Updated Apr. 9, 2012
How to Improve Your Fluency
"Fluency" refers to how well your language "flows". When the examiner judges your fluency, he or she is looking at two things: a) How well you can "keep going", i.e., how well you can continue speaking and, b) Whether your speaking speed is natural.
'Speaking continuously' means not stopping for unnaturally long periods of time. Of course, when people speak even in their native languages, they sometimes pause to think and this is quite natural for you to do in the Speaking test.
There are several factors that determine how well you speak continuously. Let's look at each factor.
Remember that the test is supposed to represent two people, of more or less equal status, communicating in spoken English. The test is not a very formal situation. If you think the test is quite formal, or if you think the examiner is greatly superior to you in status or if you think the test is only testing your grammatical accuracy and how impressive your vocabulary is, you won't be very willing to speak freely. Instead, you will tend to give minimum answers to questions.
You should enter the test with a strong willingness to speak freely to the examiner and a strong desire to give information to the examiner and this information includes your personal feelings and opinions – these items are important pieces of information!
You should frequently include your feelings and opinions when you speak, even when the question does not ask for these items. Of course, you should answer the basic questions as well as you can but don't be afraid to include your feelings and opinions as extra information, and you should usually include at least one reason for your feeling or opinion. In other words, you should not be afraid to speak personally.
In addition to the points above, if you are very willing to communicate, you will naturally want to clarify things that you say. In other words, you will want to to say extra things to help the examiner more clearly understand what you mean. As a result, you will quite often use expressions such as, "In other words, ...", "What I mean is, ..." and "For example, ...". You should sometimes use these expressions even when you are quite sure that the examiner clearly knows what you mean! By doing this, you will be keeping the words flowing from your mouth and, at the same time, you will be earning points for the Coherence sub-score by showing your skill in using these expressions.
If you have a lot of trouble making a sentence (i.e., your grammar is weak), you will obviously not be able to speak very fluently. The grammar sub-score that the examiner gives you is assessing your grammatical knowledge but if your grammar is poor, this will also affect your fluency score. The best idea is to train yourself in sentence-making in the weeks and months before your test, (that is, build up your habits of sentence making) and then, when you are doing the test, don't worry too much about whether your grammar is correct or not in the test. Instead, you should just try to speak automatically, concentrating on communicating your ideas and trusting in the habits of sentence making that you have developed and practiced in the months before the test. This does not mean you should not worry about your grammar at all in the test – just don't focus too much on it because this will slow you down too much.
As with your grammar, if you have a poor vocabulary you will be stopping too much to search for words and this will affect your fluency. Candidates who don't understand that the IELTS Speaking tests is a communication test tend to be slow in their sentence-making because they are afraid to show that they don't know or have forgotten a certain word. Even native speakers of any language momentarily forget a word sometimes but it is unnatural to be silent for a long period while you search for the correct word in your memory.
If you can't think of the exact word that you want, you should still try to keep the words flowing from your mouth by using such words and expressions as, "Umm .... let me see ...", "Well, it's something like ....", " it's similar to ...", "... it looks like ...", "... it's used for ..." etc. Again, having a strong desire to communicate your meaning even when your vocabulary fails you will drive you to keep trying to express your meaning.
This skill, of expressing a meaning when you don't know the exact word, will actually get you points in the vocabulary sub-score. The reason why this skill is so important is that when you go overseas you will definitely find yourself in situations where you don't know the exact word for something and you will need to try to communicate your meaning. For example, you might want to buy a computer mouse but you don't know the word, "mouse" – in this situation you will have to explain what it is or describe it so the salesperson knows what you mean.
You should practice this skill of describing things, including abstract concepts, without actually saying the exact word for that thing or concept.
- If you get a question where you can't think of many (or any) ideas or you have no knowledge about the topic, you should still try to keep the words flowing! What can you say? You could first state the fact that you have no ideas or knowledge and then follow that by trying to explain why or how this is the case or you could follow by saying what you do know about the topic. And don't forget that it is acceptable to tell lies, especially in Part 2. This situation is a perfect example of a suitable time to state your feelings or opinions about something, even when the original question was asking for information.
- Many candidates lose fluency points in Part 2 because they simply can't think of something to say quickly enough. A good way to avoid unnatural silences in Part 2 and in all parts of the Speaking test is to speak your thoughts. For example, in Part 2 you could say things such as, "Let me see ...", "What else can I tell you about old Mr. Wang?", "What else is there?", "What have I forgotten to mention?", "Is there anything I've forgotten to tell you?", "Let me see if I can recall anything else about that trip." etc. Then you follow that with, "Oh yes!" or, "Oh, that's right! (= 对了!) We also bought a few souvenirs just before we came home."
People who think that Part 2 is similar to a written story or a speech will not use any of this natural language. You should understand that Part 2 is just telling a little story in a natural way and, when people tell a little story like that, even when speaking their native language, they sometimes are a little 'untidy' in what they say. This is natural, as long as this untidiness is not extreme and as long as the speaker tries to help the listener follow the story. For example, you might think that you have completed your little story but you also feel that you haven't spoken for long enough and should say more. In this situation, it's perfectly natural to say something like, "Oh, when I told you about old Mr. Wang being very healthy for his age, I forgot to mention that he goes to the park every morning to practice tai ji. He's been doing that every morning since he retired. ...." In other words, it's quite acceptable to go back into your story to add some extra information but you still should let the listener know what part of your story you are going back to.
- You might be asked a question that you think is quite difficult but, if this happens, you should still try to say something almost immediately instead of sitting there silently thinking of an answer. Again, speaking your immediate thoughts is your best strategy. For example, you could say something like, "Wow! That's a really difficult question for somebody my age!" or, "Well, you know, I've had very little experience with young children so I can only make a wild guess here." or, "That's a very good question!" or, "Let me think about that for a second." or, "Give me a second to think about that – it's something I've never thought about before." or, "I can only guess here because I really don't know much about this topic." (See here for more on the topic of "speaking your thoughts")
- Almost everyone is asked one or more Part 3 questions that are quite difficult to answer, perhaps even in your own language! In this case, instead of sitting there silently, one strategy is to repeat the question, (preferably with a slight change of words, if possible) before you even begin to attempt an answer. This will keep the words flowing from your mouth and also give you time to think. For example, if the question is, "How has modern technology changed the workplace, compared to 20 or 30 years ago?", you could start by saying, "Mmm .... How has modern technology changed the workplace ..?". Remember, this is not just a language test but also a test of your communication ability. By repeating the question, you are communicating to the examiner that you are thinking about the question. In a real-life conversation (not an IELTS speaking test), if someone asks you a question and you sit there silently for a few seconds, the other person might not know why you are not saying anything. In that situation, the other person might think you are refusing to answer because the question has made you angry for some reason!
- Sometimes there are questions in Part 3 that seem to be testing your general knowledge rather than your English ability. It's a big mistake to say something like, "I have no idea." and then stop speaking. You should understand that Part 3 questions are meant to be discussion topics, not just questions that require an answer as in Part 1. So, even if you have no idea, you should still try to say something about the topic of the question.
For example: Question – "What's the government doing to help low-income people buy their own homes?" Answer – "I really don't know. You know, I haven't been following this topic in the news. But if I were the government, I'd build many small, simple flats and sell them to the low-income people at a very low price, even sell them at a loss. Maybe these flats could be built far outside the cities, where the land is cheaper and the people could travel into the city using a light-rail system connecting these residential areas to the city." You did not know the answer to the question, a question that seems to be asking for factual information, but you continued talking by offering your own suggestion for solving the problem. This is how people talk when they are discussing a topic. Or you could give an answer such as, "I have no idea but I do agree that it's a serious problem. For example, in Beijing the average new flat costs XXX but the average person only earns YYY per month. So you see, it's almost impossible for the average person to buy one of these new flats." You don't know the answer but you keep talking by adding extra information to the original question.
You should push yourself to speak a little faster in the Speaking test than you would if you were just having a relaxed chat with a foreigner you meet on the subway. This will also allow you to give more information in the test and, in general, the more information you give the examiner, the better the communication.
However, you should not try to speak unnaturally fast, i.e., faster than a native speaker or speak as if the building is on fire! The best way to prepare yourself for this is to occasionally practice speaking fast at home. One excellent way to practice is to mimic the Listening tests in the Cambridge practice tests. When you mimic, don't just mimic the basic pronunciation but try to mimic everything about the way the people in the recordings speak. These recordings are good because the speakers speak at natural speed and the speakers are good actors.
Other ways to (slightly) increase your speed of speaking are:
You will notice that the speakers in the Cambridge Listening tests do these things. There are probably too many small different examples of linked speech for the scope of this website. But you can simply 'absorb' this information and change your habits of speech, quite often without even noticing it, by just mimicking many recordings of native English speakers.
For example, a common error when speaking the word combination, "the next station" is to pronounce the 't' in the word 'next'. Native English speakers don't pronounce the 't' in that word combination when they are speaking at natural speaking speed, (or the 't' is 99% 不发音的). This is because it's difficult to say fast; it slows down the speech. So native speakers 'smooth out' their speech by not pronouncing the 't' in that combination. It's the same in other word combinations such as, "last month", "the first game" etc. The 't' is pronounced if the word 'next', 'last', 'first' etc. is the last word in the sentence. As well as that, when a vowel sound follows those words, the 't' is pronounced but very softly, and the syllable does not begin with the vowel sound but with, 'st'. For example, 'post office' is spoken as 'po-sto-fice, with the word stress on the first syllable. Other examples are: 'the next elephant', 'the last apple' etc.
After you have read and understood all that is written above, you need to put it all into practice. The very best way for you to improve your fluency is to speak with a speaking partner. This is much more interesting and much more effective than just speaking to your bedroom wall.
Don't worry too much about speaking grammatical errors when you chat to a speaking partner – you improve your grammar by doing different activities, such as using 'Side by Side'. When chatting with a speaking partner, concentrate on exchanging information (including your ideas and feelings) rather than speaking grammatically perfect sentences.
Speaking to other people is the activity you should concentrate on for improving your fluency. If you wait until your grammar is near-perfect before you ever use (= practice) your English, you will never improve very much.