6 Ways to Build Fluency in Second Language Writing

What Is Fluency in Writing?

When asked what their goal is in learning a language, many learners say they want to be fluent in both speaking and writing. In everyday discussions, we often think of fluency as a reflection of a writer’s ease and comfort with writing. In second language acquisition research, fluency is often discussed as one of a trio of measures along with accuracy and complexity. These measures are all necessary elements in building writing quality and sophistication.

The standard definition of fluency is the number of words (or clauses or t-units) written in a set period of time, while accuracy considers the number or proportion of error-free units and complexity the number of words per clause. Abdel Latif (2009) argues that simply calculating the ratio of words written to time is not an accurate reflection of what fluency really is, however. The approach ignores the fact that more expert writers have a better understanding of the genre they are writing and genre-appropriate language. Abdel Latif’s (2009) study of Egyptian EFL writers found that the “mean length of translating episode” (p. 549)—in other words, the length of a chunk of text written without pausing—correlated with writers’ linguistic knowledge and text quality.

Researchers have identified a trade-off among fluency, accuracy, and complexity as well, noting that if a writer focuses more on writing accurate (error-free) sentences, they write less fluently.

Why Is Fluency Important?

As teachers, we want to help our students write more fluently for many reasons. Fluency is what allows writers to get their thoughts into text form without forgetting what they want to say next. Fluent writers can accomplish what they need or want to do with written text, whether that is having a text message conversation with a friend in another country or completing a doctoral dissertation. Our purpose, therefore, is to help writers learn to write fluently without getting overly hung up on accuracy. This blog post proposes six ways to support second language writers’ fluency development.

How Can Teachers Support Learners’ Fluency Development?

1. Word Association Games

One challenge for second language writers is coming up with the right word for what they want to say. Word association games make retrieving known words fun while also introducing learners to new but related words. In a classroom setting, students can stand in a circle and toss a ball to each other, calling out words following a set pattern. For example, the pattern could be “fruits and vegetables,” so each student names one fruit or vegetable and tosses the ball to another student.

You can decide on whether to allow repeated words; it gets much harder if students can’t say a word that has already been said! (In an online class, you might use the chat window and call out students’ names instead.) Games4esl describes more fun word association games.

2. Looping

Writers sometimes protest freewriting activities, claiming that they run out of things to say before the time is up. Looping is a freewriting activity that breaks up the process and ensures that writers continue to generate new ideas. Ask intermediate or higher proficiency students to freewrite for 5 minutes (on a set topic or anything they choose), then stop and read what they have written. In that text, they should choose a word or phrase they like and write for another 5 minutes about that word or phrase. Repeat several times, each time reviewing the most recently created text for a new idea.

Alternatively, at each stopping point, writers could pass their texts to another student, who would then find a word or phrase to prompt their own writing. This activity helps writers find a focus for writing and explore related ideas. Writers may be surprised at how much text they can actually upcycle into a more formal paper, too.

3. Academic Chunks

As Abel Latif (2009) found, learning “chunks” and standard phrases used for setting up academic texts can help writers build their fluency. The Academic Phrasebank is a valuable resource for university and graduate student writers to start learning ways to frame their claims and discuss published research. The creators of the Academic Phrasebank point out that these phrases are frequently used across academic writing (e.g., for explaining causality and giving examples), which means that they are not unique to an individual writer (and therefore using them is not plagiarism). In a writing class, teachers can support learners to identify a set of useful phrases that they can use as they summarize published research and report their own findings.

4. Planning Before Writing

Johnson’s (2020) review of the research showed that overwhelmingly, the more writers took the time to plan before starting to write, the more fluent (and accurate and complex) their writing was. This suggests that another way to support writers’ fluency development is to scaffold their planning process before they start writing sentences and paragraphs. Some supports for pretask planning include the preceding brainstorming activities (word associations and looping) but also more formal idea-gathering and organizing activities like using graphic organizers and creating outlines.

5. Writing Blind

Many second language writers become overly concerned with the accuracy of their writing and continually stop to edit and revise text they have just created. There is therefore some benefit in not being able to see what they have just written so that they are not tempted to edit instead of continuing to write.

For writers who have some degree of typing ability beyond “hunt and peck,” computers allow a clever trick to get away from the temptation. Once they’ve opened the document they will be writing in and saved it once (so it won’t get lost if they hit the wrong key), they should turn off or dim the screen and start typing. After a set period of time, they can turn the monitor back on and review what they have created.

6. Rewards or Consequences

Another useful way to push writers to generate text without concern for accuracy is to set up an incentive. A very simple website called Written? Kitten! gives writers a textbox in which to start typing. For every 100 words they write, a photo of a cute kitten (or puppy or bunny) appears. Because there are no editing tools included, this site also reduces the temptation to keep editing grammar or formatting headers.

If writers are more motivated by negative consequences than positive rewards, the site Write or Die! provides a similar simple text box interface, but instead threatens writers who don’t keep typing. Users can choose their punishments, which range from annoying sounds to loss of text (the site will start deleting what they have written if they are idle for too long). I find this approach stressful, but others may find it gives them the necessary kick in the pants to generate text without concern for accuracy.


As the research has shown, fluency alone is not sufficient for successful writing, but in order to polish their writing, writers first need to have something to edit and revise. These suggestions are just a start to helping your students build fluency in their writing.

References

Abdel Latif, M. M. (2009). Toward a new process-based indicator for measuring writing fluency: Evidence from L2 writers’ think-aloud protocols. Canadian Modern Language Review, 65(4), 531–558.

Johnson, M. D. (2020). Planning in L1 and L2 writing: Working memory, process, and product. Language Teaching, 53(4), 433–445. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444820000191

 

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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