Skilled? Literate? Fluent?

I have written about 21st Century Skills, Literacies and Fluency before. I listed a definition and differences between being literate and fluent.

Fluency is defined by Free Dictionary as:

Ability to express oneself readily and effortlessly

The term is usually used in a language context, but I like how it was used at the 21st Century Fluency Project:

The 21st Century Fluencies are not about technical prowess, they are critical thinking skills, and they are essential to living in this multimedia world. We call them fluencies for a reason. To be literate means to have knowledge or competence. To be fluent is something a little more, it is to demonstrate mastery and to do so unconsciously and smoothly.

Wes Fryer blogged about a presentation by Ian Jukes of the same title and described the difference between literacy and fluency:

– when you are literate, you still have to think about what you are going to do next
– fluencies are unconscious skills, you just know what to do next

I am continuing to be intrigued by the relationship between illiteracy, literacy and fluency.

  • How do we define each stage? What are its characteristics and milestones?
  • How does each stage look like at the end of 2010?
  • How does one progress from one stage to another?
  • What happens to the ones who do not move forward and stay illiterate?

As I am asking myself these questions I am reminded of the stages one goes through as you learn a foreign language. From being illiterate as you are not able to read nor write in the new language to becoming literate and (hopefully) fluent in speaking and interacting with other speakers of that same language. As I am exploring the analogy, I am asking myself:

  • What does it mean to be fluent in a language?
  • What is the difference between being able to read and write a language and being able to speak it? Are you fluent if you can speak but not read or write?
  • Are you considered fluent if you know “a lot of vocabulary words”, but are not able to put them in the grammatically correct order?
  • Are you fluent, if you can participate in a rehearsed conversation: “How are you?”, “Fine and you?”, “Good, how is your family?”, etc.
  • Do you speak fluently, if you need to translate in your mind before you are able to form and utter a sentence?

Language Fluency

I was reminded of a story, I had heard at a TPRS workshop for Word Language teachers years ago. The story by Jack Engelhard titled “His French Comes our Greek” (.doc) describes well what fluency means. It is quite humorous too.

Speaking up and down versus sideways

An American, with High School French education, travels to French Canada and is surprised when native speakers do not understand his “conjugated” French. Although he knows the words and even the grammar rules of conjugating (speaking up and down) , he is incapable of making himself understood nor understand (communicating with) the natives (who speak sideways).

The analogy lies in the fact that learning or teaching tools, such as Skype, PowerPoint, Twitter, wikis, blogs or VoiceThread, will not make the user capable of knowing when it is appropriate to use each one of these tools nor will they be used unconsciously. When every step of using a tool or program becomes an effort (formatting, recording, dragging & dropping, editing, saving, inserting, posting, etc.) or when obstacles become insurmountable stumbling blocks then the objective of expressing oneself or communicating has not been achieved. The tools become the vocabulary words one needs to know in order to be able to start forming sentences. If you are at a “loss of words”or stutter, conversation stalls or becomes cumbersome. Standalone words are not considered a language. We just use them in order to create meaning.

Once you have mastered vocabulary and grammatical rules you might be able to read and write in the new language which gives you basic literacy…but are you able to fluently speak the language? Grammar rules tell you where to place a word inside a phrase and how to “format” it in the right tense, conjugate for the right person, but will you be able to speak without having to translate from your native language? Will it feel intuitive, smooth and fluid to express yourself, communicate and connect to others in more ways than just “using the same words”?

Language connects more than words and phrases

Should we not strive to learn 21st Century skills by using tools (vocabulary words) in order to become skilled? From possessing skills should we not push further in order to become (basic, information, media, network, globally) literate (stringing words together according to grammatical rules to form sentences and eventually to create meaning)?

As we immerse ourselves in the culture of others who communicate as we do (speak the same language) would we then not, by osmosis become fluent (speaking without translating or hesitations, smooth and unconscious of grammatical rules)? Being fluent means that the language will “just sound right” to your ears. It will just sound right to contact and skype in an expert to help your students learn about a specific subject. It will just feel right to use Google Docs (or whatever tool)  in order to collaborate intuitively. Fluency will come when you just know what to do next, when you don’t have to think about your next step or how you used to do it before.

I am interested in other analogies for 21st Century Fluency. It was natural for me to make the connection to speaking a language fluently. What connections are you making?