Fluidity + Accuracy = Fluency

When tutors assess ELL students (English Language Learners)*, we often say he or she is “fluent in a language.” We do not expect fluent ELL students to make structural, grammatical or pronunciation errors. We expect them to be familiar with and know how to use local slang and expressions. Fluency is defined as “the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately”1 by the Oxford Dictionary.

Furthermore, linguists often make a distinction between fluidity and accuracy. To be fluent is to speak with fluidity and accuracy. Fluidity, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is “the ability of a substance to flow easily.” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fluidity) In language, it means that one speaks without many pauses to define words. Accuracy, also defined by the Oxford Dictionary is “quality or state of being correct or precise.” You can speak and write with fluidity and convey information well, but your language can be full of grammar and structural errors. In other words, you may be fluid but not accurate…or vice versa. Some may take a long time to form sentences, mulling the language over in their heads, but when they finally do speak, they speak with accuracy.

To be considered fluent, ELL students must master both fluidity and accuracy.

How BICS and CALPS Aid in Assessing ELL Students

Leading ESL expert, Dr. Jim Cummins, came up with a theory to understand and aid in assessing ELL students’ fluency: BICS and CALP.4 BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) means a student has mastered conversational skills in a target language. For example, you can speak on the phone, order food in a restaurant, introduce yourself and express your basic needs. Often, when a student communicates very well with others, people assume he is fluent in the language. However, everyday language requires fewer cognitive skills when compared to the skills needed for comprehending and producing academic language. CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) describes a person’s ability to use the language in an academic setting. Examples of academic skills include categorizing, analyzing, and evaluating. They go beyond mere memorization.

ELL Student Teaching Setup

How do We Assess our ELL Students’ Fluency in our Online Classrooms?

If we have a half hour or an hour long class, there is a lot we can do to assess ELL students’ fluency. We now know that we cannot measure a student’s fluency because he “sounds fluent” or because the student “has no problem communicating” in English. We must dig deeper to measure a student’s fluency in his second language.

1: Consider the Age and Cognitive Level of the Students.

If we have a classroom of children who span the ages of four to six, we know that we cannot expect them to think abstractly at the same level a fourteen-year-old would…in any language. Therefore, we know to measure fluency based on simple structure and preschool/kindergarten themes for the former.

2: Determine the Learning Objectives of the Lesson.

The vocabulary level and knowledge of grammar and structure vary based on the time exposed to the second language and time earnestly invested in learning the language. If the lesson includes questions that require students to analyze a situation and classify information in a sequence, then we can conclude that the students are expected to be developing their academic language and not just conversational skills.

Obviously, we do not have enough time to assess accuracy rates and fluency rates you often see in reading programs in schools, such as marking the number of incorrect words per minute and multiplying by one number and dividing by another. What we can do though is to informally measure a student’s fluency by concentrating on fluidity and accuracy.

Let’s consider two common sections often found in online courseware or lessons:

  • Vocabulary: Students should correctly identify the words and use each word correctly in a sentence (assuming the students know how to form sentences).
    • You can quantify accuracy levels: Tally how many words are pronounced correctly and used correctly in a sentence. Example: 3/5 words pronounced correctly. 4/5 words identified and used successfully in a sentence. (I find it easy to jot down the numbers next to the names of each student on a piece of paper as they are speaking or writing.)

  • Pictures and Stories: Students should describe what they view in a photo and explain what is happening. After reading a story, students should retell it in their own words.
    • You can quantify accuracy levels: Tally how many words are pronounced properly and how many sentences are structurally correct. This depends on the number of sentences said by the student as well. The more the student says, the more the tutor can assess him. Example: 3/6 sentences correctly describe what is in the picture. 5/6 sentences accurately explain the picture or the reading passage. (The student may be required to rely on his memory if he cannot see the text. Sometimes it is a good idea to cover the text with the annotation tools as students have a tendency to simply re-read the text, word for word, when asked to explain what the text is about.)

It is more challenging to quantify fluidity. However, it is possible. It is an informal assessment based on the following points:

  • Does the student pause to think of a word or how to phrase something?
  • Does the student vary the structure and attempt to use the appropriate verb tense as well as high-frequency words?
  • Does the student successfully convey his meaning: is he comprehensible?

Overall, when assessing fluency among ELL students, first assess the age and approximate expected cognitive levels for their particular age. Then, consider what the lesson asks of the student: review the learning objectives. It would be unfair to determine one’s fluency beyond what they have been exposed to in the target language. If the student can go beyond the learning objectives and fully expand on the material, then his fluency level exceeds what is expected of him.

ELL Students’ Benefit

Many students shy away from producing the language. Perhaps they are fearful of making errors in English. Maybe they are just tired. Encourage your students to speak to their full potential by sharing their progress with them. For example, “Tommy, last week you pronounced six out of eight words correctly. This week, you pronounced all of them correctly. In addition, you formed your sentences so that I understood exactly what you wanted to convey. With the exception of three minor structural errors, your sentences flowed nicely.” Giving concrete numbers means more than “You have improved and are pronouncing your words better.” Combining positive feedback with corrective feedback is useful, too. Tell the student what the three structural errors were and have him repeat them.

Final Note:

Improvement is the key. If a student is below expected fluency levels and is unable to master most of the learning objectives, but he is improving overall, then so is his fluency. Becoming fluent in English is a process, as those of us who teach ESL know, and pointing out exactly how the student is progressing may just be the positive reinforcement he needs to hear.

*Though ELL stands for English Language Learner and it may seem redundant to say ELL students, many times ELLs are referred to as ELL students in the classroom setting.


1 “Fluency | Definition of Fluency in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fluency.

2“Fluidity | Definition of Fluidity in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fluidity.

3 “Accuracy | Definition of Accuracy in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/accuracy.

4 “Getting Started with Language Awareness.” Cambridge Assessment International Education. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.cambridge-community.org.uk/professional-development/gswla/index.html.

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Lela Chavers
Lela Chavers

Great advice, Susan! What a great reminder that improvement is the goal and each student will progress at his/her own pace.