Fostering fluency in second language learning

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Project title Fostering fluency in second language learning:

Testing two types of instruction

PI De Jong (postdoc)
Co-PI Perfetti (faculty)
Others with > 160 hours Claire Siskin
Study start dates September 2006, January 2007, February 2007
Study end dates November 2006, February 2007, March 2007
Learnlab ESL
Number of participants 120
Total Participant Hours 320 hours
Datashop? Expected date 8/15


Many studies have investigated the effect of exposure to language on fluency. It has been established, for instance, that fluency increases after a period of immersion or study abroad (Freed et al., 2004; Segalowitz & Freed, 2004). Nevertheless, only very few types of instruction have been designed to increase oral fluency, and even fewer have been tested.

One such type of instruction is Nation’s 4/3/2 procedure, in which learners prepare a four-minute talk and repeat it twice to different partners, first in three minutes, then in two minutes (Nation, 1989). He found that the number of hesitations decreased in the retellings, and that sentences were more complex. It was not investigated, however, whether this transferred to new speeches, which is what we will do in this project. Another task that may increase fluency is shadowing, in which student talk (and read) along with a recording of a short speech by a native speaker. Shadowing should increase the feature strength of formulaic sequences, resulting in faster access to them in subsequent production tasks. Native-like locations of pauses may also be acquired.

In Study 1 we will investigate what characteristics of fluency are affected by the 4/3/2 procedure. Measures include the number of syllables per second (speech rate); mean length of fluent runs between pauses; phonation/time ratio; number of interphrasal and intraphrasal pauses; morphosyntactic accuracy; and number of embedded clauses (syntactic complexity). The posttest will test transfer to a different topic. In Study 2 we will investigate whether a pretraining of formulaic sequences further enhances fluency (e.g., the point is that, what I’m saying is that, and and so on). If students can use these sequences fast and effortlessly, this frees up headroom which can then be used to construct sentences. The effect will be that there will be fewer and shorter pauses, and/or that sentences will be more complex. In Study 3, it will be investigated whether shadowing leads to increased use of formulaic sequences (chunking) and native-like pauses in subsequent production tasks.


4/3/2 procedure
A teaching method in which students talk about a topic for four minutes. Then they repeat their speech in three minutes, and again in 2 minutes.
Repeating speech while it is being spoken.
Formulaic sequence
A sequence, continuous or discontinuous, of words or other elements, which is, or appears to be, prefabricated (see Wray, 2002, p. 9), e.g., The point is that, What I'm trying to say is that, and Take something like.
Articulation rate
Number of syllables per second
Phonation/time ratio
The percentage of time spent speaking as a percentage proportion to the time taken to produce the speech sample
Morphosyntactic accuracy
In this study we will investigate subject-verb agreement, tense errors, definite/indefinite articles
Syntactic complexity
In this study we will investigate the number of embedded finite and non-finite clauses

Research questions

  • Study 1:
    • a. What characteristics of fluency are affected by repetition of a short speech under increasing time pressure (the 4/3/2 procedure)?
    • b. Does knowledge refinement take place during the 4/3/2 training, in terms of morphosyntactic accuracy and syntactic complexity?
  • Study 2:
    • a. Does pretraining of formulaic sequences lead to an increase in their use in the subsequent 4/3/2 procedure and posttest? If so, does this increase overall fluency?
    • b. Does proficiency level affect fluency development during the 4/3/2 procedure?
  • Study 3:
    • a. What characteristics of fluency are affected by shadowing a text with formulaic sequences and a pausing pattern characteristic of spontaneous speech?
    • b. Does shadowing texts with formulaic sequences lead to an increase in their use in the posttest? If so, does this increase overall fluency?

For studies 2 and 3, questionnaire data will be collected about the students' contact with the second language (English) and their first language, in terms of types of contact (e.g., listening to the radio, talking to friends, talking to strangers) and amount of contact (number of days per week, number of hours per day). We will explore whether these individual differences affect pretest performance and fluency development.

Background and significance

Many studies in the field of second language acquisition that have studied fluency have investigated the effect of study abroad, immersion and regular classroom practice on fluency (Freed, Segalowitz, and Dewey, 2004; Segalowitz & Freed, 2004). Very few studies, however, have investigated specific activities that lead to fluency, which can be done in classrooms. Two such activities are tested in this project.

The first activity that is tested is the 4/3/2 procedure as proposed by Nation (1989). He investigated the development of fluency during this task, but used a limited number of measures and did not test the long-term effect: he only analyzed fluency during the task itself, not during the following weeks. This project will test the long-term effect and will include more measures, such as length and location of pauses. An attempt will be made to link these measures to cognitive mechanisms.

Whereas Study 1 focuses on a general effect of the 4/3/2 procedure on fluency development, Studies 2 and 3 focus on specific aspects of the training. Study 2 investigates how a pretraining of a set of formulaic sequences affects performance during and after the 4/3/2 procedure. Study 3 investigates whether the presence of the same set of formulaic sequences leads to increased use of those sequences in later speaking tasks, and whether such an increase affects fluency measures.

Dependent variables

  • Temporal measures of fluency:
    • Articulation rate: number of syllables per second
    • Pauses:
      • mean length of fluent runs between pauses
      • mean length of pauses
      • phonation/time ratio
      • number of interphrasal and intraphrasal pauses
    • Formulaic sequences: number of appropriate formulaic sequences repeated from training
  • Accuracy: morphosyntactic accuracy (subject-verb agreement, tense errors, definite/indefinite articles; see Mizera, 2006: 71)
  • Complexity: number of embedded finite and non-finite clauses (cf. Nation, 1989)
  • Near transfer, immediate, normal post-test: after completing the last training session, students performed a similar task (spontaneous speech about a given topic), to test whether any gains in fluency during the training task were maintained in a new instance of the same task. This test was given one week and four weeks after the last training session, each time with a different topic. These recordings were made as part of the Recorded Speaking Activities (RSAs) from the project "The self-correction of speech errors (McCormick, O’Neill & Siskin)".

Independent variables

  • Studies 1-3: Pretest vs. immediate posttest vs. long-term retention posttest
  • Study 1: Repetition vs. No Repetition
In the Repetition condition students talk about one topic three times. In the No Repetition condition, students talk about three different topics.
  • Study 2:
    • a. Pretraining vs. no pretraining of formulaic sequences
In the Formulaic Sequences condition, students receive a short training of a number of formulaic sequences before they start the fluency training (4/3/2 task). In the No Formulaic Sequences condition, students do not receive this pretraining, and only do the 4/3/2 task.
  • b. Low intermediate vs. high intermediate proficiency level
Low intermediate students are enrolled in ELI Speaking courses at level 3, high intermediate at level 4.
  • Study 3: Shadowing text with formulaic sequences vs. without formulaic sequences
In the Formulaic Sequences condition, students shadow texts that contain formulaic sequences. In the No Formulaic Sequences condition, students shadow the same texts, from which the formulaic sequences that are being studied have been removed.


  • Study 1: It is hypothesized that repetition of a short speech (independent variable) under increasing time pressure increases articulation rate and sentence complexity (dependent variables), and decreases the number and length of pauses (dependent variables). The reason is that repetition will--temporarily--increase the availability of vocabulary and sentence structures (leading to increase speech rate, short and fewer pauses), leaving more headroom for other processes (higher accuracy and syntactic complexity).
  • Study 2: It is hypothesized that the presence of a pretraining of formulaic sequences (independent variable) leads to an increase in their use in subsequent spontaneous speech (dependent variable). Effortless use of these sequences will free up headroom for sentence structure planning, which may lead to overall more fluent performance, in terms of speed and pausing patterns (dependent variables). Thus, the training of formulaic sequences may accelerate future learning.
  • Study 2: Students at different proficiency levels may benefit in different ways from the 4/3/2 training. At lower proficiency levels, repetition may facilitate the use of particular words and grammar, leading to more instances of correct usage of vocabulary, morphosyntax and syntax. At higher proficiency levels, on the other hand, repetition may lead to a greater number of reformulations resulting in higher complexity.
  • Study 3: It is hypothesized that shadowing a speech that contains formulaic sequences (independent variable) leads to an increase in their use in subsequent spontaneous speech (dependent variable). Since effortless use of these sequences will free up headroom for sentence structure planning, performance may become more fluent overall, in terms of speed and pausing patterns (dependent variables). Thus, shadowing may accelerate future learning. In addition, shadowing a text with target-language pausing patterns is expected to lead to a more native-like pausing pattern in subsequent spontaneous speech, mainly in terms of position (dependent variables: interphrasal and intraphrasal pauses).
  • Near transfer, immediate: In all studies, a posttest is administered about a week after the last training session. This will be a similar task—a 2-minute monologue—with new content—a new topic.
  • Near transfer, retention: In Studies 1 and 2, another posttest is administered two to three weeks after the immediate posttest (three to four weeks after the last training session). Again, this will be a similar task—a 2-minute monologue—with new content—a new topic.
  • Acceleration of future learning: In Study 2, the students in the experimental condition first receive a pretraining of a number of formulaic sequences. It will be tested whether their fluency, accuracy and syntactic complexity increases more during subsequent training, than of students who do not receive this pre-training.


Data collection for Study 1 was completed in November, 2006. Data are currently being collected for Studies 2 and 3 (Spring, 2007).

Preliminary results of Study 1 show that, on the immediate posttest, students in the Repetition condition are able to produce the same length of fluent runs with shorter pauses. Also, they fill relatively more time with speech (increased phonation/time ratio). It seems, therefore, that they speak more fluently than students in the No Repetition condition. However, on the delayed posttest, the No Repetition condition seems to have caught up with the Repetition condition, also having shorter pause lengths, with stable lengths of fluent runs.

Both groups reach a higher articulation rate, measured in syllables per minutes, on the delayed posttest. This may have bee due to their continued Speaking classes in the English Language Institute, and may not have been related to this study.

It should be noted that the posttests were administered one and four weeks after the last session of the fluency training, and involved a new topic, which the students had not talked about during the 4/3/2 training.

  No Repetition (n=10) Repetition (n=9)
  Pretest Immediate Delayed Pretest Immediate Delayed
    Posttest Posttest   Posttest Posttest2
Length of fluent runs (in syllables) 4.26 4.05 4.26 4.26 4.97 4.75
Pause length (in sec.) * 1.12 1.11 .99 1.19 0.95 1.01
Phonation/time ratio * 0.57 0.55 0.56 0.56 0.62 0.60
Syllables per minute 197 194 204 192 191 199

* Significant interaction Condition x Time


This project is part of the Refinement and Fluency cluster. The studies in this cluster concern the design and organization of instructional activities to facilitate the acquisition, refinement, and fluent control of critical knowledge components. The general hypothesis is that the structure of instructional activities affects learning. This project addresses the core issues of task analysis, fluency from basics, in vivo evaluation, and scheduling of practice. The 4/3/2 task has been analysed into its components. In Study 1, the effect of the component of repetition is investigated. Practice with the basic skills of using vocabulary and grammar is expected to increase fluency. This will be the case in the Repetition condition, where students have the opportunity to re-use the words, formulaic sequences and grammar in subsequent recordings. In Study 2, students are encouraged to use formulaic sequences that have been taught before training. In Study 3 it is investigated whether shadowing promotes the use of formulaic sequences in spontaneous speech. All three studies take place in an in vivo setting.

Annotated bibliography

Further information

In June and July 2007, a summer intern will work on the project to do a multiple case study of four to six students from study 1. She will answer the following research questions:

  • Does the absence of the need to generate new semantic content in the two retellings during the 4/3/2 task free up headroom, resulting in changes in fluency, morphosyntactic accuracy, and complexity?
  • If so, what types of changes occur, and what are the causes for these changes?
  • Is there long-term retention of the changes (one week)?

The intern’s project will be a first step towards more in-depth analyses of the data of all three studies in the ESL fluency project.

In May 2007 we will submit a letter of intent proposing follow-up studies that investigate the effect of time pressure and the role of specific knowledge components (vocabulary, grammar) in oral fluency.

Peer-reviewed presentations

De Jong, N., McCormick, D., O'Neill, C., and Bradin Siskin, C., Self-correction and fluency in ESL speaking development. Paper presented at the American Association for Applied Linguistics 2007 Conference in Costa Mesa, California, April 2007.

Other presentations

Presentation of the software component at the Multimedia Showcase sponsored by the Robert Henderson Media Center at the University of Pittsburgh, September 2006


Fluency Summer Intern Project