar, easy topic. After exactly four minutes, the teacher says, "Stop. Change partners." Then everybody moves onto a new partner.

Then for three minutes, the same people, half of the class have to talk again to their partner saying exactly what they said before to the new partner, but doing it in three minutes. After three minutes, they move onto another partner. Then they have to do it in two minutes. That's a very simple, easy but very effective technique for developing spoken fluency.

Another one would be repeated delivery of a talk, which is a bit like Four, Three, Two because repetition is one of the ways of developing fluency. It's what I call the will beat a path to fluency, that is you keep doing the same thing over and over again until you get good at it.

Another way of developing fluency is a rich and varied map where you do similar things but not exactly the same thing. You change it in some way so that you keep coming at the same stuff, but you're doing it in different ways.

A very useful technique for that is called Linked Schools where people might read about something. Then they might write about the same topic, and they would have to get up and speak about that topic.

Having now read about it, written about it, when they come to speak about it, they can do this speaking with a lot of knowledge and use that speaking as an opportunity to develop fluency in speaking, drawing on that knowledge.

Common mistakes teachers make in teaching vocabulary and helping students become fluent

Ross: I remember, Paul, a few years ago, in fact, I think we did a podcast about this, I remember reading a paper that you wrote that was warning teachers of the danger of teaching vocabulary in lexical or semantic sets.

Can you tell us about some other examples maybe of where you think there's a gap between what research says works with teaching vocabulary and what teachers tend to do for teaching vocabulary?

Paul: The lexical sets was interesting because once again, the research is starting to show that there are sort of niceties to that lexical set idea comparing immediate learning compared with a long‑term retention from it.

There's interesting research which shows that the interference is greater with say, if you learn fruit together. It becomes harder with fruit, which in some ways resemble each other like apples or more like oranges. Then they are like bananas.

You're more likely to get interference between apples and oranges than you are between apples and bananas in terms of the word form and its meaning. That's funny.

I would say that the greatest mistake is one I've mentioned already, which was the idea of vocabulary needs to be taught. I would say another belief that's encouraged by people who haven't read the research is that vocabulary needs to be learned in context.

They often express this negatively in the sense that it's not good to learn vocabulary out of context and the research is quite the opposite. Learning vocabulary out of context is highly effective and highly efficient.

The idea, for example, of using bilingual word cards or bilingual flashcard programs is a very good idea. You'd have this often criticized because it says all the vocab isn't learned in context.

If it's part of a well‑balanced program where there's opportunities for learning from input‑output in fluency development, which are all in context. Then some deliberate learning, using the first language translation, learning the word without any illustrative context around it is very effective and efficient.

Tracy: That one is interesting. I think that's very different to what most teachers believe and what gets taught on most of the teacher training courses.

Paul: Steve Crashing criticized this saying that this learning will not be learning which will be of use when you come to use the language normally. I tackled him on this at a conference one time, and I said, "Does this apply to vocabulary? The idea that deliberate learning doesn't result in the kind of knowledge you need for a normal language used."

He said, "Yes, it applies to vocabulary." I said, "Good." We went away, and we got one of our PhD students working on it. She showed the deliberate decontextualized learning of vocabulary resulted in both implicit knowledge and explicit knowledge.

Implicit knowledge is a kind of knowledge that you need for normal language use, this kind of flash card learning. You can learn enormous amounts in a very short time, but they out very important principles to follow when you do this learning.

These are principles, which have been well‑established by psychological research or research in psychology over the last almost 100 years, or so, involving repetition, spacing of the repetitions, retrieval that means not looking at the word and the meaning together all the time, but having to try and retrieve or recall the meaning that went with the word.

If you can't recall it, you have a look. The idea of spaced retrieval is very important. The idea of varying the order of the words being learned, so you're not learning them in the same serial order or anything like it.

There are simple guidelines for that learning, but they're very important guidelines. If learners are trained in how to do that, training is not a big deal for that, they could learn large amounts in a very short time.

This allows them to make good progress through extensive reading and extensive listening and things like that, because they bring all this background knowledge of decontextualized learning, which now becomes contextualized through their reading and listening.

More from Paul Nation

Ross: Paul, I'll put a link to your University of Victoria web page. Is that a place for people to go if they want to find out more about your work?

Paul: Yeah. The latest thing on the website is the updated vocabulary levels test, which is the most useful test for teachers of English as a foreign language to do, to measure the learners' vocabulary size. Then I wrote a book for learners called "What Do You Need to Know to Learn a Foreign Language?" That's free for download.

Ross: Thanks so much again for taking the time to come and talk to us.

Paul: No problem. Good luck with your work.

Ross: Thanks, Paul.

Paul: Bye everyone.

Tracy: Bye.

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