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In this article, I will describe an activity that many English teachers use to improve fluency in their students’ spoken English. It’s a fun activity that you would usually do with a partner, called The 4-3-2 Exercise.
But I want to change things up and see how you can use this activity as an independent English learner.
We’re going to work on fluency
Before I explain what the 4-3-2 activity is, let’s take a moment to talk about fluency.
Many activities for English learners are designed to improve accuracy or vocabulary. There are not many activities designed to help fluency, which makes the 4-3-2 activity a bit special.
By fluency, I mean the ability to talk at a natural speed without pauses (“um…”, “er…” and so on) and without stopping to think about vocabulary. Since most English learners speak slower than native speakers, this means learning to speak a bit faster!
What is the 4-3-2 exercise?
I want to first explain how the exercise is used in an English class before looking at how to adapt it to self-study.
It goes like this:
- The teacher splits the class into two groups. Each group is given a topic and told to prepare a short speech on it.
- After several minutes of preparation, each student is given a partner from the other group. They give a four-minute speech on their topic while their partner just listens. Then, the partner gives their speech.
- The students change partners and give the same speech again. Only this time, they have only three minutes.
- The students change partners once again and give the same speech a third time. This time, they have to give the speech in two minutes.
- Students reflect on the task, and think about their performance.
How does this technique work?
During the first presentation, learners pause more to think about what they are going to say. They speak more slowly as they think of the right word or phrase to use.
During the second presentation, learners already know WHAT to say, so they can focus more on HOW to say it. We expect less hesitation and improved vocabulary.
During the third presentation, there is increased pressure to speed up. Learners are generally able to speak FASTER (according to research) while continuing to improve their phrasing and even accuracy. Researchers found fewer pauses, too.
In short, their fluency has improved!
How can you make the 4-3-2 technique work for YOU?
You’ll notice from my description that this exercise requires a group of at least six learners, three in each group.
But you may also have noticed that the basic part of the exercise - practising a talk three times - could be done without the help of any partners. A smart and self-motivated learner can definitely make this technique work, even without a partner.
Doing it solo
The reason for reducing the time and providing a listener is to add pressure. Some people perform better under pressure and this is what the exercise is about.
Why change partners? The reason for changing partners is so that you are not tempted to add new information to the talk each time. Since you are trying to make the talk shorter, this would be a bad idea!
Keep these two things in mind when doing the exercise by yourself. Use a timer and use it strictly, to add pressure. Record yourself, so you can be your own ‘partner’. Avoid the temptation to add new information each time.
And although this exercise can help with vocabulary and accuracy, remember that fluency is the name of the game.
To add a little more pressure and make it more meaningful, ask a friend or teacher to listen to the recording and rate your performance.
Did you notice that the exercise prepares you to give a two-minute talk on a specified topic, just like the second part of the IELTS speaking test?
In fact, this exercise is perfect practice for the IELTS speaking test. And IELTS practice websites are full of sample topics that you can use (even if you’re not planning to take the test). Here’s an example:
Describe something that is very valuable to you.
- What it is
- Where you obtained it
- Why it is so valuable
You will have to talk about this topic for one to two minutes.
You can make some notes to help you if you wish.
Record yourself giving this talk in the 4-3-2 format. You should be able to hear improved fluency in the third version.
For business pitches
Do you use English at work? This exercise is perfect for practising business pitches!
In case you don’t know what a ‘pitch’ is, it’s a short speech where you describe an idea that you have. You might pitch an idea in a meeting or directly to your boss. There is even such a thing as an ‘elevator pitch’.
If you have a great idea that you want to share at work, why not try the 4-3-2 method to practise it? Then, your delivery will be sharper and more to the point, with less hesitation - exactly what bosses like!
What are some alternative ways of using this method?
You can take this basic method and adjust it to your own purposes. Let’s see some examples:
Use a script
To add pressure, the original exercise is done without a script or without even notes. However, it’s your practice and you can do it the way you like!
You could write a four-minute script, practice, then cut it down to a three-minute script, practice, then cut it to two minutes.
If you do this, you will no longer be practising fluency, but you WILL be practising great skills, such as writing and speaking more concisely.
Adjust the timing
The 4-3-2 timing is recommended for intermediate and upper intermediate learners. However, every learner is different.
You could try 5-4-3 (starting with five minutes and reducing to three minutes) or 3-2-1 (starting with three minutes and reducing to one minute). The key thing is that you are pressuring yourself to speak more fluently using time constraints.
Flip the idea
The basic idea of the exercise is to be more concise and cut out unnecessary pauses and information.
But some learners have the opposite issue. They don’t want to practise speaking less, they want to practise speaking MORE! They can give a two-minute talk easily, but struggle to fill four minutes.
In this case, why not flip the concept around? We’ll call this a 2-3-4 exercise. Start by giving a two-minute speech, then add a few more ideas, examples or points to bring it to three minutes. Finally, expand the introduction and conclusion and aim for four minutes.
Practise the 4-3-2 exercise with podcasts
In this blog, we often talk about the benefits of shadowing, repeating a short talk by following just after the speaker. And podcasts are an excellent source of short talks.
The 4-3-2 exercise provides a new way to use podcasts to improve your English fluency.
I suggest the following:
- Choose a podcast from English Learning for Curious Minds. You will find that most podcasts on the site are around 20 minutes in length.
- Listen either with or without the transcript. Take notes if you wish.
- Summarise the podcast in four minutes - be sure to record yourself! Feel free to use words and phrases that you remember from the podcast.
- Repeat the summary with a target of three minutes and finally with a target of two minutes.
If you find that it is difficult to give a four-minute summary, use the ‘flipped’ version of the exercise. That is, begin with a two-minute summary and work your way up to a four-minute summary.
If you feel confident enough, add some commentary of your own to your summary.
For example, the podcast about Oxford and Cambridge talks about how these universities are seen to be so much more important than other universities in the UK. Is this a bad thing? What’s your opinion? Would you like to attend Oxford or Cambridge?
All it takes is some imagination
I find that with many things in life, simple is best, and this certainly applies to the 4-3-2 exercise.
It’s a simple technique that anyone can use to improve their fluency. You can change it and adapt it to your needs, whether you’re getting ready for the IELTS test, prepping a business pitch or just looking for a fun method to improve your English.
All it takes is some imagination.