ESL Fluency Activities

ESL Fluency Activities

Fluency, basically, is an ability to perform a language task faster. Helping ESL students improve language fluency is an important challenge for teachers. Of course most ESL students need to read, speak and write with better accuracy; they also need to perform these communication skills with alacrity. The job of the language teacher, then, is to help students progress to the point where mundane aspects of language production become automatic.

Below are three fluency building activities that can help students improve language processing speeds and, if continued over time, make progress toward the broader goal of automaticity.

1. Timed Repeated Writing

Writing fluency is the ability to create text without relying too much on memory (Lenski & Verbruggen, 2010). When the performance of specific tasks (e.g. spelling, punctuating a sentence, or ensuring subject-verb agreement) becomes automatic, ESL students are able to focus attention on idea organisation, paragraph cohesion and better word choices.

The idea is to run a timed repeated writing activity at least once a week. Each session takes about 10 minutes, though the first time it is introduced to the class may require more time to explain the tasks, rationale and outcomes.

  1. Write a word or phrase on the whiteboard related to material recently covered in class (fluency activities rarely incorporate new material, but instead review previous work).
  2. Instruct students to write as much as possible in one minute related to the given word/phrase (deviations welcome). Remind them that quantity is important in this exercise, not quality.
  3. Call time after one minute. Students stop writing, count the number of words and record the number on a recording sheet.
  4. Students scan their text looking for errors; errors are circled.
  5. Students repeat the 60-second writing exercise with the same prompt, errors corrected. At the end of one minute, they count and record the number of words; read again for errors.
  6. Repeat entire process one last time.

Indicators of progress include the number of words written per minute in the first and third iteration.

2. Timed Repeated Reading

This design of this activity is similar to the one above, except that students are reading a familiar text, rather than writing one. They key to this task is the complexity of the reading material: it should not be too hard or too easy. In a large class with limited resources, this might be a challenge.

  1. Tell students they will read a text for one minute. Remind them this is not a test, nor is it part of their grade.
  2. Teacher calls time after 60 seconds. Students count the words read and write the number on a recording sheet.
  3. Students repeat the process by re-reading the same text, counting and recording.
  4. Repeat entire process a third time.

Ideally, this activity should be run once per week in conjunction with an extensive reading program. The main indicator of improvement is an increase over time in reading speed. How to gauge reading speeds? Some observers suggest 150 word per minute (wpm) is slow and 300 wpm is good. However, these numbers can vary based on a wide number of factors.

3. Timed Repeated Speaking

There are a number of speaking fluency activities around the web. The 4-3-2 activity mentioned by Paul Nation is popular, though it can be a little noisy. This activity, developed by my colleague Noel Woodward, is an improvement (I believe) because it works with dialogues from the class textbook, is not quite so noisy and can be completed in about eight minutes.

  1. Break students into pairs.
  2. Find a dialogue which has a running time of about 45 seconds (more than one minute is too difficult for students to remember)
  3. Spread students across the classroom. Ask students to read the dialogue together.
  4. Time the dialogue. This is the baseline.
  5. Ask students to change partners.
  6. Tell students they will repeat the dialogue though they must do it faster than the baseline.
  7. Students repeat the dialogue. Call time 5 seconds before the baseline.
  8. Repeat 3 to 5 more times with students changing partners frequently.
  9. Frequently shorten the speaking time.

An indicator of success is the increasing number of students who are able to finish the dialogue before the baseline. After a few iterations, students may be able to finish the dialogue before the teacher calls time because they memorize the text rather than read it from the book.

Final Thoughts

Finding ways to helps ESL students improve fluency is a part of the language teaching experience. These three examples – writing, reading and speaking – demonstrate that fluency activities do not need to take a lot of time. If integrated into the normal flow of classroom activities and performed over time with a degree of regularity, the benefits for students could be significant.

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The image in this post comes from Paul Bence and its use complies with the owner’s creative commons licensing terms.

6 thoughts on “ESL Fluency Activities”

  1. Hi there, I teach ESL to adults. Just wondering if you could describe the reasoning behind *repeated* timed writing. Is it expected that the students will write the same/similar ideas except improving the grammar/spelling/punctuation with each repetition? Do students tend to be willing to go along with the repetition?


  2. Hi there,

    Good question. In my experience, self correction of grammar errors is a minor and secondary benefit of timed repeated writing. The main benefit for the students is that they write faster.

    How do they do that? By breaking bad habits, for one. Many students write slowly because they take too long to to get the perfect first sentence. Usually, that type of improvement comes from editing. Nobody gets it right the first time. Other habits are too much self correction as they write, rather than completing a complete first draft and then make changes.

    Do students like it? To be sure, most of my students have never experienced this type of writing task … until my class. Writing fluency just isn’t taught much, if at all.

    Like most things with young people, if the teacher explains the reasoning (i.e. here’s the problem and here’s the solution) and the long term benefits for the student, it’s pretty easy to get acceptance and active participation.

    I hope I answered your question well.



  3. Sara,

    That is a good question, but the answer might be long. Basically, in the 4-3-2 exercise, students make up their own story. A 4 minute story. In fact the story does not have to make too much sense. The objective is to get students to speak faster.

    I hope that makes sense.



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