For fluency activities to work, we need to follow some basic principles. When practicing fluency, we are practicing language that we already have studied, that we already know, not language that we don’t know or have just started to learn. The goal: become fluent with known language. Therefore, it’s best to do fluency input activities where students know all the words and grammatical patterns. And when they do output activities, the themes need to be simple enough so that learners can speak about them.
The 4-3-2 Speaking Activity (Meaningful Output & Fluency)
The 4-3-2 activity is an outstanding fluency exercise. Students speak about a topic for 4 minutes. Then they change partners, and speak for 3 minutes. Then they change partners again, and speak for 2 minutes. As a variation, we can do this as a 3-2-1 activity. A key point of this activity, is that the speaker speaks for the full 4-3-2 minutes, while the listener hardly speaks at all, except perhaps to help the speak continue speaking.
In this way, the speaker gets to take 3 long turns about the topic. And research (Nation, 1989) shows that students increase in fluency through the stages, and they decrease in number of false starts and hesitations. There is even some evidence that accuracy improves over the three repetitions.
The 4-3-2 activity is wonderfully algorithmic. Here are the three essential communicative principles: (1) repetition of a real message; (2) a reduction of time for each repetition for increasing fluency, and (3) a change of audience for each version of the message, so the message is new and real for each listener.
We need to remember that all of these principles are essential for the 4-3-2 to work, especially the change of audience, for it allows the speaker to repeat the same message to a new partner. This not only “forces” real communication because the message is new, but it also forces the speaker to repeat the same message, rather than trying to vary the same message for same partner again and again, which allows learners to improve the message.
The hardest part of the 4-3-2 activity is choosing the topic. Here are two that always work. (1) Describe your hometown, the area around your house, the interesting places, the famous places, or the places you like to go. (2) Talk about your typical week. Start on Sunday morning, and tell your partner what you do every day of the week.
Here are some other topics that do not require much preparation from learners.
- Describe your favorite city and its attractions.
- Talk about a place you like to visit on vacation.
- Introduce each of your family members.
- Who are some of your favorite musicians? Why do you like them?
- What is your favorite holiday, and why do you like it?
The second hardest part of the 4-3-2 activity is setting it up. It requires a little bit of complicated pair changes, and it may take a few tries to get it right. I like to do the activity in rows, so that it is easy to move. And after the first set of speakers speak for the full 4+3+2 (or 9 minutes), I like to switch up and have the listeners take their turns. which means that every student gets to speak for a total of 9 minutes each. After a few tries, a class should be able to finish the whole activity in about 25 minutes (including set up).
As mentioned above, with the 4-3-2 activity, the biggest challenge for teacher is to find themes that learners can fluently speak about. Besides the suggested themes listed above, the teacher can suggest a theme from the famous list at iteslj.org, entitled “Conversation Questions for the ESL/EFL Classroom,” which can easily be found through a Google search.
For talks that require a little preparation, students can prepare with a short homework assignment, by answering a few questions, for example:
Chosen Topic: Books and Reading
- What are some of your favorite books?
- What are they about?
- Who wrote them?
- Why do you like them?