7 IELTS Fluency Problems (and how to improve them)
Of all of the things I assess on the IELTS Speaking test, the most common problem is fluency.
Fluency is your ability to speak smoothly (not quickly) without noticeable effort or loss of coherence. Poor fluency is normally associated with frequent self-correction, hesitation, pausing or repetition.
In order to help you improve your fluency I will identify the most common reasons for poor fluency and then look at how to improve each of them.
We will also discuss what you can do each day to help you improve your fluency.
Problem # 1- Trying to Speak Too Quickly
As I mentioned above, students with good fluency speak smoothly, not quickly. It is a common misconception that good fluency means very rapid speech.
If you listen to how native English speakers talk, they do not normally speak very quickly. Listen to native speakers on the radio, news or movies and this will give you a good idea about how quickly they speak.
Trying to speak too quickly in any language will cause a loss of coherence because your brain simply can’t keep up with your mouth. Combine this with speaking in a second language under exam conditions and the result is going to be a loss of coherence and lots of mistakes.
Solution– Focus on speaking calmly and smoothly. Listen to native speakers and try to copy their pace of speech.
This will not only help your fluency, but will also give you more time to think of ideas and find the correct grammar and vocabulary.
Problem # 2- Trying to Think of Ideas
Students often complain that they can’t think of ‘good’ or ‘correct’ ideas and this causes their fluency to suffer.
This is often caused by a misunderstanding of what is actually being assessed on the speaking test. If you look at the official marking criteria, you will notice that there is no mention of ‘good’ ideas. As long as you give an answer that is related to the question asked, you will be fine. It is not an ‘ideas’ test or an ‘intelligence’ test, it is a speaking test.
Unlike a maths test, there is no right or wrong answer. Just show the examiner your ability to speak.
Solution– Do not worry so much about the quality of your ideas and focus on the quality of your speaking. Talk to the examiner about what you know about the question being asked. If you know nothing, or very little, about the topic, don’t be afraid to tell the examiner.
This will not be a problem in Part 1 because the questions are all about you, so you will obviously have no problem thinking about ideas for that.
For Part 3, some of the questions will be difficult. You just have to accept this and try to answer them as best you can.
For Part 2, you need to have a structure…..
Problem # 3- Not Having a Structure
This problem is mostly related to Part 2. Students have to talk for up to 2 minutes about a topic given to them by the examiner.
You will be given a cue card before you talk, just like the one below. You are given a general topic to talk about and then there are three or four things that they suggest you should talk about.
The problem here is that many people run out of things to say and then their fluency normally suffers.
This is for two main reasons. Firstly, many people think that they can only talk about the three suggested things on the card. It is difficult to only talk about three small things for 2 minutes. Secondly, most people do not prepare anything else to talk about apart from the three things on the card.
Solution– You must talk about the general topic at the top of the cue card, but you are free to talk about whatever you like within that topic. Therefore, you could:
- Introduce the topic
- Give your opinion about the topic
- Talk about the past, present, future of the topic
- Give a description of the topic
- Tell a personal story about the topic
When you combine these things with the things they suggest you talk about on the cue card, it opens up many more possibilities, allows you to structure your answer during the 1 minute planning time before you speak and ensures that you will have enough to talk about during the two minutes.
For more information about this please check out my Speaking Part 2 Strategy.
For more information about how to structure your Part 3 answers please check out my Part 3 Guide.
Problem # 4- Focusing Too Much on Grammar and Vocabulary
Grammar and vocabulary count towards 50% of your score and they are very important, but thinking about them too much will lower coherence.
If you focus on them too much you will be constantly thinking of the correct language to use and this will lead to lots of hesitation and pausing.
This ‘language first’ approach is often the result of strict school teachers who prioritised grammar and vocabulary over speaking skills.
Solution– Find two part 2 questions. Get something to record yourself like a phone or computer. You are going to record yourself answering the two questions.
Answer the first question focusing on language, making sure you get all the grammar and vocabulary correct.
Answer the second question focusing on fluency and not worrying too much about grammar and vocabulary mistakes.
Which one sounds better? You will make more language errors in the second one, but your overall performance will probably be much better. If you do this exercise on a regular basis, you will soon learn that you should have more confidence in your language ability and realise that fluency is what you really need to work on.
Problem # 5- Not Enough Practice
Many students have great vocabulary and grammar, but they never actually use this language by speaking or writing. This causes huge problems for both pronunciation and fluency, 50% of your score.
Like any skill, speaking requires practice and unless you practice often, you are not going to be able to get one of the higher bands.
The biggest problem for students is not being able to find partners to speak with. However, there are many ways you can do this.
Solution– The first solution is to use the suggestion for problem 4 above.
You can also try to find native English speakers in your own area. If you live in a large city, there are probably lots of online groups of English speakers who want to practice your language with you and you can practice English with them.
There are countless websites that offer language exchanges. You practice your language with them and they practice English with you in exchange.
Finally, there are lots of Facebook groups where IELTS learners practice speaking with one another. Here is a link to my group.
Problem # 6- Trying Not to ‘Umm’ and ‘Ahh’
Many students associate making ‘ummm’, ‘ahh’ and ’emmm’ sounds with poor fluency. If you hesitate frequently and makes these sounds, then it is a problem, but making them sometimes is not only fine, it is totally natural.
Listen to anyone, in any language, and they naturally make these sounds when chatting with someone. The problem is that many students obsess about not making these sounds in their speaking test and the result is they think about them too much and it is totally unnatural to do this when you are speaking. This results in a loss of fluency and it takes up too much of your brain power that would be better used on language and ideas.
Solution– Accept that making these hesitation sounds will happen and they are totally natural and acceptable. If you make them infrequently, don’t worry.
Again, you can record yourself and find out how often you make these sounds. It is probably much less than you think.
Finally, people normally make these hesitations when they are thinking of ideas or searching for language. See the solutions to problems 2 and 4 above and they will become less of a problem.
Problem # 7- Stress
If you are very nervous and stressed out during your test, you are going to be less fluent than normal. Think about someone speaking in public who is very nervous. How is their fluency?
The main reason, I think, that people are nervous during their test is that they are not fully prepared.
Solution– Follow the suggestions above and you will be fully prepared and confident.
For more help with speaking visit my IELTS Speaking page.