Cambridge Day 2013 – Part 3 – Michael McCarthy

After the morning coffee break, it was Professor McCarthy’s turn to take the stage with his talk “Profiling English – Spoken Fluency and the CEFR“.


The talk started discussing the concept of fluency and its importance to learners and general public, being the only technical term about language learning and acquisition that is shared by teachers, researchers and the everyone else. Fluency is extremely important because it affects speakers lives, whether professional, academical or personal.

Something very interesting is the thought that fluency involves both sides in a conversation.

The Common European Framework was briefly presented, with its different levels and the different performance expected in each level. (for more about the CEFR check our post on the topic: (in Portuguese)

From the definitions in the CEFR for fluency, Professor McCarthy explored the Conventional Criteria for spoken fluency, as follows:

  • Speed of delivery

It is context dependent: For example a lecture has a much lower speed than a friendly conversation which has around 10,000 words per hour.

  • Pauses

Pauses in a fluent conversation are about half a second long and any difference in it may cause some unease on the other person. Pauses should, also, never happen in the middle of chunks of language, or it might change the meaning by adding some extra stress to  the phrase.

Other criteria for fluency include:

  • Dysfluencies
  • Automaticity

To these criteria, McCarthy added some questions:

  • Can the learner use chunks of language accurately and automatically?
  • Can the learner link their turn smoothly to the previous speaker?
  • Can the learner use a repertoire of small interactive words (just, actually, I mean…)?

Finally, he added that fluency also includes the ability to take turns appropriately   in communication and linking your speech to the one of the person you are talking to. This was done in context of the research of Tao(2003) – full reference at the end of the post on what words open a speaker’s turn in a dialogue.

Some of the most common turn openers are words like: yeah, well and right. Words that show a reaction to the speech that has just happened, which helps the conversation to move on.

McCarthy also pointed out that the word “the”, despite being one of the most common in the English Language is not common in the beginning of a turn of speech, unless it is part of a chunk, because it does not create a reaction to what has been said on its own.

For more information about the English Profile he recommended the website, which has several free resources available for download.

For a longer look at this subject you can also check the article Rethinking Spoken Fluency from the magazine ELIA available at


Tao, H. (2003). Turn initiators in spoken English: A corpus-based approach
to interaction and grammar. In P. Leistyna & C. F. Meyer (Eds.).
Corpus Analysis: Language Structure and Language Use (pp.187-
207). Amsterdam: Rodopi.


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