TESOL Teaching Skills: Differences Between Speaking and Writing

Teaching writing skills and teaching speaking skillsIf you are teaching writing, especially for learners with academic goals, it can be very helpful to explore some of the differences between spoken and written language with your class.  Although misunderstandings in spoken communication can be negotiated and overcome, even small inaccuracies in written language can present barriers to effective communication.  This need for grammatical and lexical accuracy is one reason why most L2 learners find academic writing to be the most difficult skill to learn.

Negotiating Meaning – Teaching Writing vs Speaking Skills

Besides the opportunity to negotiate misunderstandings, speaking differs from writing in many other important ways.  For example, natural speech is full of hesitations, paralanguage, and fillers (uhuh, ummm..), and we often speak in sentence fragments and phrases, not full sentences (A: “Why do you recycle?” B: “Because I don’t want to throw away so much.”)  In more formal writing contexts, it is not acceptable to write Because I don’t want to throw away so much. Most beginning writing students, including native speakers, tend to write as they speak, and will produce sentence fragments in their writing.  Writing students need to realize that in most cases writing is not reciprocal, and it is non-negotiable.  That is, once they hand in their final assignment, all of their message must be communicated through their words and sentences on the paper.  They cannot go along with the reader to negotiate meaning if there is any misunderstanding.

Accuracy – Teaching Writing vs Teaching Speaking Skills

Raising awareness of this difference and others can help your writing students learn to value accuracy of form in their own writing.  Here are a few more points to consider.  In general:

–       writing is planned; speaking is spontaneous

–       writing is concise; speaking is full of repetitions and redundancies

–       the meaning of speech is always context dependent; the meaning of written language does not change with social context

–       speaking is supported by other communicative input such as tone and gestures

–       speaking is produced in informal vocabulary, including contractions

Suggested reading:

Teaching Speaking Skills: Using Debates in the ESL Classroom

Teaching Writing Skills: How Did You Learn to Write?


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