Spoken texts and the language classroom: Comparing spoken and written discourse

According to Burns (2001: 124), the teaching of speaking in foreign language learning is still largely based on ‘idealised’ spoken texts, which are designed specifically for the language classroom and are generally in the form of scripted dialogues developed from the writers’ intuitions about spoken interaction. This state of affairs has both its advantages and disadvantages. This blog post seeks to raise the issue of how useful it is for learners to use naturally occurring spoken texts in the classroom.

We know from our own knowledge of our first language that in most textbook discourse we are getting something which is concocted, for us and may therefore rightly resent being disempowered by teachers or materials writers who, on apparently laudable grounds, appear to know better. Information or knowledge about language should never be held back; the task is to make it available, without artificial restrictions, in ways which most answer learners’ needs.   Carter and McCarthy, 1996:370  
The whole point of language learning tasks is that they are specially contrived for learning. They do not have to replicate or even simulate what goes on in normal uses of language. Indeed, the more they seem to do so, the less effective they are likely to be.   Widdowson,-1998:714  

Formal and informal spoken discourse

    For a successful ELT speaking lesson it is important to think about the challenges for speakers of English as a foreign language that formal and informal spoken discourse present. Teachers should examine what the relative emphasis between the two types of discourse in language classes should be based on their students’ needs and language level.

Primary purpose is the achievement of interpersonal goals: to establish who we are, how we relate to others and what we think of how the world is  Primary purpose is the achievement of pragmatic goals: to talk to find out information, to pass on knowledge, to make appointments, to get jobs and to jointly participate in practical activities  
Spontaneity phenomena, such as false starts, hesitations, interruptions and overlap  Turn-taking more ordered  
Constantly shifting topics as the goal is not to achieve a particular purpose  Role differentiation: there is clear role differentiation between interactants (for example, in doctor-patient interactions), which results in greater topic control  
Conversations are open-ended and can continue for hours, it is in the process of talking that we explore our social relationships  Examples of formal interaction are closed, once the task is achieved, interaction ends  

Adapted from: McCarthy, M., Matthiessen, M. & Slade, D. (2002). Discourse Analysis. In Schmitt, N. (Ed.). An Introduction to Applied Linguistics, 2nd ed., Chapter 4, pp. 55-73. London: Arnold

Comparing spoken and written discourse

During the lesson planning stage, when teachers need to compare and contrast spoken and written discourse, it is essential to focus on the following points:

Below is an overview of the differences between spoken and written discourse that teachers can use to draw implications for the teaching of spoken language in the EFL classroom.

Differences between spoken and written discourse

Context dependent: relies on shared knowledge between participants, and is thus less explicit  Context independent: must recreate the context for readers, and thus quite explicit in marking out what is going to be said (e.g. in the first place, firstly, finally)  
Spontaneous and therefore displays spontaneity phenomena, such as false starts, hesitations, incomplete clauses  Planned, edited and redrafted  
All interactants are engaged in the creation of the text, so there is turn- taking, interruptions, overlaps, etc.  Written text is only implicitly interactive (reader is assumed but not involved in the creation of the text)  
Multilogue (casual conversation very often involves more than two speakers, that is, it is usually multilogue rather than dialogue  Dialogic: Writer engages in a dialogue with the projected reader  
Grammatical complexity in terms of the chaining of clauses  Grammatical complexity in terms of the density of structure within sentences  
Lexically sparse  Lexically dense  
Vocabulary is everyday/non-specialized  Vocabulary more specialized  

Adapted from: McCarthy, M., Matthiessen, M. & Slade, D. (2002). Discourse Analysis. In Schmitt, N. (Ed.). An Introduction to Applied Linguistics, 2nd ed., Chapter 4, pp. 55-73. London: Arnold.

Further points to consider:

Will the materials support our teaching objectives?

    What do we want to achieve with the authentic materials/spoken texts we introduce our students to? Do we want to focus on a specific topic? Do we want to direct their attention to a particular grammar structure or to introduce new lexis? Or do we simply want to provide extra input?

    When selecting authentic materials to include in our EFL lesson we always need to take into account the authenticity of the language used and whether or not the lexis and grammar included match our students’ level and specific needs. Our learners need to receive input from a variety of L2 sources and to read/listen to and explore a variety of different genres (newspaper articles, train timetables, authentic brochures, abstracts from books/plays, poems, interviews, news broadcasts, podcasts, YouTube clips, etc.).

    As Nuttall (1996:179) points out, when selecting authentic texts for our EFL classroom we should mainly focus on whether or not they support our “overall teaching purpose and learning objectives”. We should be able not only to achieve our lesson’s goals but also to transfer knowledge to our students, to introduce them to new ideas, to widen their knowledge of the target culture and at the same time foster critical thinking.

Comprehensible input

Is the lexis/grammar included in the materials too challenging for our learners? How much vocabulary should we pre teach?

    With regard to authentic texts, we always need to check whether there will be comprehension issues and whether we are making unreasonable demands on our students’ knowledge of the language. Our learners need to be able to extract all the information they need using contextual clues and not feel frustrated and demotivated by the overwhelming amount of unknown lexis and grammar. If we believe that they may not be able to figure out the meaning of certain vocabulary items from context, we might have to do some pre- teaching and at the same time activate our learners’ schemata on the topic covered in the materials. As Watkins (2014: 58) points out, reading texts need to be “challenging” for learners while still “allowing them a good chance to understand the main points”. We also need to ask ourselves whether our learners are familiar with the particular type of register used.

Accompanying the ‘authentic’ TL input with suitable tasks Focus on learner creativity

    Our main aim should not be for our students to merely notice new lexis or grammar through the linguistic input of the authentic materials. The key is to turn this noticing into active knowledge. To foster this language awareness, we need to provide them with authentic tasks and opportunities to use and produce the TL patterns both in writing and in speaking. The tasks that we will decide to accompany the materials need to be carefully selected in order to satisfy our learners’ needs and different learning styles. It is also important to always remember the effectiveness of accompanying real life TL materials with authentic, communicative tasks that promote learner involvement and boost their creativity. The more opportunities our learners have for language production, the more they will begin to notice and try to produce certain structures in order to negotiate meaning in the TL. Students become more conscious with regard to particular language features and this promotes language awareness and acquisition.

    Our students also need to receive adequate practice in order to be able to read/listen to authentic language usage both for gist and for specific information. We need to train them not only on the skimming and scanning techniques but also on making accurate predictions about the information they need to extract. They need to be able to get the general picture, to successfully grasp the main points and to be able to effectively deduce meaning from context. They also need to be able to ‘interpret’ the language, to read between the lines and use a variety of clues in order to find out what the writer/speaker is suggesting/implying.


Bums, A. 2001. Analysing Spoken Discourse: Implications for TESOL. In Burns, A., and C. Coffin (Eds.) Analysing English in a Global Context. London: Routledge. Chapter 8, pp. 123-148.

Carter, R., and M. McCarthy, 1995. Grammar and the Spoken Language. Applied Linguistics, 16/2: 141-158.

Gilmore, A. 2004. A Comparison of Textbook and Authentic Interactions. ELT Journal, 58/4:363-374.

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nuttall, C. (1996) Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language Heinemann

McCarthy, M. 1991. Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 12-25

McCarthy, M., and R. Carter. (1995). Spoken grammar: what is it and how can we teach it? ELT Journal. Vol. 49/3. Oxford: OUP.

McCarthy, M., Matthiessen, M. & Slade, D. (2002). Discourse Analysis. In Schmitt, N. (Ed.). An Introduction to Applied Linguistics, 2nd ed., Chapter 4, pp. 55-73. London: Arnold.
Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann
Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press
Watkins, P. (2008). Learning to teach English: A practical introduction for new teachers. Delta Publishing  

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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