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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Speaking and Writing

In his 1975 Report, A Language for Life, Lord Bullock said, "Not enough account is taken of the fundamental differences that exist between speech and writing."

Spoken and written language are obviously different, with different purposes. Written language is permanent: the reader can go back over it again and again if the meaning is not immediately clear. This is not possible with speech, which is fleeting and ephemeral. Writing does not usually involve direct interaction, except for personal letters and perhaps some computer based communication such as e-mail.

Children learn to speak before they learn to read and write. Learning to speak appears to happen naturally within the home, whereas learning to read and write is usually associated with the beginning of formal schooling. Thus, we often assume that written language is more difficult to learn, and we perceive speech as less complex than written language. This is not the case: oral language is just as linguistically complex as written language, but the complexity is of a different kind. The inevitable differences in the structures and use of speech and writing come about because they are produced in very different communicative situations.

The greatest differences between speaking and writing are those between formal written texts and very informal conversation. Because it is permanent, writing provides opportunities for more careful organisation and more complex structures.

Formal spoken language is often preplanned, but most spoken language is spontaneous and rapid and usually involves thinking on the spot. It has simpler constructions and fillers such as um and er. It has repetitions and rephrasing. It has intonation patterns and pauses that convey meaning and also attitudes.

All these oral characteristics help the listener to understand the speech. It is usually much more difficult for listeners to interpret language that is read aloud from a written text, where the language is more dense and lacks the pauses and fillers that give us time to absorb the spoken message. Lectures or talks that are read from a script are usually more difficult to follow than those that are delivered with the speaker looking at the audience and improvising from outline notes.

Some constructions probably occur only in writing.

Henry supposed Sylvia to be unwell.

Likewise, some words and constructions are likely to occur only in spoken English: words like thingamajig and whatchamecallit, and phrases like bla bla bla.

"Our teacher just said - told us there was nouns and verbs and adverbs and bla bla bla - you know ..."

Conversations also contain small words which do not appear in writing. In analysing conversations, we are often surprised to realise how many times words like well or just or oh appear.

The following transcript is of the talk of teenagers playing the board game "Scruples".

C: Do you put them face down - hang on

H: Oh - ha

C: Then we get one ballot card each and you put them aside until the vote is called

V: Oh - sorry

C: Did we decide you were the dealer - yes - we did

V: Oh - that was right

C: Oh it's just that the player to the left of the dealer starts play by becoming the first - asking the player to pose a dilemma

H: Oh - what do I do - oh I take one of these

V: Oh

C: Oh - hang on hang on

Words like oh and well have been assigned a number of names. They can be called discourse markers or conversation markers.

They do not fit into the word classes in The Grammar Toolbox.

She is not well. (well = adjective)

She is well qualified. (well = adverb)

In conversation, "well" appears frequently but not as an adjective or an adverb.

Well what do you think? Well I'm not really sure.

These conversational markers are very hard to translate into another language, and they are difficult to define consistently or analyse structurally. Yet they occur constantly in speech. When second language learners begin to use these markers in speaking English, the fluency of their conversation improves.

Comparing Speaking and Writing

Speaking and writing are different, and each should be seen in its own terms.

In the past, writing was often regarded as the primary medium, and casual speech was seen as a sloppy or incorrect version of the written form. Speech was evaluated as if it were writing.

The basic unit of written language is the sentence.

The basic unit of spoken language is the tone group.

The following two text samples are from the same person and tell about the same incident.

Transcript of a recording:

um, well it was something that happened |

when I was living in Western Samoa |

um, I rented a house |

and, er, my bedroom |

my bedroom was actually separate |

separate from the rest of the house |

and, one night |

um, it was quite late |

I was lying in bed |

I was awake |

and, er, my flatmate |

was away at the airport |

meeting some relatives |

and so I was all alone |

and I started hearing noises |

on the roof |

of my bedroom |

it was a tin roof |

and um, I heard footsteps |

and creaking sounds |

on the the tin |

you know |

and an, another noise |

I couldn’t quite |

tell what it was |

but it but it was something strange |

and I was scared |

really scared |

um, and my problem was |

that I |

I couldn’t |

get to a phone |

without |

unlocking my bedroom door |

walking across the lawn |

unlocking the front door |

and going into the house |

the thought of doing this |

while there was somebody on the roof |

[laughs] er, w-was not very, er |

possible so |

there I am |

lying there |

thinking |

what on earth will I do |

and I finally |

figured that |

probably the person there |

thought there was no one home |

and was just trying to break in |

trying to rob the place |

so I had a brainwave |

[laughs] and immediately the person ran |

across the roof |

and jumped off |

er, and landed on the lawn |

I heard a thud |

um, so then I unlocked the door |

and went across to the house |

and phoned the police |

well they were |

they were there |

really quickly |

I'd say within a couple of minutes |

A written account of the incident by the same person:

When I lived in Western Samoa I shared a rented house with a flatmate.

Late one night when he was away meeting some relatives at the airport, I heard strange noises like footsteps on the tin roof of my bedroom, which was separate from the rest of the house.

In order to get to a phone, I would have had to walk over to the main part of the house and unlock the front door.

I decided against this course of action, switching the light on instead, and this had the desired effect of driving away the intruder, who obviously had been thinking there was no one home.

Whoever it was ran across the roof and jumped off, landing with an audible thud on the lawn before running away.

The police arrived very soon after I had called them.

These two examples clearly illustrate the following differences between speech and writing:

Speech uses tone groups, and a tone group can convey only one idea. Writing uses sentences, and a sentence can contain several ideas.

A fundamental difference between casual speech and writing is that speech is spontaneous whereas writing is planned.

Repetition is usually found in speech. Writing avoids repetition.

Repetition of words and phrases:

27 and 28: scared

34 and 36: unlocking

Repetition of syntactic frames:

34: unlocking my bedroom door

35: walking across the lawn

Written language avoids repetition. Writers try to find synonyms rather than repeating the same words and phrases.

The spoken text gives us an insight into the speaker's thoughts.

24 and 25: I couldn't quite tell what it was.

27: I was scared.

46 and 47: and I finally figured that

In spoken language, we use intensifiers.

27 and 28: and I was scared | really scared

Because spoken language is interactive, direct address is used - "I" and "you".

22: you know

Spoken narrative can use the timeless present, which would be unusual in a written text. It adds to the immediacy of the story.

42, 43, 44: there I am | lying there | thinking

A spoken version usually gives an account of events in the order in which they occurred because this is easier to do.

59 to 64: then I unlocked the door | went across to the house | and phoned the police | and they were there | really quickly |

In the written form, the order of events can be changed.

Sentence (f): The police arrived very soon after I had called them.

The spoken and written versions differ in syntax.

The tone groups in the spoken version are sometimes complete clauses but almost always very simple ones.

2: SVA; 5: SVC; 15: SVO

Often, the tone groups are a mixture of clauses and clause fragments that add more information to the clause.

5: my bedroom was actually separate

6: separate from the rest of the house

In the written form, the information is not presented one idea at a time but in a much more condensed way, incorporating several ideas.

3: I rented a house.

Sentence (a): When I lived in Western Samoa I shared a rented house with a flatmate.

The information in sentence (b) is conveyed by 21 tone groups in the spoken account (7-28).

In the spoken text, there is the possibility of direct speech that would be unusual in a written text.

there I am | lying there | thinking | what on earth will I do. (42-45)

This enables the speaker to gain a powerful effect by using the full possibilities of intonation.

The ability to use complex clauses and embedded phrases and clauses is acquired much later in life. We can use these structures because we have time to plan when we write. When we speak, we do not have time to plan: we structure our discourse as we go along, repeating words and phrases and using the simpler constructions that we learn early in life. In the transcript above, we can see this clearly with the subjects of the clauses. In almost all cases, these are simple: by far the majority are I or it. More complex are my bedroom (4) and my problem (29). The most complicated is: the thought of doing this while there was somebody on the roof. It is interesting that after this, the speaker needs to pause; she laughs and gets in something of a muddle: w-was not very er possible (40, 41).

The two texts illustrate sharp differences between speaking and writing. This narrative may not have been entirely spontaneous because the story had been told before, and this rehearsal could explain some of the complexities in the spoken version. Even so, it is much more fragmented and oriented towards a listener than the written version. The written version is planned, integrated, and primarily oriented towards conveying a message.

Spoken and written language can be seen as the ends of a continuum. Above, we have described features of spontaneous speech and planned writing. Often, however, the distinctions between spoken and written language are not so clear cut. A university lecture, a prepared speech, a sermon might be examples of spoken English, in so far as they are delivered verbally. But because they usually began in a written form, they are likely to be closer to written language than to casual spoken language. Personal letters, diaries, and e-mail correspondences are in the written form but are very likely to contain features of spoken language.

In this section, we have deliberately concentrated on the language of conversation rather than the language of oratory, prepared speeches, debates, or other formal forms. We made this decision for two reasons. One was that some teachers appear to think of the classroom study of oral language almost exclusively in terms of prepared and planned speaking but do not consider spontaneous speech. The second was that teachers probably know very little about the structure of conversation. It is important that conversation be understood, not only because it is the most common use of spoken language in our lives but also so that teachers recognise the important distinctions between speaking and writing. Neither form of language is better than the other: the two forms are different and should each be seen in their own terms.

What do these differences mean for speakers and writers?



have eye contact with the listeners do not usually write with their readers present
point to or refer to things in their environment cannot assume a shared environment with their readers
expect encouragement and co-operation from listeners to produce conversation have to create and sustain their own belief in what they are doing
use intonation, stress, loudness, and body language to help make their meaning clear use graphic cues such as punctuation, paragraphing, bold print, and diagrams to help make their meaning clear
rephrase or repeat when they think their message is not clear take time to think and rethink as they write, often revising and editing their work
know that all their hesitations will be heard by, and acceptable to, the listener. know that the reader will not see any rephrasings and alterations they make to the text in the process of writing.

From Speakers to Writers

When children are learning to write, their starting points are their understanding of the syntax and structure of oral language. The ability to write begins from a sound foundation in oral language. The interrelationships of speech and writing can be seen in writers' acquisition of written language at the "emergent" and "early" stages. Initially, children's oral language greatly outstrips their ability in written language. As children master the mechanics of writing and develop a method of approximating spelling, they are able to put down on paper what they can already say. At the "early" stage of writing, children's writing catches up with their spoken language, and their writing has many of the personal, context-bound qualities of their speech. Students' writing and speech diverge as they become fluent writers. Their writing takes on its own distinctive structures and patterns of organisation. Often, too, fluent writers' speech incorporates some features of their writing.

The popular belief that written language is speech plus the conventions of print underestimates the demonstrable differences between oral and written language. Although oral work is undeniably of great value in students' learning in general, it does not specifically help them acquire the grammatical patterns they need in their writing. The models of written language patterns come from children's reading, and having read to them, good models of written language.

Natural language is often referred to as being important in texts for young learner readers. "Natural language" does not mean writing that reflects the oral language patterns of children: rather, it refers to the use of authentic "book" or written language that uses natural rhythms and conveys real meaning, in contrast to the artificial and meaningless structures that were used in many early reading texts in the past. Compare:

Mrs Delicious got a truck full of flour for the biggest cake in the world. (natural language)

Joy Cowley: The Biggest Cake in the World

(Wellington: Department of Education, 1983)

Go up to my ox. Is she on an ox?

An early reading text

The oral language patterns that are natural to young children are extremely difficult to read, and teachers should not oversimplify the links between written and spoken language. It is essential that students' early reading provides good models of written language. Although the topics and vocabulary reflect children's experiences and interests, the structure of these texts is those of written language and may be unfamiliar to some students. If teachers have an explicit awareness of these differences, they are better able to help students move from the familiarity of spoken language to the unknown forms and functions of written language. The two forms then enrich each other in a two-way process.

It is not only the nature of the spoken and written texts themselves that differs but also the understanding of the relationship between speakers and listeners on the one hand and readers and writers on the other. In discussing the co-operative principle of conversation, we outlined the understandings that listeners and speakers have of conversation. Young children's early writings show that they understand the nature of conversation and that their expectations of readers are similar to those they have of listeners.

We can help children bridge the gap between spoken and written language by keeping in mind the new understandings about texts and audiences that children are developing.

If we look again at Grice's Maxims from the point of view of writers, we can see the shifts in understanding that students need to make.

Maxim of quality

Speakers are expected to tell the truth. They should not say things they know to be false or for which they lack adequate evidence. However, the first written texts we introduce young children to are most likely to be fiction, and we expect children to write fiction. To be imaginative and creative in writing is often highly valued, whereas in conversation it is frowned upon.

Maxim of quantity

Speakers are expected to be brief, giving sufficient but not too much information. In writing, however, young children need to elaborate to make their meaning clear. One of the first things a teacher encourages a beginning writer to do is to add information to their text. This is done in much the same way as in conversation, through questioning the writer and asking for more detail.

Maxim of relation

Speakers' responses are expected to be appropriate and relevant. Much of students' spoken language is in response to something someone else has said.

It is not difficult to see why students, especially beginner writers, have difficulty generating text on their own. Thinking of new topics to talk about, and new and exciting ways of expressing ideas, are not things speakers in conversation need to consider.

Maxim of manner

Speakers' responses are expected to be clear and avoid ambiguities. Information in speech is usually given in a linear or chronological order. Young children do not use complex grammatical constructions in their talk, and therefore these are not present in their writing. It takes time to learn that, in writing, information can be organised in many different ways.

It would be extremely frustrating to hold a conversation with someone who used the strategies often used in writing to build suspense. In spoken language, we encourage speakers to "get to the point", whereas in written narrative, we encourage young children to take time setting the scene.

Challenges for the Learner

Students need to be helped to "think through" what they want to write.

When speaking, children produce oral language in interactive settings. However, when writing, they are learning to produce a text without prompts and responses from the reader.

Students need to be helped to understand that writing is more explicit than speech.

The absence of the reader poses a problem for children, who often have difficulty imagining their audience. Their writing often has the implicitness of speech with much left unsaid, because learner writers assume that their readers bring a shared understanding to the text.

Students need to be helped to become familiar with the structures of written language.

When learning to write, children are faced with learning a new syntactic, semantic, and textual unit - the sentence. Sentences are a feature of writing rather than of speech. In speech, clauses tend to follow each other in a linear way without necessarily having a known end-point. The sentence, on the other hand, needs to be capable of standing alone. It requires planning, and a decision has to be made as to which is to be the main clause and what will be its supporting structures. Understanding and using the concept of a sentence requires more than the ability to use capital letters and full stops.

Learning to write involves learning new ways of thinking. As Gunther Kress has written in Learning to Write, it involves "learning new forms of syntactical and textural structure, new genre, and new ways of relating to unknown addressees".

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009