En route to spoken fluency via task repetition – the ‘4, 3, 2 technique’ and ‘Market place’

(this post was co-authored with Dylan Vinales of Garden International School Kuala Lumpur)




In this post I will concern myself with two  fluency-enhancing techniques that I got acquainted with 15 years ago during my MA TEFL through this very useful article by Nation (1989) but I have only started using regularly last year, after reading  de Jong and Perfetti’s (2011) fascinating report on their experimental study which persuaded me of the potential of such techniques.

As I discuss below, these techniques, have not only benefitted my students linguistically by impacting their fluency and aspects of their grammar accuracy, but also affectively, by enhancing their sense of self-confidence as L2-speakers. What I like the most about both techniques is that they require minimum preparation and my Intermediate and Upper Intermediate classes – the only groups I have used it with – truly enjoy it.

I shall first discuss how the techniques work, then concisely present some research evidence which supports their effectiveness as fluency-enhancers and finally explain why they work and you may want to use them in your classroom, especially with more advanced exam classes.

The 4,3,2 technique

How and why it works

The version of this technique, as found in Nation (1983), de Jong and Perfetti (2011) and in the other articles I read differs slightly from mine. Let us start with Nation’s version: the students work in pairs.  They are given a few minutes to prepare a 4-minute talk on a specific event or topic (note: they are not allowed to write anything down). They then deliver the talk to another student in the 4 minutes originally allocated. After that they are asked to deliver the talk to another student in 3 minutes and to another one still after that in 2 minutes. In their experiments, both Nation and de Jong Perfetti (2011) found that this activity enhanced their students performance. Nation (1989) identified the following improvements in his subjects:

  1. FLUENCY. Firstly, there was an increase in the rate of speaking from the first to the third delivery. For example, one of his subjects went from 86 words per minute in the first delivery, to 100 in the second and 127 in the third – an increase of 48 % in total. Secondly, there was a mark decrease in the number of false starts, hesitations and repeated words decreased significantly.
  2. ACCURACY. Nation noticed increases in grammar accuracy in certain aspects during the activity, particularly for errors not involving inflections, where the speaker repeated the same grammatical context.
  3. CONTROL OF CONTENT. The speakers reduced the amount of words from time 1 to time 3 in certain cases by as many as 100 words, but without making important omissions and negatively impacting complexity:

Analysis of the talks showed that in all except one case omission was the major reduction strategy. In most cases the omitted information was not important. In each of these talks two or more changes of construction resulted in increase in complexity. The increase in complexity was the result of embedding a finite or non-finite clause.

de Jong and Perfetti (2011)’s findings were very similar. In addition they identified three very important benefits in terms of fluency for their subjects that were not shown in previous research. Firstly, they found that the beneficial impact of regular practice with the technique was long-lasting. Secondly, they found that the improvements in fluency were transferred to new topics, not simply to the ones under study. Thirdly, they found that it was not merely speed of retrieval of the vocabulary items they used in their speeches that enhanced fluency, but rather automatization in the production of longer chunks of language and sentence structures through repeated use. They concluded that the 4,3,2 technique can promote automaticity.

Why it works

There are several reasons why this technique is so effective, some less obvious than others. The more obvious ones refer to the short terms gains from Time 1 to Time 3. Fluency development is encouraged from time 1 to 2, firstly, at the semantic level, because the students generate the content during the planning time and the first round of talk; so during the second and third round they do not have to think about the content anymore, which means that the planning does not interfere with other aspects of production and more attentional resources can be freed up. This means that more attention can be focused on monitoring the accuracy of the output or on the retrieval of items that could not be retrieved the first time because of cognitive overload. Secondly, whilst time pressure may cause some mistakes, it may also decrease the pauses and hesitations thereby increasing speed of delivery. Thirdly, when the same structure or chunk is used across all three rounds, the technique allows the speaker to monitor and refine its representation at each time; thus, a structure or chunk one might struggle with at time 1, might be refined at time 2 and perfected at time 3.

The reasons why regularly practising this technique has long-term effects which transcend the boundaries of specific topics or contexts are more complex and beyond the scope of this article. It will suffice to say that they refer to the automatization of processing mechanisms which underlie production and are more morphological and syntactic, rather than lexical in nature. To find out more, read here .

How I use it in my lessons

My experience with this technique leads me to concur with Nation and de Jong and Perfetti’s findings and therefore it will remain one of my oral-fluency-enhancing activities of election par excellence. The way I use it, though, is slightly different from the above.

First of all, I put students in groups of three rather than two. Student 1 speaks, Student 2 notes down the main points in the speech and Student 3 is the critical listener charged with giving feedback on specific features I want him/her to pay attention to (e.g. handling of verbs, use of connectives, range of vocab) – normally no more than two sets of features in order not to cause divided attention. The feedback session at the end of each round is brief, around 2 minutes.

Secondly, I usually give students four bullet points such as the following that I used with my students as a prompt two days ago.

Talk to me about

  • a past holiday;
  • a holiday you are planning to go on in the near future;
  • your ideal holiday;
  • what you usually do during the holidays when you don’t travel anywhere.

Thirdly, during the planning time I allow the students to write down notes, ask me questions or use online resources for help.

The rationale for having three students instead of two is : (1) if you have only one student listening and noting down the main points in the speaker’s speech there would be no critical listener to provide him/her with feedback on performance; (2) if you only have one critical listener attending to the content and the linguistic level simultaneously their attention would be divided. Also, rotating the students across all the three roles widens the pedagogic scope of the activity; the hope is that, as they listen, they will notice and possibly learn new linguistic features from their peers’ output. Throughout the activity, the speeches are recorded on iPads. The students will view the recordings at home and do some self-evaluation in their reflective journals.

Some of my more motivated student have found this activity so beneficial that they actually do it at home alone and send me the recordings – a teacher’s dream !

Market place

This technique, too, involves repetition and a change of audience. Differently from the 4,3,2 technique, however, Market place has not been the object of experimental studies. Based as it is on the same principles, though, is it fairly safe to infer that it would benefit students in much the same way.

In Marketplace, the learners are divided into buyers and sellers.  The teacher briefs the sellers as to what they are going to sell and each of them is allocated some time to prepare their own sales talk while the buyers are given receptive practice in the sort of vocabulary they are likely to hear from the sellers. For instance, two weeks ago, I told my students they had to sell a holiday to the South of France; the brief was:

Talk your customers through the following:

  • the accomodation
  • the facilities
  • the activities offered
  • the excursion to nearby towns/resorts
  • the nightlife

Each seller is given a stall (a desk) and the buyers circulate around the marketplace going from seller to seller listening to the sales talks and jotting down on their iPad or book the main points. I usually give a seller a set amount of time so that every round of ‘sales’ ends at the same time. At the end of the activity the buyers will decide on the holiday they will buy explaining in writing– in the target language – why they opted for that specific package.

This activity provides lots of repetition and chances to perfect delivery. The students love it and it requires minimum preparation.

Concluding remarks

There is plenty of research evidence that repeating the same tasks several times enhances fluency. The 4,3,2 techniques and Market place make repetition a bit more fun and the fact that students talk to a different audience each time makes it a little more interesting. The students’ feedback on them has always been positive; they learnt a lot both as listeners and as speakers and, most importanty, it enhanced their can-do attitude or self-efficacy as L2 speakers. I use it mostly with fairly homogeneous intermediate and upper intermediate groups, as I am not sure it would work with mixed ability classes. It works well with my classes because our examination board requires them to converse with the examiner about two topics in five minutes, hence cutting down hesitations and false starts is paramount, as well as speed of delivery. Giving the rationale for the 4,3,2 technique and telling them that there is research evidence that it works definitely helped to get the students to buy into it in the run-up to their oral exams. I strongly recommend both activities if developing your students’ fluency is high on your agenda.

For more on my ideas on improving speaking fluency, get hold of the book I co-authored with Steve Smith ‘The language teacher toolkit’ available on www.amazon.co.uk


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