The primacy of spoken English

Should spoken English be the principal objective of language learning?

ESSAY TITLE: In recent years it has been argued on both linguistic and psychological grounds that spoken language should be the principal objective in language teaching. Outline the arguments supporting this view and discuss their validity in relation to your experience on the needs and objectives of language learners.

Recent emphasis on spoken language in course materials

Most textbooks published in recent years place the greatest emphasis on spoken language in that they embody a methodology that is largely oral.

Traditional grammarians who taught language by talking in the vernacular about language, by setting written translations and largely written grammatical exercises, neglected a very important priciple:

"On the whole people learn what they do. Do something enough times and you will become competent in doing it thereafter." Their Ss did in fact have plenty to do, but the pretence was that they were learning to speak a foreign language.

I discovered this when I arrived in France, having passed my school French examination, but with few French utterances to offer a native French speaker. I was almost completely unrehearsed in the speaking skill.

The emphasis on spoken language is not entirely recent

It would be entirely exaggerated to claim that courses emphasizing the speaking skill are a recent innovation. Psychologists such as Skinner have given support to the behaviourist branch of linguistics through their contributions to learning theory. For much of the 20th century behaviourists & structuralists have put emphasis on mastering the grammatical patterns of language system through constant, step-by-step repetition of utterances. Language laboratory practice drills are remembered for that, though the best of these exercises contained elements of choice which could be used to check whether learners understood the meaning of what they were repeating. They also paced learners so that they were not given all day to produce an accurate response. The failure of many written materials for practising grammar is that they set no time limits. Not only do they allow plodding, but the learners' speech organs remain unused. The language laboratory was never so passive. Formation of correct language habits has been thought to depend on the laws of exercise and effect and the principle of shaping. This implies "doing" i.e. actually speaking!

Direct method approaches emphasizing spoken language based on notional / functional principles of design

A more recent contribution has come from linguists who might describe themselves as "functionalists". They insist that "doing" in terms of structuralism is a very inefficient way of learning what language students usually need. This type of "doing" results in what might be termed "structurespeech" as opposed to language which is appropriate to the situation in which it is used.

Functionalism is usually associated with the "cognitive" approach which emphasizes the need for meaningful utterances and learning goals which are visible to the student as well as the teachers.

Psychologists and linguists have felt language practice in this context to be more motivating for learners.

Categories of communicative function or language use arising from Speech Act theory in the mid 20th century

It is with oral English in mind that researchers such as D.A. Wilkins (see also Austin & Searle: Speech Acts) and authors like Wilga Rivers have defined categories of communicative function and categories of language use, for example:

  1. establishing and maintaing social relations
  2. expressing one's reactions
  3. hiding one's intentions
  4. talking one's way out of trouble
  5. seeking & giving information
  6. learning or teaching others to do or make something, etc.

I list Wilga River's categories because of their close affinity with spoken language or more broadly communicating.

Examination of these categories helps to show why the oral approch is probably the most satifactory in the teaching of English to adults. On the whole learners (tourists, executives, receptionists, univ Ss) share a desire to use spoken English.

Circumstances in which the oral approach will fail to suffice

Having argued in general terms for the oral approach, I am fully aware that to teach speech is not the only desirable objective, and certainly not, where a group of learners clearly has some other primary objective - e.g. passing written exams.

Given that many public examinations, including Cambridge FCE & Proficiency put heavy emphasis on listening, reading and writing, these skills cannot be ignored in examination classes.

Most language schools meet at one time or other a student with highly specified needs. The type of spoken English and vocabulary needed, is going to be very different for the tourist on the one hand & the receptionist or switchboard operator on the other.

Despite the link between speaking & listening it could be that a student is more interested in the latter. E.g. Participants at international conferences who are permitted to speak in their native language but are expected to comprehend English.

Likewise, the reading skill may be a major requirement of the student who wants to read modern English literature, the technician who services equipment made in the U.S.A. or chemists, doctors & opticians wanting to keep up with research.

Having identified these highly specified needs, the needs of the learner are usually mixed and the four skills rarely exist in complete isolation. Tourists will need to speak, but also to read menus & signs, bills, receipts and "what's on" columns.

The tourist will also need sufficient writing to cope with cheques, embarkation cards, booking forms. The longer term visitor will also need to read and write messages.

Conclusion - balance in the language curriculum

In conclusion, it can be said that a student's ultimate repertoire of skills in the language will reflect the proportions of time spent on different language activities.

The fact that probably more time needs to be spent on productive skills (S & W) rather than receptive skills (L & R) if an equivalent level of proficiency is to be reached, reflects the fact that comprehension of language outstrips productive capacity.

A large receptive repertoire is held to be the desirable product of giving equal attention to all four skills. Note that under some examination systems (e.g. Japan) L & S are neglected. Note also Krashen's emphasis on "the silent period".

The nature of oral practices must be given careful consideration. Reading a text aloud in class or doing an exercise orally in preparation for written HW may provide oral practice, but audible language doesn't necessarily constitute speech.

Speech involves composing sentences (itself a matter of appropriate selection of grammatical forms & vocabulary) and expressing them in sound in order to express a desired meaning.

It must be set in the broader context of communicating which involves both listening and speaking.

It is merely necessary to survey a few basic categories of communicative function to appreciate the validity of the oral approach in relation to the needs and objectives of most language learners.

The role of reading as an aid to vocabulary learning is emphasized by many teachers. Note that some Ss can recognise the written form of a word, but cannot recognise the word when they hear it spoken. (But many words may be identified via Phonics).

In Western educational establishments, reading & writing are thought to be the necessary tools of learning (books! papers! E-mail, the Internet). Some may contend that the oral tradition can also deliver language (songs, stories.). Chanting the Koran.

Note that Listening Comprehension is aided by a knowledge of vocabulary and phraseology and difference of Spoken Prose & Conversation.

Note: the pedagogical use of R & W in the classroom. Most adults prefer the support of the written word when learning languages. Programmes for children (e.g. En Avant) where R & W were taboo for the first year or two were questionable.


1. A History of English Language Teaching ELT (2nd Edition: 1984) (Oxford Applied Linguistics Series) by Anthony Howatt

Very readable if you are really interested in this subject. This history covers several centuries. There is interesting coverage of language teaching methods, emphasizing the spoken word, pioneered by economic migrants, including people taking refuge in the UK to avoid poverty or persecution. Take heart if you are an economic migrant earning your keep by giving lessons in your native language to foreigners. You are not the first in history to do this.

2. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching: Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Applied Linguistic Research (Oxford Applied Linguistics) by Stern, H. H.

This is a long book, very suitable for background reading if you are planning to do a degree in Second Language Learning and Teaching or Applied Linguistics. It is a very readable book for anybody with some knowledge of the field and is one of the most useful reference sources for past and present methods and approaches and the linguistic theories behind them. Methods where emphasis is on the spoken word are included in this very comprehensive coverage.

3. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (Cambridge Language Teaching Library) by Richards, Jack C. and Theodore S. Rodgers [16/06/2014]

This is a shorter book providing a more concise roundup of methods and approaches than the previous title and with more emphasis on more recent events. It is suitable for people training to teach languages, though not necessarily aiming to specialize in Applied Linguistics.

4. Notional Syllabuses - A Taxonomy and Its Relevance to Foreign Language Curriculum Development (ELT) by Wilkins, D. A.

This is an important work since it charts the move in the 1970s from "synthetic" approaches dividing language into managable nuggets of syntax to "analytic" approaches tied to "Notions" and "Functions" offering an alternative to structural syllabus design. D.A. Wilkins was one of the first linguists to be associated with the Notional Functional approach and this is one of the earliest works where an attempt is made to define the terms "Notion" and "Function". Coursebook, syllabus and test designs claiming to be "communicative", often go little further than the principles of Notional Functional design. I am surprised that D.A. Wilkin's seminal work is so difficult to obtain, because so many modern materials fall back on this 1970s development. Strictly speaking, this new method of linguistic description was pioneered by Austin and Searle. John Searle's "Speech Acts" were popularized by D.A. Wilkins, who adopted the term "function" to describe "the social purpose of an utterance" and added the term "notion" to provide semantic fields and further setting. "Notional Syllabuses" is certainly a valuable work in its emphasis on semantic criteria in course design - something that was lacking in some (though not all) structurally based language courses.

5. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language by John Searle [02/01/1969]

The heart of this work is contained within a few inspired pages in the middle. If you are interested in the developments in linguistic description and semantics, which were further refined by D. A. Wilkins and Wilga Rivers in their more communicative categories for language course design, then Searle's concise taxonomy is well worth looking at. These categories were further refined in the Council of Europe's Threshold 1990 and Waystage 1990 specifications for language syllabus design (at intermediate and pre-intermediate levels respectively), though in the latter documents structural and functional criteria are seen as partners in a marriage rather than mutually exclusive design principles.

6. A Practical Guide to the Teaching of English as a Second or Foreign Language by Wilga Rivers and Mary S. Temperley

This used to be the bible for people training to teach ESL or EFL in the 1970s - the decade in the twentieth century where language teaching methodology developed most significantly.

7. Teaching Language as Communication (Oxford Applied Linguistics) by Henry Widdowson [03/08/1978]

If ever there was a revolution in language teaching methodology in the 1970s, this is another of the seminal works, which has lasted well. It contains very good descriptions of some of the key concepts (e.g. "signification" and "value") underlying the shift of emphasis in syllabus design. There has been little constructive development in the theory of Communicative Language Teaching methodology since this work, though what there has been is tremendous progress in Information Communication Technology, allowing access to listening (e.g. via English radio online services) and a variety of reading comprehension materials (via web sites) wherever there is a computer in the world with audio speakers and an Internet connection. If theory is still needed, given all this access to language learning materials, Widdowson is not a bad source. It interests me that there are far fewer publishers responsible for English language teaching materials than there were in the 1970s and 1980s and it is much more difficult to find a range of materials on specialist aspects of language learning and teaching. It could be that Communication Technology fulfils the need for language learning materials more effectively today than exploration into underlying theories, though I hope that there is still scope for both.