What is fluency?

elt fluency fluent reading reading fluency speaking speaking fluency Oct 22, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

Fluency is often associated with the ability to perform a task quickly, smoothly and effortlessly, as Jiang (2016) summarises. However, this aspect of language should not be considered in isolation from other aspects, such as topic familiarity, vocabulary and the context in which the task takes place. For example, a fluent reader of children’s storybooks or graded readers might well struggle with a political science textbook.

A limited view of fluency tends to focus on its mechanical aspects. Approaches that subscribe to this view would encourage repetition to achieve the desired speed and smoothness. For example, learners might be asked to read a text aloud a few times in the hope that they will eventually read the text fluently. This approach neglects the affective aspects of fluency, and also the inherent difficulty of tasks that are too complex for the learner’s stage of language acquisition.

A holistic view

Affect is often neglected in the discussion of fluency. Affect refers to learners’ emotional experiences, such as excitement, stress or confidence, which can influence their performance. For example, learners are likely to be more fluent when they speak to their friends than to examiners. This shows that affect and context are interrelated, and that they play an important role in fluency.

An ability to recognise words rapidly, accurately and automatically is essential for reading fluency (Iwahori, 2008). This ability is, however, influenced by learners’ familiarity with topical words. For example, learners who are familiar with rugby are likely to know technical terms such as box-kick and drop goal, which will be completely unknown to others.

Theory and practice

A holistic understanding of fluency has implications for how teachers respond to learners’ fluency. Teachers should consider affective aspects of learning by creating a safe and non-threatening classroom environment.

In speaking activities, teachers can reduce learners’ stress by allowing them to select their own activity partners rather than those assigned by teachers.

Task repetition can be useful if the goal is to familiarise students with the task, and if this task is within the learners’ capabilities.

In fluency practice activities, ideally, there should be little or no unfamiliar language, content and discourse features (Nation, 2007). It is important that teachers design activities that are achievable and not overly challenging.


Iwahori, Y. (2008). Developing reading fluency: A study of extensive reading in EFL. Reading in a Foreign Language, 20(1), 70-97.

Jiang, X. (2016). The role of oral reading fluency in ESL reading comprehension among learners of different first language backgrounds. The Reading Matrix, 16(2), 227-242.

Nation, P. (2007). The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 2-13.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based Independent Researcher and a Research & Development Consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/bokan