Update: 2012-11-27 05:09 AM +0630


The Dogma of the Priority of Speech in Language Teaching


Vivian Cook (vivcook@hotmail.com) draft as of March 2001, University of Essex, United Kingdom

Downloaded (011206) and edited by U Kyaw Tun (UKT), M.S. (I.P.S.T., U.S.A.). Not for sale. Prepared for students of TIL Computing and Language Center, Yangon, MYANMAR

UKT: The links to the original paper no longer works today 071115. The Google search with the string "The Dogma of the Priority of Speech in Language Teaching brought up:
Language Teaching Materials for Adult Beginners, by Vivian Cook, http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/Writings/Papers/LanTeachMats.htm (download 071115) -- not the exact content as material in the Mar 2001 paper.

index.htm |Top

Contents of this page
(UKT: the original paper has no TOC (Table of Content or Contents of this page).)

Three Dogmas
01. Speech before Writing
02. Arguments for the importance of speech
03. Nature of writing
04. Place of writing in beginner's course-books
05. Conclusions

UKT note

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The Three Dogmas

The word dogma is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (1994) as:

1. That which is held as an opinion; a belief, principle, tenet; esp. a tenet or doctrine authoritatively laid down by a particular church, sect, or school of thought; sometimes, depreciatingly, an imperious or arrogant declaration of opinion.
2. The body of opinion formulated or authoritatively stated; systematised belief; tenets or principles collectively; doctrinal system.

Most twentieth century language teaching adopted a set of principles derived from the later nineteenth century ‘Great Reform’ in language teaching, as described in Howatt (1984).

One of these principles was that the first language [UKT: L1] should be avoided in the classroom. Cook (2001a) found no convincing justification for this principle and argued that the classroom could be liberated by systematic use of the first language (L1): avoidance of the L1 was more a matter of 'systematised belief' than of objective reality.

A second principle was the avoidance of explicit discussion of grammar, now partially challenged by the focus-on-form element in task-based language teaching (Doughty & Williams, 1998).

A third principle was that the spoken language should take priority over the written language. The present paper examines whether there is indeed a coherent case for teaching on the spoken language or whether this too is a dogma based on 'imperious or arrogant declaration of opinion'.

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01. "Speech before writing"

The importance of speech has been a constant theme in language teaching (Banathy and Sawyer, 1969), forming article 1 of the International Phonetics Association in the 1880s 'Foreign language study should begin with the spoken language of everyday life' (cited in Stern, 1983). In particular the audiolingualism of the 1960s took the first principle of ‘scientific language teaching’ as ‘Speech before writing’ (Lado, 1964). The only twentieth century exception was perhaps the short-lived Direct Reading Method (Coleman, 1929). This is not to say that most teachers, methodologists or course-book writers state publicly that speech is more important than writing. Overt discussion of the spoken bias to language teaching is hard to find, in itself giving rise to suspicions that it is more a matter of covert dogma than of rational argument.

This bias towards speech has not altered with the decline of audiolingualism. The Natural Approach to language teaching emphasises ‘the ability to understand and speak’ (Terrell, Egasse & Andrade, 1990, p.xix). The English curriculum in Cuba insists on 'The principle of the primacy of spoken language' (Cuban Ministry of Education, 1999). Communicative language teaching concentrates on speaking; communicative activities are ‘class-room activities designed to get learners to speak and listen to each other’ (Scrivenor, 1994, p.62). Well-known 'alternative' methods maintain the primacy of speech: the Silent Method starts with the students hearing and saying sentences (Gattegno, 1976); Suggestopedia relies on listening to dialogues (Lozanov, 1978); Community Language Learning gets students to exchange spoken messages, not written notes (Curran, 1976); Total Physical Response (TPR) uses story-telling, not story-reading (Seely & Romijn, 1995). Few people have taken the opposing view that written language should be the basis of second language (L2) teaching, except, perhaps, for Krashen's advocacy of Free Voluntary Reading as a form of comprehensible input (Krashen, 1993). In 1984 Howatt claimed ‘The spoken language for example is promoted with more determination now than at any time since the Reform Movement’ (Howatt, 1984, p.289), which seems as true two decades later. The teaching profession appears to find it obvious that speech takes priority in L2 teaching.

The partiality to speech is implicit within the conventional division of language into four skills, taken for granted since audiolingualism. The main English course Tapestry 1 is for example divided into three books for reading, for writing, and for listening and speaking (Sokolik, 2000; Benz & Dworak, 2000; Pike-Baky, 2000). The sequencing of the four skills was still maintained in the 1990s as ‘the class should say only what they have heard, … read only what they have said, … write only what they have read’ (Smalley & Morris, 1992, p.17). Without going into the validity of the four skills, the sequence in which they are usually listed is clearly reflects the classic audiolingual sequence of spoken skills before written skills.

Before going further we need to distinguish two different senses in which speech has been given priority over writing in language teaching.

a) the macro-level priority of sequencing. This claims that beginners should start with the spoken language and that written language should be gradually phased in. The priority of speech over writing is then chronological, involving a sequencing over months or years. The most extreme position, first advocated by Pestalozzi (Kelly, 1969, p.313), is that no written language should be used with beginners. Few courses have been as restrictive on writing as the classic audio-visual courses such as All's Well that Starts Well (Dickinson, Leveque & Sagot, 1975). Later discussion has focussed more on how long the initial spoken period should last, whether six weeks or six months; the Listening First movement for instance looked at how the proportion of written language should increase with time (Gary & Gary, 1981). Nevertheless the almost undisputed assumption is that the initial phases of learning a second language should be as oral as possible.

b) the micro-level priority of classroom presentation. This claims that at any stage of language learning the students should hear the spoken word before they see it written. 'Assumption 2. Language skills are learned more effectively if items of the foreign language are presented in spoken form before written form' (Rivers, 1964, XXX). It is not a claim about the overall sequence of learning so much as about the constant psychological relationship of speech and writing. Since writing is based on speech in the mind, it is illogical to teach written forms before spoken.

While the two senses are generally treated together, they are not identical; the long-term sequence over time does not have to be duplicated in the short time-span of a single lesson. The macro-level version is seldom encountered in a pure form outside a few audio-visual classrooms, though present in a weaker form in most beginners' courses. The micro-level version is probably part of many classrooms, even if implicitly. The arguments in this paper are chiefly about the macro-level of sequencing since this is normally publicly available through syllabuses and coursebooks, while the micro-level is a matter for individual teachers in classrooms.

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02. Arguments for the importance of speech

The starting point is to examine the reasons for favouring speech.


02.01. Arguments from L1 learning

The overall justification for the priority of speech is beliefs about how children acquire their first language, as it is for many of the nineteenth century teaching principles (Howatt, 1984; Banathy & Sawyer, 1969). As Harmer (1998, p.53) puts it, ‘Because many people acquire languages by hearing them first, many teachers prefer to expose students to the spoken form first’. If the only successful method of acquiring a language is the one used by L1 children, the learning situation should recreate the characteristics of the first language as closely as possible. Teaching cannot depend on things which are unavailable to L1 children, whether the ability to write, to understand grammar or to use another language.

Most twentieth century teaching methods, such as the audiolingual method, the communicative approach and the Natural Approach, tried in their own ways to base themselves on L1 acquisition. Communicative activities ‘allow natural learning’ (Littlewood, 1981, p.17); Total Physical Response ‘simulates at a speeded up pace the stages an infant experiences in acquiring its first language’ (Asher, 1986, p.17). Since L1 children learn to speak before they learn to write, speaking should come before writing in the second language. This reflects more a common-sense view of L1 acquisition than theory or research. If the argument were true, there would be no need for any research into L2 acquisition or indeed into language teaching since all that teaching needs to do is replicate the conditions of L1 acquisition as closely as possible.

L2 learning is intrinsically different from L1 learning because the L2 learner already knows how language works (Halliday, 1975). The natural environment and the school environment also inevitably differ, however much the teacher attempts to compensate. Other differences are self-evident logic – the lack of another language to fall back on for example. At best it might be said that in some respects, L2 learning is like L1 acquisition, in others it is not (Cook, 2000). The multi-competence viewpoint, however, denies that the comparison is proper since the L2 user has a complete system of two languages, not two separate systems (Cook, 1992), not equivalent to the monolingual's knowledge in either language.

To put speech before writing in teaching accepts this sequence as intrinsic to all language learning, rather than an accidental feature of L1 acquisition. It is inconceivable that a baby would learn L1 writing before speech, except in certain kinds of disability. L2 learners, however, clearly have a choice: provided they are literate in their first language, written language is available to them in a way that it is not for L1 children. These accidental aspects of L1 acquisition area are as relevant to L2 learning as claiming that, since babies don't drive cars, adults should not be taught to drive. If teaching were seriously modelled on L1 acquisition, teachers would have to take on other aspects of L1 acquisition, say the importance of nappy-changing in developing social interaction (Ferrier, 1978).


02.02 Arguments from linguistics

The priority of speech in language teaching reflects the views of most linguists, typified by Lyons (1968, 38) 'the spoken language is primary and … writing is essentially a means of representing speech in another medium', the heir to a tradition extending from Aristotle through Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Bloomfield. The sparse arguments for the primacy of speech by linguists come down to the following, mostly summarised in Sampson (1985) and Householder (1971):

Speech comes before writing historically. Writing came thousands of years after spoken language in the history of the human race. Writing was invented within the recent historical past (indeed in one sense 'history' is distinguished from 'pre-history' by the existence of written records). This historical argument has not convinced all linguists, for example Householder (1971), partly because a diachronic argument does not necessarily provide a synchronic explanation. It also embodies a belief that writing is the representation of speech rather than an alternative medium. As Hjelmslev (1948) pointed out 'the real units of language are not sounds, or written characters, or meanings: the real units of language are the relata which these sounds, characters and meanings represent'. It also ignores the changes that written language makes to the use of spoken language within a society by, for example, providing the script for religious rituals. The post-literate world has been transformed by the arrival of literacy (Goody, 2000).

But, even if the historical argument were true, it would hardly be relevant to language teaching. Its use would involve a belief that ontogeny repeats phylogeny. A modern diet should therefore consist of wild grain and meat we have killed ourselves. There is no intrinsic reason why the classroom should parallel earlier societies, even if it was once tried in Taeschner (1991)'s marvellous teaching method in which children recreated a primitive tribe. The invention of writing in itself changed the society that children and L2 users fit into. The uniqueness of human beings is that we inherit the cultural achievements of our ancestors (Tomasello, 1999). John Diamond wrote to his wife 'The great thing about us is that we have made us who we are'; the same is true of the self-creation of the human race. Silent reading for example was once a difficult and unusual skill even among the literate, yet is taken for granted in the primary school nowadays thanks to the cultural innovation of word spaces (Saenger, 1997). L2 teaching should no more take pre-literate societies into account than physics teaching should cover medieval alchemy.

Many languages lack a written form. Only within the last century did many languages acquire a written script, which some still lack. Conversely it is hard to imagine a language that exists in writing without having a spoken form. Dead languages such as Latin or computer languages such as PROLOG hardly count as exceptions in that they are not used for the normal functions of human language. The lack of a written form for some languages may be an interesting observation about the world and the spur for the work of the Wycliffe Bible Translators but it does not compel teachers to stress speech, unless they are concerned with students from a non-literate society.

Many individuals cannot use written language. While it is inconceivable to think of a non-disabled person who does not speak, many people do not learn to read and write, for whatever reason. The world-wide illiteracy rate given in the UNESCO Statistic Yearbook (2000) is 20.6%, that is to say 876 million people cannot read and write. Mass literacy is a recent development in the world’s history; in the past writing was often reserved for privileged sections of society, for example in Japan. The fact that some individuals cannot write is crucial for teaching students who are not literate in their first language; it is, however, beside the point for the rest. Once students are literate, their views of language and their ways of learning are shaped by their knowledge of writing and they cannot return to their previous state of innocence in which language existed only in spoken form.

Children automatically learn to speak but have to be taught how to read and write. Talking is as normal for human beings as walking; writing is an acquired skill, like cycling or ice dancing. No normal child fails to learn to speak by interacting with its parents or caretaker; only a few children learn to read without being taught, for instance Thomas Macaulay learning to read at the age of 3 up-side-down from the Bible as his father read to him. (Check). The fact that L1 children writing need to be taught writing is not relevant for teaching literate L2 students since the raison d'être of language teaching is that the spoken language too needs to be taught in the L2, unlike first language acquisition.

None of these four arguments directly concern either language teaching or L2 learning. The priority of speech in language teaching is not proven by them rather than necessarily wrong.

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03. Nature of writing

Perhaps, however, speech is important because writing is intrinsically based on speech sounds. If writing is the conversion of spoken sounds into written symbols, written language is parasitic on speech and no more to do with language than, say, the Morse Code or how computers convert all information into a binary code. Let us then look at the nature of speech and writing themselves, described in more detail in Cook (2001b).


03.01. Nature of writing systems

Most languages of the world link writing and speech via two processes or 'routes'. As with many aspects of language (Pinker, 1995), the difference is whether information is handled as procedural 'rules' or as declarative 'instances'. One type of writing system uses correspondence rules between the speech sounds and written forms, whether syllables (in Japanese kana), consonants (Hebrew/ Arabic), or both consonants and vowels (Spanish/ English). An English reader sees <tack> and consults mental rules that <t> corresponds to /t/, <a> to /¾ /, and <ck> to /k/. This 'phonological route' relies on rules for converting letters to sounds and vice versa, ‘assembling phonology from a word’s component letters’ (Katz & Frost, 1992, p.71).

The other type of writing system utilises direct links between written forms and meanings. corresponds in Chinese to the meaning 'person' regardless of its different spoken forms in the various Chinese dialects, and or indeed in Japanese. The visual route involves accessing a mental dictionary with all the items as separate entries, i.e. a lexical ‘visual-orthographic’ store (Katz and Frost, 1992, 71). The English reader sees <colonel> and consults a mental list of words to establish that it corresponds to /k‘ nlÛ /. This route enables reading to be silent so that readers can process writing at speeds much faster than they can read aloud.

These two overall systems operate not only within a particular language but also within an individual user. Despite English using sound-based rules, frequent English words are accessed as visual instances (Seidenberg, 1992); <the> for instance is likely to be perceived as a whole word rather than converted into sounds letter by letter – if you ask native speakers to cross out 'e's in a passage of English, they find the <e> in <the> invisible, unlike non-native speakers.

Languages like English also utilise orthographic rules about permissible letter combinations unrelated to either sounds or individual words, for example the rules that <q> has to be followed by <u> and that a content word should have more than two letters (<in/inn>, <to/two>, etc) – (like all language rules, spelling rules leak, for example the two letter content word exceptions <go>, <ox> and <ma>, or else Scrabble would not be a game of skill).

The assumption that the purpose of writing is to be a kind of transcription of speech sounds has concealed the problem of acquiring a script of a different type, say English speakers learning Japanese or Chinese speakers learning Spanish. Taiwanese first year students at American universities read English at about one third of the speed of their native equivalents, 22 words a minute slower than Spanish-speaking students (Haynes & Carr, 1990). But a single language of one overall type also contains elements of both systems: English is not purely sound-based, Chinese not purely meaning-based. (See Editor's note 'symbols' in Bamah language.) A language user depends both on the sounds route and on the visual route, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the language concerned and on factors such as word frequency.

Hence, apart from the historical arguments, the study of writing system provides no real pretext for emphasising speech in language teaching. In some languages converting letters to sounds or vice versa may be a convenient way of establishing some stages of literacy. An L2 user who is already literate has two routes for connecting speech and writing. It may be dangerous, even in a sound-based system, to make L2 readers concentrate too much on sounds since this may handicap their eventual silent reading.


03.02. Differences between speech and writing

If writing is not simply speech sounds written down, it is possible to discuss the differences between these two modes of language. We will simply list them briefly; further details will be found in Cook (2001b), Bygate (1987; 1998) and Ur (1992).

a) linguistic differences

• vocabulary. Some words exist primarily in the written form say <alight>, others in the spoken form 'hju:mungus'.

• grammar. Writing uses more sequences of prepositional phrases than speaking (Chafe, 1982); writing has a proportion of about 1 grammatical word to 1.2 content words; speech about 1 to 0.6 (Cook, 1997). Putting such factors together leads to the so-called 'lexical density' of written language (Halliday, 1985).

• intonation and punctuation. The contrasts conveyed through changes in pitch, e.g. ç Joan versus ä Joan, are similar but not identical to those conveyed with punctuation in written language <Joan!> versus <Joan?>. Punctuation has its own peculiar characteristics, for example the use of the semi-colon as a grammatical item in sentences such as She told him the truth; the others lied (Nunberg, 1990).

• contextualisation. Writing usually needs to make more explicit deictic connections to the situation by naming speaker, time and place: Miss Scarlet killed him with the dagger in the library last Thursday, not She killed him with it over there yesterday.

• distinctive elements of writing. Written language makes distinctions only available in writing, for example capital letters <NO ENTRY>, word spaces <Howdoyoudo?> and punctuation <John!!!!!!!!!!!>. The conventions of written English differ from those in other languages, for example the capital letter for first person <I> where other languages tend to capitalise second person <Sie> and <Lei>, and differences between dialects, such as capitals after colons in American English but not British English. Written English is pre-analysed into words by spaces, types of nouns by capital letters and grammatical constructions by punctuation.

Language teaching should then reflect the distinctive natures of writing and speech. Anything presented as spoken language should have the attributes of spoken language, such as less density; anything presented as written language should have the attributes of written language, such as the appropriate capitals and spaces. The priorities between speech or writing depend on the students' goals in learning a language; a spoken form of Chinese might be essential for visiting Shanghai, a written form for studying the works of Lao Tse. Nothing in these differences between speech and writing necessarily indicates that speech should have priority in teaching.

b) processing differences

The mind to some extent uses different processes for speech and writing.

• permanency of writing. Speech is fleeting: writing is permanent. A written letter is present as long as or as often as we want to look at it; a spoken phoneme is gone as soon as it has been uttered and can only be checked against our internal memories or via an electronic recording. Speech has be used for instant warnings "Fire!", writing for permanent notices <KEEP OUT>. 'To write is indeed the only way of keeping or recapturing speech since speech denies itself as it gives itself' (Derrida, 1992). Writing is a memory substitute.

first and final drafts. Normally readers see the final written draft, which may have been through many revisions and spelling checks; writers are able to go over and over their drafts. Speech is usually composed on the wing; there is no second chance to get it right. This division is not however tied to speech versus writing; some written media such as e-mails and text-messaging now use first drafts; some spoken media use final drafts, witnessed by the decline in truly 'live' television programmes other than sport.

Again these issues do not support the priority of speech so much as difference. People use different perceptual and memory processes in speech and writing; the processes involved in speech do not automatically carry over to writing; and the processes of writing have influenced the processes of speaking. Language teaching that insists on students using the spoken form may be throwing away the adult's main aid in virtually every other form of learning.

c) functional differences

Inevitably the differences between the two media have led to speech and writing being used for different purposes.

• status. In many respects the written language has higher status because its permanency means it can record laws, contracts etc. In modern societies 'serious' literature is written down as highly-wrought novels, not improvised as oral epics; poetry consists of books, not oral folksongs. In many societies, writing has the highest status as the holy writings capture the very words of God. In most, perhaps all, literate societies, writing exerts influence over speech, for example the historical pronunciation changes from /f‰ red/ to /f˜ :hed/ for <forehead> in the English and the preservation of the /a/ /a:/ contrast in French by the circumflex accent <tache>/<tâche> (Valdman, 1966). Other than linguists, most people regard writing as more important than speech; 'One could nearly say that in a "literate culture" speech is the spelling of writing' (Kress, 2000, p.18); interestingly in Chomsky's Minimalist program one of the main elements is called 'Spell Out', not 'Speak Out' (Chomsky, 1995).

• social roles. Apart from electronic media, listeners and speakers are usually present in the same situation at the same time, know each other's social roles, interact with each other and can exchange roles. Readers and writers are typically separated by time and place; indeed the writer may be long dead. The social relationship is indefinite; what is my social role to T.S. Eliot when I read Burnt Norton? Mass media sometimes aspire to reflect interaction by putting TV and radio presenters in pairs so that they at least interact with each other or by having phone-in programmes on which in principle each listener is a potential speaker.

Again the logic for teaching is to expose students to the appropriate functions for both type of language, spoken language for the less formal, written language for the more formal, according to their particular needs. Some may need informal roles – 'Hi, I'm Jim' – some more formal – 'Dr Livingstone, I presume'. The emphasis on informal or tourist conversation in beginners teaching has often not fitted the formal nature of the students' real-life encounters. They may certainly now require informal written language to take account of chat-lines and e-pal systems.

The three types of difference between speech and writing are seldom a matter of either/ or. At one level visual symbols and spoken sounds are intrinsically different. At other levels the differences are a matter of degree; spoken language tends to use more of certain linguistic features, written language less; spoken language to rely more on the user's memory; written language to be used in more formal, less interactive ways. The real choice is not between spoken and written language as such but along different dimensions of language appropriate for a given use. For example research in the study of e-mail messages has argued that it is more meaningful to study the different dimensions in which e-mail works in its own right – its informality, its first draft nature and so on – rather than making it fit into the two boxes of spoken and written language (REF). The first questions to ask should be whether students need to be taught to interact in discourse, to produce accurate first drafts, to assume formal or informal social roles, to rely heavily on the context, to record information for later use rather than remember it, and so on; the choice of spoken or written language is a consequence of the answers to these questions.


03.03. Literate L2 learner

Becoming literate in itself has effects on the individual:

• literacy and cognition. Luria’s work showed that non-literate people reason in a less abstract way (Luria, 1976). People who have learnt to read are never going to be the same again; they have different perceptions of the world. People who can read store information in different ways than people who do not (Goody, 2000).

• literacy and the spoken language. Adults’ perceptions of spoken language are influenced by their knowledge of writing. English people believe there are more sounds in ledge than there are in rage (Derwing, 1992). The concepts 'sentence', 'word' and 'phoneme' may be the cultural artefacts of linguists who were brought up to read alphabetic scripts and who consequently rely on full stops, word-spaces and letters to define their analytic terms (Aronoff, 1992); a word is indeed sometimes defined as a 'sequence of letters without any spaces' (Hurford, 1994, xxx). One debate is whether the initial acquisition of L1 writing depends on prior knowledge of phonemes or, in reverse, knowledge of writing shapes the knowledge of speech into phonemes; <n> is frequently omitted by English children because they hear it as a nasalised quality of the preceding vowel rather than as a phoneme (Treiman, 1993). As Olson (1996, p.100) puts it, 'Writing systems create the categories in terms of which we become conscious of speech'.

• transferring from one writing system to another. A student who is transferring from one type of system to another has different problems with written language than a student whose L1 is a variant of the same system as the L2. Learners tend to transfer their own writing system to the new language; thus Chinese learners of Japanese differ from English learners in having more of a visual orientation (Chikamatsu, 1996; Holm & Dodd 1996); Chinese learners of English on the other hand remain slower at reading than Spanish learners even at university level (Haynes & Carr, 1990). Literate students bring to L2 learning the ideas about language created by the writing system of their first language, for good or for ill.

The message for language teaching is that an L2 learner who already knows how to read has a mind that functions in different ways to a pre-literate child. Just as society is transformed by the invention of writing, so is the mind of the individual. Literate L2 learners have already established links between the two in their minds; they inevitably relate the new language to writing in a way that the non-literate do not; they are also largely dependent on the type of writing system they have learnt in their first language. The fact that the mind of the L2 learner is different from that of the L1 learner needs to be accommodated in teaching rather than ignored. Whether we like it or not, the L2 learner cannot enter into L2 acquisition in the same way as the pre-literate native child. Indeed one reason why young children may be better at learning a second language could be their lack of literacy. Pretending that students are not fully equipped with a knowledge of writing ignores the changes in the minds of literate L2 users that make them inherently different from non-literate L1 children.

The overall implications from this discussion of the nature of writing are the lack of priority between speech and writing and the acceptance of the consequence of the student's own literacy. Given a literate student, there is no intrinsic reason why speech should be taught first on either macro or micro scales. Teaching speech first has upset the balance between speech and writing in coursebooks and the classroom. Whatever their backgrounds or eventual needs, all beginners are forced to concentrate on the spoken language: a native-like accent is valued more highly than the correct spelling. In particular this has led to a neglect in language teaching at the beginning stages of acquisition of the use of silent reading, something of inestimable value to the development of modern culture and of the individual (Saenger, 1997). Teaching should be based on a rational analysis of the balance between speech and writing that particular students need and on teaching the appropriate elements of each, without subjugating one to the other.

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04. Place of writing in beginner's course-books

So how is writing actually handled in teaching? To bring the discussion down to earth let us look at writing in a selection of beginners' course-books. We will take a sample of three typical recent adult beginner's courses in different languages: Ci Siamo (Guarnaccio & Guarnaccio, 1997) for Italian, Libre Echange (Courtillon & de Salins, 1995) for French, and Atlas (Nunan, 1995) for English: the language will normally make it immediately apparent which course an example comes from.

a) written version of spoken language: scripts of spoken dialogues or monologues. These form an essential component in most courses, usually highly scripted: Cameriere: Buonasera. S'accomodi. Ecco il menù. … The early Reform movement valued phonetic script as a way of showing spoken language on the page (Sweet, 1899). This practice survives in the phonetic symbols used sparingly in some coursebooks – only in Libre Echange of our three – but seldom used for conveying continuous speech. Real-world written versions of spoken speech are before-the-event scripts for public performance such as television news, political speeches or plays, closer to final drafts than first drafts. Others are after-the-event edited records of spoken events such as police interviews, minutes of committees, court transcripts, or Hansard records of the 'speeches' in the House of Commons (which are themselves heavily prepared). The versions in course-books are more like play-scripts then other real-life use. Indeed Libre Echange uses authentic film scripts from inter alia La Dentellière and Pauline à la plage.

b) written components of teaching activities involving speech

• language explanations. Descriptions of pronunciation or grammar are given in writing in the coursebooks, sometimes in the L1 Regular verbs ending in -ire are divided into two groups … (Ci Siamo), though mostly in the L2 Le «u» de «tu» tombe devant une voyelle. Related uses are substitution table displays of grammar in columns and word-sorting: Write the words in the correct columns. Wednesday night Friday singer

• conveying meaning. Writing is used in the traditional way to convey the meaning of unknown words, sometimes in the second language, sometimes the first, for example labelling parts of the anatomy of Michelangelo's David: Il corpo 1) i capelli 2) la fronte…: or giving pairs of translation equivalents; Al Bar. il caffè coffee il cameriere waiter

• instructions. The instructions for exercises are given in writing, sometimes in the L2 Comparez les differents formulations, sometimes in the L1 Interview a classmate and find out how they spent last weekend (Ci Siamo). Possibly these are more aimed at the teacher's eyes than the students' eyes as their language is usually way above the students' level: for example Atlas Lesson 1: Match the countries and nationalities and then say the words, which involves not only vocabulary which has not specifically been taught, for example words, but also imperatives match/say and structures co-ordinated by andMatch … and … say.

• comprehension questions. The text of the spoken conversations is often followed by written questions checking comprehension: Fabienne, Carmen et Eric sortent: ou vont-ils?. Often the answers require ticks rather than written or spoken answers (Libre Echange).

• exercise props. The means for conducting many exercises is fragments of written language: Make sentences from these cues: a) Pat/French/German … Often these are lists of words, for instance adding things that have been forgotten for a journey to: money, traveller's cheques, clothing, sunglasses, umbrella …; or circling words that don't belong: yoghurt, banana, milk, butter …

• realia. Information necessary for the exercise can be conveyed through graphic items, either authentic or adapted, for example the labelling on maps of San Francisco (Atlas), charts, horoscopes, calendars – both Ci Siamo and Libre Echange have saints' calendars – catalogues i jeans 1 avoria L.50.00, 2 nero L.79.00 …, public notices such as airport departure boards (Ci Siamo), and ephemera such as supermarket fliers (Atlas/Ci Siamo).

• fill-in forms. Students fill-in information in invitations, charts, labels, diary planners: Daily Planner Monday Morning …… Afternoon …. Evening … … and forms such as Carte Internationale d'Embarquement 1. M/Mme/Mlle ___________ Nom ______ … Usually the student's response is a single word or phrase rather than a complete sentence or paragraph.

• sentence completion. Students fill-in blanks in sentences before they say them aloud: Et …… laitues, il y a … … laitues, and construct sentences from jumbled words: I dessert she want any steak don't fries they coffee some he wants

• graphic answers. Students respond by making some kind of mark on the page alongside a word-list, such as ticks, circles, or mapping lines: Match the countries and nationalities and then say the words …

The major use of written language in the course-books is thus to support the activities of the classroom. Presumably these pedagogical uses of written languages derive from the functions of written language in notices and labelling on objects. Students come to understand the spoken L2 through visual ostensive definitions about what words mean, explanations about structure, etc. These teaching uses also exploit the hum-drum use of form-filling. The written language is the servant of teaching rather than having a role of its own.

These teaching uses bear scarcely any resemblance to written language outside teaching. In our daily lives we seldom encounter lists of words that have to be sorted into groups, sentences with missing bits, written questions on our daily conversation, and so on. The display of a language coursebook consists of layouts of sentence fragments, lists of words, fill-in charts, etc. It is an almost unique form of print, different from most pages of the books, magazines, newspapers or other writing we meet every day of our lives. The language that students are called upon to read has been reduced to fragments. The only similarities seem to be to commercial publications for selling goods, whether catalogues or travel agent's brochures, and to official forms for Income Tax returns etc.

Nor is the language the students have to write any more natural. Students fill in bits of noun phrases on forms; they complete sentences with words or phrases; they make graphic marks on paper. They are seldom called upon to write a complete sentence, let alone a complete text. Written language is being presented as a tool for teaching, not as a type of language the students actually need.

The teaching of the spoken language never distorts its nature to the same extent; at best the students use full sentences of the language in conversational turns, at worst appropriate sentence fragment answers to questions. But of course it doesn't matter – it’s only writing after all. White (1998) for example suggests drawing the students' attention to grammatical forms such as pronouns by printing them in italic or bold face, for instance "She was happy when she saw her ball". On the one hand this sacrifices the system of writing for the needs of speaking, on the other it assumes that students in some way already know what italics and bold represent in English, perhaps allowable from similar Roman alphabetic systems, unlikely from character-based systems.

c) written texts

background culture texts etc: cultural information is often presented through short texts: La France au Quotidien: les palmarès des villes françaises … or magazine-style written interviews: Intervistiamo una nota stilista italiana …
• letters: specimens of L2 letters are occasionally used as a basis for the students' own writing, for instance refusing an invitation (Atlas), or telling a friend about Italian pastimes (Ci Siamo).

Continuous written texts other than scripts of speech or instructions for exercises are in fact sparse in these course-books. Only Libre Echange has texts longer than a couple of sentences; Atlas appears to have no texts at all. When students in effect never see a continuous text of the second language, the validity of written language is being denied.

So, while these beginners course-books rely heavily on the written language as a source of the materials for the lesson, the focus is on writing as a means to speaking. The macro-level priority is served by the domination of spoken language in all these courses. The micro-level priority is less obviously maintained in that written language often provides cues for spoken language activities; it is broken in the use of labelled diagrams etc (which would have been anathema to the pure audio-visual methodologist); nevertheless this is not writing as writing but as vehicle for teaching.

The emphasis on speech has then led to a misuse of writing. We will set aside for the moment the question of whether speech itself is adequately portrayed – for example Atlas says 'paid' is an irregular verb, true only in the written language. In mid-twentieth century Abercrombie (1956) drew attention to the use of 'spoken prose' in language teaching, little changed in modern course-books, for example the increased lexical density of content words to grammatical words seen in On Saturday morning, I worked out in the gym. On Saturday afternoon, I played tennis with my girlfriend …'.

One unacknowledged element in many exercises is the reading aloud of written language. In some cases this is integral to the exercise, say fill-in sentences or substitution tables where the product is the student saying aloud what is written down. In other cases it is hard to see the exercise taking place without some reading aloud, words in lists for instance. In so far as methodology books mention reading aloud, they warn against it: 'Do not ask students to read texts aloud' (Cross, 1992, p.80). Yet all these coursebooks require students to read something aloud on every page of the course. While this not quite the same as reading whole texts aloud, it is nonetheless converting written to spoken language. In some ways this fragmentary reading is even worse than text reading since the fragments do not have the discourse coherence of complete texts, resulting inter alia in poor intonation. Nor do the courses allow the students to practice the skill of silent reading.

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05. Conclusions

To sum up, the priority of speech in language teaching is not justified by strong evidence about language, language processing or language learning. It relies on a comparison of things that are ultimately incommensurate: speech and writing are different modes of language. The aim here is not to disprove the priority of speech so much as to raise legitimate doubts about the consequences of this unacknowledged priority on language teaching. The priority of speech or writing should not be established by default, because people cannot be bothered to question whether the tenets of the Victorian era are still true for the twenty-first century. Language teaching should not be restricted by an invisible straitjacket of unstated assumptions. If there are powerful reasons for supporting speech, they need to be put forward explicitly.

The devaluing of writing has led to a distortion of the written language in the classroom and the course-book. Written language has been seen simply as a teaching aid, as neutral as a blackboard or an overhead projector, not as itself having value for the students nor as itself presenting them with problems – say, recognition of words by students from L1s where word divisions are not used, uses of capital letters, untaught in beginners' course-books, or indeed direction of reading whether left-to-right or right-to-left. Howatt (1984, 173) points out that one benefit of the New Reform was that 'connected texts on worthwhile topics were clearly preferable to the pointless sentences of traditional grammar'. This lesson has not been applied to the teaching of the written language. Spoken language in the classroom tries to be connected, relevant discourse; written language is by and large unconnected fragments with a solely pedagogic point. This is largely true even of course-books specifically aimed at writing' such as Tapestry 1 Writing (Pike-Baky, 2000) which has a similar mixture of fill-in sentences, vocabulary lists and sentence fragments to coursebooks teaching speech.

By de-prioritising written language, teaching is depriving students of an important element in their lives and minds in a way that other academic subjects do not; music may be pure sound but music teaching in the western tradition emphasises written notes. Putting written language in second place ignores its importance in the minds of literate people. Making literate students do without its help is short-sighted. If literate students are not given the L2 written form, they may well be pushed back on their L1 written forms with their L1 pronunciation. While the Japanese problems in pronouncing the English /l/ and /r/ sounds may be primarily phonological, some may stem from the spelling of English loanwords in the romaji system for transcribing foreign names, for instance sarari (salary). Kern (2000) points out that writing develops the ability to think, helps learners to acquire appropriate form/meaning relationships, allowing them to develop their ideas, and encourages imaginative use of language. Above all literate learners use written language as their record of what has happened, to be referred to when necessary, whether the vocabulary list they have constructed or the notes they have made in class.

The priority of speech has to be related to how writing functions in the mind of an L2 user and to the variations in writing system and the purposes for which the L2 user may put the L2. While some writers disparage reading and writing as being of negligible importance (‘Nowadays most people actually do very little writing in day-to-day life’ (Scrivenor, 1994, p.156)), a trip round the Tokyo subway system is an educating experience for the English speaker who cannot read the notices, the destination boards or the ticket machines. English language education for non-English-speaking students is a continual series of hurdles of written essays, projects and examinations. Indeed, pace Scrivenor, many people spend much of their working day at a computer keyboard and, since the decline of the secretary, spend a higher proportion of their day receiving and composing letters, e-mails and text messages.

So the priority of speaking in twentieth century language teaching was indeed a matter of dogma, firstly in the positive sense that it represented a collective principle adopted by the language teaching profession based on generations of ideas and experience, secondly in the negative sense that it was a matter of belief and ‘declaration of opinion’ rather than derived from theories or research into language learning. ‘… language teaching taboos, such as the mother tongue, grammar, the printed and written word, which have affected our teachers with over-sized guilt complexes, are nothing but superstitions handed down from one innocent victim to the next’ (Dodson p.65). Dogmas are not necessarily right or wrong; their main characteristic is that they offer people no choice but to accept. It is useful from time to time to see whether dogmas can be reconciled with facts about the world so that at least their true value is clear and the language teaching of the twenty-first century can shake itself free of the shackles imposed by the nineteenth century reformers on to twentieth century language teachers.

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UKT note

symbols in Bamah language

Most of the Bamah sounds are produced by spelling out with the letters of the Bamah alphabet ka. kre: / hka. kway: // However in the case of ak. hka ra  such as ak. hka. ra yway. / ak. hka. ra neikh / ak. hka. ra ei. / which have nothing to do with the letters of the Bamah alphabet, you just look at the "shape" of the character and produce the sound and know the meaning.

Vivian Cook


Vivian Cook was educated at Oxford and University College London, and obtained his PhD at Essex. He taught at Ealing Technical College and North-East London Polytechnic before coming to Essex. His major interests are first and second language learning, and applications of linguistics. His published books include Young Children and Language, Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, and Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. Currently he is researching the ‘multicompetence’ version of Universal Grammar and its application to language teaching. He teaches primarily aspects of first and second language acquisition and EFL methodology.

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