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  • Writer's picturelaurawippell

Are your students fluent in English?

“I want to speak like a native speaker.” How many times have you heard this before? Guess what? This is not a desirable goal when it comes to fluency! Because being a “native speaker” and “being fluent” are not the same thing.

It’s time for some May Myth Busters!

Myth Number 1: Fluency means speaking like a native speaker.

Myth Number 2: “Filler words” detract from fluency.

Myth number 3: Fluency means accuracy.

Let’s dive right in.

Myth #1 - Fluency means speaking like a native speaker

The Cambridge dictionary defines a native speaker as “someone who has spoken a particular language since he or she was a baby, and not learned it later” (2023). So guess what? We can’t expect our ESL students to sound like native speakers if they are learning the language now, and not from the time they were a baby!

We are NOT aiming for our students to sound like native speakers. Instead, the English B guide states that “in the context of the language B course, “fluency” refers to how well a student can join up language and structures in order to convey their ideas within the parameters of the language learned.” (IBO, 2019). So what are we aiming for? The use of simple and complex grammatical structures, varied and appropriate vocabulary for the context, and pronunciation and intonation that won’t be perfect, but that ideally enhance communication. (IBO, 2019).

How on earth are you meant to make a judgment on all of those things? By using the rubrics, and ensuring you always moderate assessment tasks. Two sets of eyes are ALWAYS better than one, and you’ll be able to deep dive into the nitty gritty of the language. Here are some great tips on moderation. You can also check out this handy moderation guide from Australia.

At the end of the day, fluency is aiming for students to be able to clearly and effectively communicate their ideas. Simple as that.

Myth Number #2 - “Filler words” detract from fluency

Is anyone else here a fan of Adam Grant? I loved his research-based tweet on “filler words”, or all of those uncomfortable “ahhhhhhhs”, “errrrsssss” and “uummmmmmms” that we tend to hear during presentations. Guess what? They aren’t always negative! Sometimes these words can actually improve the listener’s comprehension! Check out the tweet for more information on the research behind this.

Let me be clear: this doesn’t mean that it’s ok to have your students ummmmming and ahhhing all the way through their speaking activities! But a couple of these ‘filler words’ do not necessarily negatively affect comprehension. In fact, the English B guide states that “Pauses, rephrasing and repetition can all contribute to fluency rather than detracting from it.” (2019) Food for thought!

Myth Number #3 - Fluency means accuracy

Speaking fluently does require some degree of accuracy. So how can we define accuracy? Accuracy is all about the rules of the language. There’s always a right and wrong answer. When it comes to accuracy, think of more ‘drill’ type activities, like filling in the gap and verb conjugation. The thing is, a student could speak 100% accurately, with no mistakes, but not have been effective at getting their message across, perhaps due to lack of other important aspects, such as intonation. So accuracy does not equal fluency. Check out this concise article on the differences between fluency and accuracy, and remember that in our English B or ESL classrooms, it’s all about balance.

So there you have it - May Myths Busted regarding fluency!

What did you think? Are there any other myths out there you’d like to bust? I’d love to read your comments below!


Grant, A. (2023, January 30). It’s a mistake to stop saying “um” and “uh” altogether. Evidence: filler words signal that new information is coming, making [Comment on “Twitter”].

IBO (2019). Language B guide: First assessment 2020

native speaker. (2023).

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