Getting a Handle on Fluency at C1

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A big part of being an English teacher is gauging our students’ abilities in relation to what is expected at the level they’re in.  It’s not an easy task by any means, but we do seem, after years of experience, to get a certain feel for it.  But the real trick is actually being able to nail it down a bit more, to point to concrete features of their spoken output that are more reliable measurements of their proficiency.  Let’s take a look at what fluency looks like for our advanced C1 learners.

Often times we might find ourselves saying things like “You know you’re fluent when you dream in English” or “You know you’re fluent when you think in English”, but what does that actually mean?  I don’t know about you, but if I’m giving my advanced students feedback on their speaking I want to point to something a little more specific (and professional sounding) than their dreams.

Indeed, this is very well the kind of discussion you might find yourself in with an advanced student.  The very word “fluency” is one that particularly seems to pop up in descriptors, or “can do” statements at the C1 level (76-85 on the Global Scale of English or GSE).  Take a look at these examples:

Can contribute fluently and naturally to a conversation about a complex or abstract topic. (GSE 79)

Can participate in a fast-paced conversation with fluent speakers. (GSE 80)

Can join a conversation already in progress between fluent speakers on complex topics. (GSE 81)

You might have noticed that this is already looking a lot more concrete.  We see information about the speed or pace of conversations at this level, for example (if we wanted to we could even look at the actual output in words per minute, or how often or how long students pause or hesitate).  It is also important that advanced learners be able to converse on more abstract topics or with a number of speakers at the same time – always more difficult than with a single interlocutor.  But what other things could we look out for?

Learners at this level also use words in a very specific way.  Here’s a descriptor from this level on the GSE:

Can substitute an equivalent term for a word they can’t recall so smoothly that it isn’t noticeable.

So we know that they have a range of synonyms at their disposal which aid them in keeping a conversation going when their memory fails them (something us native speakers need to do fairly often as well!).

And if we look at the concept of “perceived fluency” research tells us that one of the things that makes someone appear more fluent is their ability to use chunks of familiar language and interactive words to lubricate the delivery of the message for the listener.  Compare the following replies to someone asking “So you don’t think it’s a good idea” in relation to buying something:

“Well, the thing is, it just looks a bit pricey to me, you know what I mean?”

VS.

“No, it looks expensive to me.”

With the chunks in the first example delivered quickly the speaker is obviously going to appear much more fluent than if they gave the second response.  Not only is it longer and more complex, showing a range of ready-to-use familiar expressions, but it gives the impression that the speaker is reacting more conscientiously to what the other person has said.

So getting a handle on fluency at C1 really comes down to being familiar with these features and knowing what to look out for.  After that it’s going to a lot easier for both you and your students to determine where their weak points are and what you’ve got to do to work on them.

If you want to learn more about this and other important considerations when teaching advanced students our Teacher Trainers will be giving a talk titled “Making the Grade at C1″ around Spain over the coming months.  You can see Elena Merino deliver it at the School of Modern Languages at the University of Barcelona this Saturday the 28th of January.  Michael Brand will also give this talk at the 10th Conference of the Oficial Language Schools in Spain to be held from March 30th to April 1st in Valencia.

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