English Learner Article 57 ways to improve your fluency

Summary: Short and long term solutions for those who want to speak more quickly and smoothly. Also useful for teachers planning classroom fluency practice.

By: |Audience: All|Category: Learning English

One of the top priorities of learners of English around the world is to improve their fluency, by which they usually mean how quickly and/ or “smoothly” they can speak the language, including avoiding pauses. Unfortunately, fluency is one of the most difficult things to improve, particularly without living in an English-speaking country and if you are trying to improve this skills outside class. This article gives over 50 tips that should help learners to speak more fluently, including many things people can do on their own outside the classroom. The advice is divided into things to do while speaking, (just) before speaking, and when trying to “study speaking” to improve your skills. These tips are mainly for language learners themselves, but the suggestions should also be useful for teachers who want to give students advice or bring more development of fluency into their classes.

While speaking

1. Think aloud

If you are thinking “That’s a difficult question”, “I’ve never really thought about that before”, “I’m not sure that I could even explain in my own language” or “I really don’t know what my answer to that question is”, then that is exactly what you should say. Not only does following this tip fill silence, but you’ll often find that by the time you’ve finished saying that initial thought you’ve actually thought of at least some way of answering the question. Similar things that pop into people’s heads and should probably then pop straight out of their mouths include “I was following the question up until…”, “I don’t really know where to start” and “What part of the question should I answer first?”

2. Start speaking, then think about what you are going to say

This is related to thinking aloud above and to learning sentence starters, mentioned below. Phrases which can start lots of sentences and are long enough to give you thinking time include “In my limited experience,…”, “I have generally found that,…”, “From my point of view,…”, “I don’t have any strong views about this one way or the other, but…”, “Off the top of my head,…”, “My initial answer would be…” and “The first thing that springs to mind is…”

3. Fill silence

This is related to the two things above but is a much easier thing to keep in mind – fill all silence with something or the other, even it is just sounds like “um” and “err”,  extending some words while you think of others (“It was kiiiiiiind of aaaaa…”), echoing back the question or statement that you are responding to, or commenting on it before you make your own contribution (“That’s a difficult/ an unusual/ an interesting question”, etc).

4. Send the turn back

This is really only an emergency measure that could interfere with developing your fluency if you use it too much, but one way of avoiding uncomfortable silences is to ask something to the other person to give yourself time to think of what you want to say. The most natural way of doing this is to check the meaning of their question or previous statement with questions like “I’m not sure what… means”. This can be done fairly naturally even if you do understand what they want from you if you use questions to double check like “Do you mean…(or…)?”, “Are you asking me…?”, “Just to double check,…” and “So, if I understand you correctly you want to know…” As long as you don’t use it too much, you can also get people to answer their question before you have to, with questions “Can you give me an example of what you mean?” and “How would you answer that question?” There are also a few common answers that naturally send the turn straight back like “Doesn’t everyone?” and “Do you really need to ask?”

5. Use words from your language, then explain them

A lot of people get stuck when they think of a word in their own language which they can’t (quickly) translate into English. The easiest way around this is to mention the word in your own language and then explain it using phrases like “I don’t know how to say it in English but in my language we say ‘….’, which means something like…” and “There is an expression in my language ‘…’ which is something like…”

6. Use vague language

Native speakers often give themselves thinking time by saying things like “something like”, “or something like that”, “I suppose”, etc, even when in fact they are fairly or very sure about what they are saying. Other useful phrases to do this with include “I guess”, “more or less”, “You could say”, “I’d probably say” and “or so I’d imagine”. You can also use vague language like “thing” and “stuff” when you could get stuck on a word that you don’t understand, and there are more colourful versions of these like “thingy”, “thingamabob”, “thingamajig” and “whatsit”. You can also do the same for people’s names with phrases like “Whatshisname”, “that guy” and “you know the guy”.

7. Give provisional answers

One way to prompt yourself to speak before thinking too much is to always remember that you can change your mind later. Useful phrases when this might be the case include “Off the top of my head,…”, “The first thing that springs to mind is…”, “As far as I remember,…”, “I’ll check if this is really true but…” and “I’ve got the actual information elsewhere but…” These are useful sentence starters for filling silence and getting you speaking even when you aren’t likely to change your mind, but if you do you can add phrases like “Wait a minute” and “Come to think of it”.

8. Really prioritise fluency while speaking

It’s incredibly difficult to improve fluency and other things at the same time, so if you really want to improve how quickly and smoothly you speak, you have to put other things on the backburner. This particularly means not concentrating on accuracy, be that accurate grammar, perfect pronunciation, getting the level of politeness exactly right, or saying exactly what you mean to say. With the exception of the kinds of language that are mentioned as useful in this article like sentences starters and vague language, you will also need to (temporarily) forget about using more complex language and things you’ve just learnt and have been desperate to try out, instead trying to use language you already know well to explain more or less what you want to say.

9. Accept other weaknesses

This is another way of putting the point above. If you are going to speak more smoothly than usual, it will inevitably lead to grammar mistakes, more L1 interference in your pronunciation, less complex vocabulary, etc, so just accept that and work on those another time when they become your priorities.  

10. Use the language you know to say what you can

… rather than trying to explain exactly the ideas in your head. At the most extreme level this can include agreeing when you really have the opposite opinion just because agreeing is easier or saying “It’s something like an English bungalow” when you know it isn’t that much like it at all (if a more accurate description doesn’t really matter).

11. Spit out pre-constructed chunks of language

This can be an example of the tip above – saying whole phrases or sentences that you’ve used many times before like “I envy you” and “That’s a real shame”, even if they don’t exactly match what you’d ideally like to say.

12. Avoid the trickiest things

If speaking quickly with few pauses is your main aim, there are all kinds of difficult things which are just best avoided in your speech such as jokes, parables and untranslatable concepts.

13. Rephrase

Sometimes the two parts of fluency (speaking smoothly and avoiding silence) can contradict each other, with filling silence while you think about what you are going to say necessarily meaning breaking the smooth flow of your spoken ideas. For example, native speakers often repeat themselves while they sort out the next thing they are going to say. While native speakers do actually repeat the same words, it is obviously better to rephrase instead, saying things like “It’s a kind of school, a sort of educational facility” etc while you think of what you next want to say next.

14. Push yourself (but not too much)

If you want to develop your fluency in both the short and long term, it is worth forcing yourself to speak a little quicker, more continuously and quicker off the mark than usual. However, putting too much pressure on yourself can have the opposite effect, distracting you from thinking of what you are going to say, making you stressed and/ or taking away your confidence.

15. Use contractions

Using “I’m” instead of “I am” and “must’ve” rather than “must have” sounds more natural and should hopefully also help with thinking of those things as fixed expressions rather than things that need to be put together word by word, therefore perhaps producing them more quickly and naturally.  

16. Feel free to go off track

This is obviously something native speakers do all the time, often using perhaps the most useful pair of phrases in the English language – “by the way” to go off topic and “anyway” to get back on topic. “That reminds me…” and “Where was I?/ Where were we?/ What was I saying?” plus “Oh, yes” are also useful.

17. Twist the question

Going off topic can also be a conscious tactic, twisting what you are asked so that you end up talking about something easier than what the person you are talking to intended. For example, if they ask “How did you learn English?” you can say “I first started studying English in school, but I didn’t like those lessons very much” and continue on the easier topic of school English lessons. You obviously can’t use this tactic too much or in speaking exams!

18. Answer the easiest bit first

This is another way of responding to difficult questions such as “When and where did you meet your wife/ husband?” There is no need to answer in that order, so just talk about whichever part seems easiest to answer. You can also do something similar with single questions. For example, if they ask you “How did you get here today?” you can first of all give a basic summary like “I came by bicycle, train and bus” and then you can give more details about where you swapped between them etc.

19. Steer the conversation towards an easier topic

Useful phrases for this include “Moving on from that,…”, “Changing the topic a little,…”, “By the way,…”, “That reminds me a little of…” and “For some reason, that makes me think of…”.

20. Be realistic about how fluent you can be

Although it’s usually worth pushing yourself to fill silences etc, if you get stressed about your lack of fluency it can have the opposite effect. Native speakers pause, give up on a train of thought, change their minds halfway through a sentence, repeat themselves, correct themselves, go back to something they forgot to say, explain something in a disorganised way, make grammatical mistakes, or find themselves interrupted halfway through what they were saying. You should therefore should certainly allow yourself to sometimes do the same, particularly if you are the kind of person who often does those things in L1.

21. Don’t try to structure your speaking/ Don’t stick to a plan

An oral answer to a question isn’t (and shouldn’t be) anything like a written essay or even a conference presentation or lecture, so sentence starters like “There are three main arguments against this” are unnecessary. They can also be counterproductive, as it will take some (probably silent) thinking time to decide what you are going to say, plus probably more pausing when you forget what your plan was or realise that you don’t actually have the ideas to say what you promised to. More vague versions like “I can see both points of view” and “There seem to be loads of reasons why it wouldn’t work” can be useful, as long as you don’t feel you have to list all of those things once you start going into the details.

22. Feel free to go back

It is quite natural for native speakers to say “I forgot to mention…”, “Before I go on,…”, “To go back to… for a minute” and “…, which brings me back to…”, so feel free to do the same.  

23. Clearly mark the end of your turn

As well as when you are speaking, silences can also occur when you’ve said all you want to say. Clues that should make the other person realise that you are done (and with most native speakers make them speak with little or no silence in between) include the intonation of your voice going down, tag questions (“…,isn’t it?” etc), eye contact, and body language (even clearly gesturing towards them).

24. Dramatic pauses/ Waiting for a reaction

There are some kinds of pauses which don’t come across as a lack of fluency at all, such as “and you’ll never guess what happened then (pause)” and “and when I opened the door I couldn’t believe my eyes (pause)”. If you have a drink you can sip at that point, that makes the silence even more natural and dramatic.

25. Slow down and speed up

There are plenty of times in a conversation where it is perfectly natural to speak slowly, such as emphasising something in expressions like “Oh… my… god!”, and you can use these naturally slow parts to think about what you will say next.

26. Stretch words out

Although real fluency might seem like producing lots of words, it is often more natural to stretch out fewer words, especially when that has communicative function, as “I beliiiiiiiiieve…” (expressing doubt) and “You whaaaaaaaaaaat?” (expressing shock). This also gives you thinking time, hopefully helping you to speak more fluently afterwards. Other words which sounds as natural or more natural when stretched out include “Weeeeeell”, “Reeeeeeeally?” and “Iiiiiiiiii seeeeeeeeee”.

27. Use confident body language

Even if you are on the phone, sitting up straight and smiling can really help with your confidence and so your fluency. If you are face to face, make sure you also keep eye contact and it will also probably get the same positive body language from the person you are speaking to, making you feel more confident and so setting off a positive feedback loop.

 

Before you need to speak

This section is about specific preparation for the few minutes, hours or days before times when you know you will have to speak in English. More general practice and language to become more fluent is dealt with in the last section of this article.

28. Rehearse

The obvious thing to do before having to speak in English is to practise speaking, keeping the questions, topics etc as close as possible to those which are likely to come up. If you have someone to practise with, you can keep on topic by giving your conversation partner a list of questions and/ or topics to include. You could also take the other role first to give your conversation partner some idea of what you need to practise, for example interviewing them as they pretend to be you and then switching roles so you can answer the same questions. 

If you don’t have a place to rehearse conversations out loud before having them, it can also help to just think about exactly what people might say to you and how you could reply. In fact, even native speakers do this, especially before stressful situations like job interviews and presentations (especially Q&A sessions). Rather than thinking a lot about one part of the future conversation, it’s generally best to imagine the whole thing all the way through in real time as if you were acting it out, as this most closely resembles fluent speech. You can then replay the whole conversation in your head if you feel that would be useful, perhaps after looking up some words and expressions you could have used.

However you organise your preparation, you should generally avoid stopping and using a dictionary, instead practising talking around words you don’t know (a vital skill also mentioned in the sections above and below). If there are any words or expressions which are absolutely vital to know, look them up after you have practised the whole conversation and then practise the same situation again.

Just before speaking or when it is likely to be especially stressful for you to think too much about it, you might want to avoid actual rehearsal and choose one of the two tips below instead.

29. Warm up

Particularly before something stressful like a presentation, speaking exam or job interview in English, it is well worth spending some time earlier the same day speaking in English in order to “switch your English brain on”. It is generally best at such times to avoid the topics etc that your next speaking in English will include, and instead have as light and easy a chat as you can. If you don’t have a teacher or conversation exchange partner to do this together with, there is no reason a friend who you usually speak to in L1 can’t just chat to you in English for the ten to thirty minutes you probably need to wake your “English brain” up – particularly as you are the one who should spend most of that time speaking. Any longer than 30 minutes will probably tire you out and so not improve your future fluency.

If it is absolutely impossible for you to talk to someone in English as a warm up, the other options are to speak to yourself (again about easy everyday topics), listen to something (again light, easy and fun – and without concentrating too much on it), or read something (light, easy, fun and reading very quickly just for pleasure). If you’d feel crazy having a conversation with yourself, prepare some easy questions about easy topics (e.g. from Cambridge First Certificate Part One) to read out and then answer, or just play act a conversation in your head.

30. Relax

Stress can be one of the great enemies of fluency, so if you know you have to speak English and are worried about how quickly and smoothly you will be able to speak, often the best thing to do is just to relax yourself. One small glass of beer or wine is a classic solution, but you might prefer listening to music, doing some exercise, etc.

31. Improve your confidence

Tips are given below on the longer term goal on improving your confidence while speaking, but it is also possible to do something to improve your feeling of confidence just before for the next time you have to speak English. Possibilities include getting your hair cut, having your nails done, doing something such as a sport which you do well, and dressing smartly.

 

Studying to improve your fluency

This section gives ideas for a longer-term strategy for generally improving your spoken fluency. It includes a mix of things you can do on your own and things you need a conversation partner such as a teacher for. Despite the title of this section, many of the tips focus more on improving your confidence and practising fluent speech (or things close to it) than on actual study.

32. Use fixed conversation formats

The awkward pauses in the middle of communication can sometimes occur between the two speakers rather than during one person’s turn, and once uncomfortable silences enter the conversation it can be the end of smooth speaking for both parties. One way round this is to try to respond to most questions from the person you are speaking with an “answer, add to your answer, ask a question back” format. It can help a little to keep this in the back of your mind as a possible tactic while you speak, but it is more useful to actually try speaking that way as a kind of practice.

33. Stick to the easiest topics

To boost your confidence and get used to speaking fluently in English, it is often best to choose easy topics to speak on for fluency practice. Everyday conversational topics like hobbies and movies are good, and you can stick to just questions in present tenses and Past Simple if you also want to keep the grammar simple.

34. Choose an easy class or textbook

Choosing easy things to get into the habit of speaking fluently and boost how confident you feel doing so can also be extended to all you do in class, perhaps including choosing a course one level below what your level check might suggest. Although some teachers and schools have quite strictly decided levels, many will be happy to be flexible if you explain that you want to focus on fluency and confidence because you mainly have problems with those two things.

35. Do something difficult then relax

The opposite approach to choosing easy topics, materials and classes can also work. If you try something really tricky, a more normal level of difficulty should come as such as relief that it should suddenly seem easy, boosting at least your confidence and hopefully your fluency too.

36. Practise typical topics

Doing lots of speaking practice on talking about everyday topics like hobbies, work and holidays can also help prepare you for talking about just those topics in real life. Brainstorming a whole list of things you might realistically have to speak about such as “describing my company” and “explaining Japanese food” then practising those topics should help even more to prepare you for future conversations that is likely to improve your fluency when the time comes. For example, if you are going to study abroad the people you meet are likely to ask you about your other travels, other languages you speak, your previous studies, your reasons for studying abroad, what your parents think about it, etc.

37. Stay up to date

Perhaps the most difficult topics to prepare yourself for are current affairs ones such as the world economy, so if you think people might start chatting on news-related topics you will need to make sure you know what is going on in your country, their country and perhaps even the whole world. As well as reading and (preferably) listening to the news in English, it is worth practising talking about any news stories you follow, even if it is on your own. To add the randomness and replying quickly of real conversations, you can choose topics at random by opening a newspaper on any page or pointing at the front page of an internet news service with your eyes closed. This will also help practise the realistic and useful skill of talking about topics you know little about.

38. Prepare your answers to probable questions

You can also go beyond just preparing to talk about topics by finding or brainstorming actual questions you might be asked like “What are you working on at the moment?” and “What kind of music do you like?” then practising answering them. You can make this more realistic by getting someone to ask the questions to you in the order they decide, or at least choosing questions at random by slamming your finger down on the page.

39. Practise replying quickly

To help eliminate the uncomfortable pauses between two people speaking, one approach is to use the CD with a phrasebook and reply to all the things you hear as quickly as you can, even if it is with an “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” or “Do you mean…?” You can do something similar with more conversational topics by making a pack of cards with one question or statement on each, responding to it orally as quickly as you can after you pick each card. Although it’s not as realistic, the same thing can also be done silently in your head.

40. Practise talking your way around words

With a conversation partner you can practise this with something I call the Definitions Game, which basically consists of explaining what a word means without saying the word (or any variation on it) until the person listening guesses what is being described. For example, if the word is “table top” you could say “You put your books on it to study and dinner on it to eat. It’s flat and often made of wood”, making sure you don’t say “table”, “top”, “topped”, etc.

You can do something similar on your own with your list of words to learn. As you look at each word and try to remember its meaning, instead of giving a translation or just registering that you know it, explain in full what you understand it to mean (out loud or in your head) as if you were talking to someone who didn’t know the word. This also avoids translation when studying, an important tip which is mentioned below.

41. Choose topics you feel passionate about

When practising speaking on your own or with a partner, one good way to get used to speaking at length with few pauses is to choose topics that you are likely to get so into that you forget about the difficulties you have with the topic. As well as your (obsessive) interests or hobbies, political topics you actually care about can sometimes be surprisingly easy to speak about.

42. Train yourself to think and speak at the same time

You can do this with a slight variation on the activities suggested elsewhere in this article in which you choose a question to answer or topic to speak about at random. Instead of waiting until you stop speaking before choosing another, as soon as you start speaking turn over another card or put your finger randomly down somewhere else on your worksheet to choose the next question or topic. Try to think about what you could say on that thing while you are speaking about the present one, switching whenever you feel ready to do so with no pause between the two at all.

You can also do more complex and fun practice of this skill by doing maths puzzles with part of your brain while you continue talking about a totally unrelated topic, writing something like an address down while you speak about something else, etc.

43. Train yourself to think in English

The easiest way of doing this is simply to do it, meaning having a stream of English going through your brain as you walk to the station, tidy up your room, do the weekly shopping, etc.

44. Learn vague language

As mentioned above, phrases like “some kind of…”, “more or less” and “or something like that” can be great ways of giving yourself thinking time, so it’s worth spending some time working on this kind of language. As native speakers use it a lot, the first stage should probably be listening to some natural dialogues and picking out that phrases you could use. You could then write a dialogue with such phrases included or take a more unrealistic textbook dialogue and add these kinds of phrases to them.

45. Really prioritise fluency when studying

As well as prioritising fluency while speaking, if you really want to improve this part of your speaking you’ll also need to really put this part of your speaking first when it comes to your preparation. That could include telling a teacher or conversation partner to give you more time to speak and less (or even no) correction.

46. Learn sentence starters and longer stretches of language

Sentence starters like “In my limited experience” and “If you ask me” are great for speaking first while you are thinking of what you want to say. They can be found in phrasebooks and other self-study guides to conversational English. You can learn them by having a list in front of you as you doing oral practice, trying to slip them into the conversation. You can also do something similar on your own by choosing a topic and trying to use them to talk or write about it. The actual phrases can be learnt in similar ways to other functional language or vocabulary, e.g. seeing if you can remember the whole phrase from the first couple of words or a key word, seeing if you can remember corrections of wrong versions, or seeing if you can remember the complete versions of gapped phrases.

47. Read quickly

I’ve not seen this recommended anywhere else, but I found that reading as quickly as possible to be a good way of speeding up my thinking in another language. The most important thing is not to stop to use a dictionary and to work on accepting words, phrases and even whole sentences you don’t understand. If you also want to improve your actual reading comprehension, then you can read again more carefully later.

48. Write quickly

Writing which is fairly similar to speaking includes writing a diary in English and online chat.

49. Lots of revision

Fluency will obviously mainly depend of producing the language you know well quickly and smoothly, so it’s worth spending more time on reinforcing stuff you already know if fluency if your main aim. As well as a system for learning vocabulary and functional language (testing your ability to recall it in English after having learnt to understand it), you could try reading and listening to the same thing over and over (or at least the same writer or series), and redoing the same writing and speaking tasks.

50. Stop translating

Many people believe it is not possible for adults to really stop translating in their heads (instead suggesting that you just need to follow the other tips here like translating longer and longer chunks of language), but you can certainly stop translating during your own study. That includes switching to a monolingual dictionary and using gapped sentences, English synonyms etc rather than translations on your list of language to learn.

51. Arrange more opportunities to speak

People who already have plenty of opportunities to speak English but still don’t find their fluency improving should probably focus more on the tips about actual studying which are given in this article, but for others arranging more time actually speaking in English is probably the most important thing. As well as conversation-based classes (current affairs classes, telling your one-to-one teacher that you mainly want opportunities to talk, etc), good opportunities to get some speaking time in include study groups and conversation exchanges.

52. Speak on your own

Ways of getting the chance to speak even when you don’t have someone to do with include answering (recorded or written) questions out loud, talking about topics for at least a minute or two, roleplaying both sides of conversations and everyday transactions (at the post office etc), describing everything you are doing out loud, and replaying real English conversations you have previously had. Some people like to do this in front of a mirror or picture of someone to add a feeling of a conversation to this, though I personally find having to look at my own reflection distracting! It really is best to do this out loud, but if that would disturb people or make them feel that you are crazy, then you can also rehearse in the same way in your head.

53. Build up your confidence speaking

Things that can boost your confidence and so make you more prepared to speak less nervously next time you get the chance include practising speaking about the same topic over and over until you feel ready, talking about simple everyday topics, and talking about topics you know a lot about. Things to avoid if you really want to improve your confidence include too much correction, too much work on pronunciation, and definitely recording your own voice!

54. Get used to speaking fluently

Just like being in the habit of doing exercise and checking if you’ve locked the door when you leave the house, nothing helps speaking fluently quite as much as being in the habit of doing so. Tips to get accustomed to speaking quickly with few silences are mainly the same as those for building up your confidence above, plus those about extended speaking below.

55. Extended speaking

One of the best ways of getting used to speaking a lot is doing exactly that, and that should also sometimes include speaking a lot each time your turn comes round. This can be quite unnatural in answer to actual questions, so instead yourself or your conversational partner should point at a topic that you should speak for at least a minute about.

56. Listen for how someone is improving their fluency

This tip, suggested above for vague language, can be extended to listening for people extending sounds, filling silence with noises, repeating themselves, starting sentences and then pausing halfway through, starting to say one thing and changing their minds, etc. Many lower level language learning books and even movies have less of this than natural conversations, so higher level textbooks and natural recorded conversations on YouTube etc are probably better sources.

57. Be realistic

This is more of a mental attitude than a practical tip, but when you are preparing to speak in English it’s always worth having achievable aims – you can always adjust them upwards later if you do surprise yourself! For example, if you are quite a hesitant speaker in your own language it is quite unlikely that you will be more fluent in English than you are in L1 (although it does happen sometimes that people change personality in L2).

Copyright © 2014

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com