Language learning: Speakers vs. Writers

Last night when I was teaching, the class was small, due to a big snow storm we’d been having over the past 24 hours. As I write this the current temperature outside is -15 C (5F) with a “real feel temperature”, as they like to call it, of -25C (-13 F). We’ve had about a foot – or 30 cm of snow in the past 48 hours, too.

Those that came to class yesterday were definitely the most dedicated, the most interested and the most committed. They were clearly divided into two groups. The speakers and the writers.

When it comes to language learning, there are those who want to learn to speak and converse. They’re not really interested in learning to write.  They’re often more confident speakers and less afraid about making mistakes. They tend to be more extroverted and relaxed in social situations. Writing seems slow and boring and for them, has little connection with learning to speak a language. They think that the time they spend writing could be better spent learning to converse.

Then there are those who love the comfort provided by learning to write. They have more time to process new concepts and try them out on paper before opening their mouths. This group are often more afraid of making mistakes when they speak. More importantly, they’re afraid of being judged for the mistakes they make. Sometimes more introverted and afraid of public humiliation, they see writing as a wise investment of their time, helping them to lay the foundation for better speaking.

Last night, I pointed out which activities would likely appeal to the listeners (listening to the CD conversations and a popular song, I’d brought), which ones would appeal to the writers, and which ones combined speaking, listening, reading and writing. I would say, “Those of you who are writers are likely going to find this next activity challenging, because it’s all based on listening.” I played a song they’d never heard before and asked them to write down any words they heard.

After I gave them each a white board marker and asked them to write on the board all the words and phrases they’d heard. The listeners went up and filled the whiteboard from top to bottom and side to side with words and phrases. They weren’t all correct, but they were pretty close.

Not one of the students who favored writing had anything to contribute to the white board. Not one word.

I told them we were going to listen to the song again and before I could go on one of the writers grumbled, “Not again! I hate that!” I smiled and said that their objective this time was to try and pick out the words and phrases on the whiteboard. We listened. Once the words were written down on the board, the writers were able to more easily identify them.

They suddenly seemed to become cognizant of themselves as learners, as they observed their own – and each other’s – and capacities. Do you have writers or speakers in your classes? What do you do to challenge both types of keep and keep keep engaged? Do you consider it part of work to teach the value of writing, as well as the value of overcoming speaking fears?


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

7 Responses to Language learning: Speakers vs. Writers

  1. Very simple. When it comes to learning I tend to think I am a speaker… but great to see such a simple way to understand these differences.

    stay adventurous, Craig

  2. Happy to read your article. Its true that the language ability is generally seen as divided into Speakers Vs Writers. But as you had mentioned that goes with other attributes of the personality and doesnt stem from language learning per-se. You have laid out interestingly and this will sure prompt all of us to have a closer look at students next time.
    We, in India, generally learn 4-5 languages by the time we are 15. This is more due to the fact that we have 28 states speaking 28 different languages(not dialects, independent languages) and understand that to compete we need to learn more languages. Generally we all learn English and learn both writing and speaking skills. Other languages–we learn writing when it is for work related or native language and speaking when it is about “managing yourself with the people and the need to converse”.
    Thanks for the article. The exercise adds a new dimension and will be helpful to be more aware.

  3. Yoshiro says:

    Thank you for sharing your interesting observation! I am curious about the different kinds of learning the speakers and writers experienced in the situation. Especially, I would suppose the speakers had something to learn from the writers in thinking more deeply, constructing arguments carefully, expressing ideas more coherently, etc., and wonder if you had any such observations in your class.

  4. Connie says:

    Wow, so obvious but also something that I never thought about until you pointed it out. I’m a ESL teacher working and traveling abroad and I think the exercise you did with your students is a great one! I’m going to try it for my next class!

  5. Sandra says:

    As an online instructor of First Nations adults, you’ve raised a very pertinent question to my work: challenging the writers and speakers to come out of their comfort zone. Our synchronous classes depend on the participation of both “writers” and “speakers”, but we’ve generally left learners to choose the mode of communication that they are most comfortable with. But now, reading this, perhaps a bit of challenge may be appropriate, to bring that holistic learning, an important part of our philosophy at Good Learning Anywhere, to fruition.

    Thank you Sarah. Always great stuff.

  6. Robby says:

    I never actually thought of this problem from this perspective. I always assumed that the speaking vs writing issue is down to the way English is taught at schools and colleges.

    Traditionally English classes focus on learning English Grammar and doing written exercises and tests, so speaking is often ignored or done at a very small extent.

    What you’re saying is, however, that there’s also the factor of a person’s psychological disposition to be taken into account as well. And you know – you’re right, those who are more introvert, would definitely tend to be quieter and therefore focus on processing information within rather than communicate with others.

    Thanks, your article made me realize there’s a bit more to this that I initially thought!


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