TEIS Newsletter

Writin' Rite' n Readin' (from Winter 1986, Vol.2, No. 2)

by User Not Found | 10/31/2011

Robert B. Kaplan
Department of Linguistics, University of Southern California

It has been recognized quite some time that foreign or second language teaching requires more than an inculcation of grammar and vocabulary; indeed, in recent years, there has been a substantial movement to communicative curricula in the belief that the objective of language instruction is the ability to use the language being studied in real situations with real (rather than ideal) native speakers of that language. Writing is, from this perspective, a real operation, and it certainly can be undertaken with real speakers (or readers).

Part of the problem, as I have argued elsewhere (Kaplan 1983), is that the writing task has not been very clearly defined; in part due to the lack of attention given it in M.A. training programs generally. Writing takes a variety of forms, ranging from the compilation of lists,' through activities like dictation and translation, to activities like reporting and problem solving. Another part of the problem is that a clear distinction is not made between oral language and written language. Some linguists (cf., Tannen 1982' have argued that the difference isn't very great, but there is a growing body of evidence that, in fact, the difference is sufficiently great to deserve separate treatment and that different linguistic structures and strategies apply (cf., Biber 1984, Grabe 1984, Neu 1985). It is reasonable to assume that there should be a difference. After all, writing is historically much younger than spoken language, and for most of its history writing has been used for quite different purposes. Written texts can be stored and retrieved; until quite recently, it has not been possible to store and retrieve spoken language. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that much of the spoken language stored and available for retrieval is not spontaneous speech but rather is scripted speech-- language that was first written out and then spoken in a simulacrum of spontaneous oral interaction.

In certain situations, written language takes on special import; when a political leader makes a policy statement, dozens of other political leaders want to know exactly what the policy statement means, and we govern ourselves--from the level of the nation to the level of the academic department or the social club--with written constitutions. These activities require that the words be stored so that they may be retrieved and looked at and studied. We have been doing these things for hundreds of years, and because we have been doing them written language has taken on special functions, special forms, and special meanings. In courtrooms, attorneys and witnesses and judges speak, but every word is taken down by a court- reporter and stored in written form; it is not only possible but common to argue over the written forms, to comment upon them (often at a length much greater than the form being commented upon), and to legislate on the basis of what is written, again in written form.

The existence of all this written material, in turn, requires the ability to read it. It is perhaps too obvious to state that without written language there would be no need to read, and conversely that without the widespread ability to read, it would be impossible to have achieved the widespread proliferation of written material. Over time, the educational processes in those societies that value the written word have been modified so that reading and writing form the basis for virtually all (even vocational) educational practice. In brief, I am arguing that written language is different from spoken language in significant ways, that that written language serves some societal functions not served by spoken language, that written language serves some educative functions not served by spoken language, and that, as a consequence, teachers of language should be able to give some separate and special attention to written language.

There is no doubt that educative functions occur in which written language is not important, although they are becoming rarer. In the United States, much second language instruction occurs in formal classrooms and is intended to assist students either to move through the educational system or to be more employable and more socially and economically mobile. These objectives often imply the ability to read and write--perhaps more to read than to write. Outside the US, in the developing world, where English has become an important language, the need to deal with written language becomes even more significant; in many instances, the whole rationale for providing EFL instruction is to permit learners to have access to scientific and technical information written in English for purposes of nation-building, modernization, and a host of other non-trivial developmental functions. In brief, I am arguing that there are good and valid reasons for including the teaching of writing and reading in SL and FL instruction.

Earlier, it was noted that writing is not a unitary function but a complex of functions with different purposes. It seems Useful to differentiate between writing without composing and writing through Composing. There are a number of functions that require "paper and pencil" skills--making lists, filling forms, taking dictation, doing basic translation, taking tests--but which do not require composing; all of these occur in the real world (not merely in the classroom), all occur activities in employment, and all

some lexical and syntactic skill as well as some "world knowledge." (It is necessary to know that the implicit question: "Sex: " occurring in a job application requires the response male or female, rather than the response "yes" or "sometimes.") These functions are much more widely spread in the society than the functions that require the ability to compose; yet, if one looks at the contents of any moderate-sized library or bookstore, it is apparent that the ability to compose is also valued. Composing takes the form of reporting when the writer know what s/he wants to say, but that composing activity may be realized in a variety of genre-letters, scholarly articles, novels, poems, etc. Composing is also a matter of problem solving, which may also be realized through a variety of genre.

Spoken language appears to be built into the human genetic baggage; all human beings are born with a natural, biologically conditioned predisposition to acquire spoken language,

and given the presence of a linguistic environment to serve as a triggering mechanism, human children acquire spoken language at an astonishing rate through a process that t appears at least in part to be impervious to teaching. But there is absolutely no evidence that written language is part of that genetic baggage; on the contrary, since literacy is limited to some human populations (others living quite full and happy lives without it), written language seems to be a learned process. To the extent that spoken and written language are different, it is unsafe to depend on natural acquisition to produce written skills (with or without composing) and reading skills. This is not to say that literacy requires special mental abilities not equally distributed through the human populations; the point is only that spoken skills may be largely acquired while writing and reading skills need to be learned somehow. The mental abilities to infer or to abstract, skills implicit in writing and reading, are unrestricted in their distribution in the species, although they may be differently focused in different cultures (cf., Hinds in press, for an interesting argument for a language typology based on the assignment of responsibility between reader and writer in different languages).

If spoken and written language really are substantially different and intended to serve different societal functions, if written language really does need to be taught rather than acquired, and if the preponderance of ESL and EFL courses around the world are at least in part intended to produce literacy, then it seem reasonable that those who are being trained to teach second or foreign languages ought to receive some special training in the teaching of both aspects of literacy--writing and reading. Furthermore, if the curricular thrust is in the direction of communicative competence, reading and writing are certainly communicative activities, which should be included in the curriculum. By definition, writing and reading require attention to structures beyond the level of the clause, to coherence and cohesion as important operations, and to questions of audience, genre, writer's intent, and the social conditions within which an act of communication occurs--all matters of communicative competence. This is not an argument to abandon or diminish the teaching of vocabulary or syntax or semantics; rather, it is an argument that communicative competence goes well beyond those elements.

The structure of text is sufficiently complex that the material an incipient teacher ought to know is too great to be taken up as part of some other course in the teacher training curriculum. if there is to be a full course devoted to an understanding of writing in the teacher- training curriculum, what might it cover? An important element of such a course might be to develop in the erstwhile teacher a sensitivity to written text; that is, to overcome the socially established notion that the thing to do with a student's writing is to correct all the grammar and spelling errors. Teachers ought to recognize what a text is--that it is not merely an oral discourse written down, but that it is a written text addressing some audience, having some social purpose, and employing one or another set of strategies to attract its audience, achieve its purpose, and carry the intent of its author. Teachers ought to understand that a text does not spring full-blown into existence but rather is the result of a complex process. At the same time, teachers ought to understand that the text is not the process which produced it; rather, it is a product, not the logical outcome of the process, but the arbitrary endpoint at which time ran out, or inspiration ran out,, or the assignment Was due, or the period ended, or the deadline arrived. Teachers ought to realize that the strategies--the semantic and syntactic choices, the genre choices--can be controlled, and that the control of those choices can be explicitly taught. Teachers ought to realize that writing--let alone composing--skills need to be explicitly taught because they will not be acquired, an spoken language is acquired, merely through access to sufficient quantities of comprehensible input (however sufficient and comprehensible may be defined). And, of course, teachers ought to know what the strategies are, how they can be controlled, and how that control can be taught to real students in real classrooms. All of this is sufficiently complex to justify a full course in teaching writing, separate from teaching reading, from the introduction to applied linguistics, from the normally mandatory work in socio- and psycho- linguistics and testing, from methodology and materials--preparation.

Complexity alone, however, is not sufficient argument; the teaching of writing is productive--in its own right as a communicative activity, as part of the important approach to literacy, as another avenue through which to approach reading. The trick, as in all things, is not to overdo it; writing does not imply that every student must be a great stylist, only that every student be competent (Widdowson 1984:172-173,227).


Biber, D. 1984 A model of textual relations within the written and spoken modes. Los Angeles: University of Southern California, Ph.D. diss.

Grabe, W. 1984. Towards defining expository prose within a theory of text construction. Los Angeles: University of Southern California, Ph.D. diss.

Hinds, J. In press. Reader versus writer responsibility: A new typology. In U. Connor and R. B. Kaplan (eds.) Analysis of Writing: Models and Methods. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Kaplan, R.B. 1983. Reading and Writing, Technology and Planning: To do what and with what and to whom. In J. E. Alatis, H. H. Stern, and P. Strevens (eds.) Applied linguistics and the preparation of second language teachers: Toward a rationale. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. 242-254. (Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1983.)

Neu, J. 1985. A multivariate linguistic analysis of business negotiations. Los Angeles: University of Southern California, Ph.D. diss.

Tannen, D. 1982. Oral and literate strategies in spoken and written narrative. Language. 58.1.1-21.

Widdowson, H. G. 1984. Explorations in applied linguistics 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.