ESL SmackDown – Writing vs. Speaking

Several months ago, I was at a local ELT conference when I heard something I haven’t been able to shake. Eli Hinkel was delivering the plenary and somehow the topic of speaking vs. writing arose. Someone in the row behind me said, “Well, everybody knows that writing is harder than speaking.” Directly after that, I heard screeching tires. Well, in my head, anyway. What?!? Writing is harder than speaking? Everybody knows this? I remember looking around me to see if anyone else was having the OMG moment that I was, and made eye contact with my equally perturbed colleague, but everyone else was happily nodding.

While this seems to have been a given for many of the teachers in the auditorium on that sunny fall day, it wasn’t for me. Writing necessarily harder than speaking? Really? As the plenary continued, I mulled this over.

What’s so hard about writing?

What do writers have to do? Well, they have to think about grammar and vocabulary. But, then again, so do speakers. Writers need to think about genre; they need to set the right tone for the context of the writing. Spelling in English is notoriously problematic, so there is that, and some writers have to think consciously about forming the letters when they write if their L1s have different symbols. Also, writers have to think about the organization of their ideas in a way that speakers don’t. But, perhaps the most difficult part of writing is that it is more or less permanent. Once something is written (or typed), it’s there for the world to see. Forever. Conversely, unless you are a cast member on a reality show, what you say out loud is only as permanent as the memories of your listeners. So, yes, writing is a hard and potentially anxiety-inducing skill.

What’s so hard about speaking?

On the other hand, what do speakers have to do? Just like with writing, there is the whole grammar and vocabulary thing. While writers need to think about genre, speakers need to think about register. Think about how irritating/funny it is if students call us, their teachers, “dude.” Unlike writers, speakers need to think about their body language and (ding ding) their pronunciation. If you’ve read my blog posts for a while, you know this is a biggie for me! Speaking comprehensibly takes an enormous mental effort for many of my students and raises the difficulty level of speaking significantly. Finally, speaking almost never happens in a vacuum, so students also have to listen. That, in itself, brings a host of challenges. Speech comes at listeners is an unbroken stream, so they have to: break the stream into groups of sounds, recognize the groups as words, recognize the meanings of words, understand how the words are related to each other, and use knowledge of the language, the world and context to clear up ambiguities (Brown, 2011). Plus, all this happens in real time. So, is it really a given that writing is harder than speaking?

What does Google say?

After playing around with this in the back of my head for months, I did what I always do when I have a question; I Googled it. After digging around a little, I found a research paper by Cheng, Horwitz and Schallert (1999) that compares the anxiety students feel about speaking with the anxiety they feel about writing. After all, we generally tend to worry more about the things that are harder for us to do, right? The researchers found that “some language learners may feel particularly anxious about speaking in the second language, and some about writing” (438). In other words, it depends.

So, what do you think? For those of you who speak English as an additional language, what is the hardest skill for you? Is it obvious to you, as it was to much of the plenary audience, that writing is a more challenging skill than speaking? Or, like me, are you not so sure?