Written Language

1. Introduction

  • Both spoken and written discourse the active listener and the active reader are engaged in very similar processes from discourse analysis as to how different texts are organized and how the process of creating written text is realized at various levels, from small units to large, the more likely we are to be able to create authentic materials and activities for the classroom

2. Speech and Writing

  • Both spoken and written discourses are dependent on their immediate contexts to a greater or lesser degree.
  • The idea that writing is in some way ‘freestanding’, whereas speech is more closely tied to its context, has come under attack as an oversimplification by discourse analyst.
  • The transcript of a piece of natural conversation may well contain references impossible to decode without particular knowledge or without visual information.

Similarly, spoken ‘language in action’, where language is used to accompany actions being performed by the speakers, is also typically heavily context-dependent.

  • This same variation in context-dependability is found in written texts.
  • A sign saying ‘NO BICYCLES’ is highly context-dependent: it may mean ‘it is forbidden to ride/park a bicycle here’ or perhaps ‘all available bicycles already hired/sold’, depending on where the notice is located.

And while it is true that written texts such as essays, reports, instructions and letters do tend to be more freestanding and to contain fewer deictic expressions, written texts may still encode a high degree of shared knowledge between reader and writer and be just as opaque as conversational transcripts.

(6.1)  Dear Simon,

  Thanks for your letter and the papers. I too was   sorry we didn’t get the chance to continue our   conversation on the train. My journey wasn’t so bad,   and I got back about nine.

         (Author’s data 1989)

We have here references to another text shared by the writer and reader (‘your letter’, ‘I too was sorry‘), an exophoric reference to ‘the train and the deictic back, all of which depend on mutual knowledge to be fully understood.  

  • The written phase (the letter to the caretaker) then involved the learners in a number of different discoursal problems typical of (though not unique to) writing.

In fact, the two different groups who did the activity produced quite different written output, and the feedback session afterwards with the tutor led to a very interesting discussion on the cultural differences in sending a letter to a school caretaker in Britain and in Germany

(6.2)  Group A:
  Dear John,

  Would you be kind enough to get room no. 4 ready for   open day and as games room.

1.Set up the dart board on the left, on the wall next to door.

2.Arrange 5 easy chairs and 1 coffee table in the left corner near the window.

3.Separate the darts corner and the quiet corner with a screen.

4.Please put a screen on the edge of left window in order to shield off the quiet corner.

5. Have a cup of tea to relax. Thanks a lot for your help!

Reader activity 2

  • Here is the written text produced by the other group doing the activity. In what ways does it differ from the first group’s, and how do the two texts reflect perceptions as to how one writes to a school caretaker?

Group B:

  1. Put a dart board between the window and the loudspeaker.
  2. Parallel to the windows, install a screen to separate the room at distance of the loudspeaker.
  3. Put two square tables with four chairs each in front of the screen.
  4. Put two coffee tables with two chairs each on the right hand side of the door, between the door and the curtain.
  5. In the middle of the room, place another square table with four chairs.
  • Similar problems arise with writing activities of this kind to those which arise with spoken activities: the learners may misunderstand the task instructions and assume that the caretaker is expecting a note about the open day, and therefore not include anything but a list of requirements (as group B’s effort seems to do).
  • Thus the activity not only brings out linguistic differences connected with such things as deixis and lexical specificity, but also specific problems that are ever present in writing:

  – who the reader is,  

  – what the writer’s relationship with the reader is,

  – what the purpose of the text is, and

  – what textual form is appropriate.

  • Given that answers to these questions are built into the activity or can reasonably be expected to be shared knowledge.

Reader activity 2

Look at this list of everyday written texts and decide how often you read and write such texts, on an Often/Sometimes/Rarely/Never scale. Tick the appropriate box and, if possible, compare your results with another person.

3 Conclusion

  • The practical pressures of language teaching mean that teachers will always, rightly, want to evaluate carefully any descriptive insights before taking them wholly to heart as teaching points.

  • Discourse analysis is not a method for teaching languages, nor does it claim to be that. But it is my own personal view that discourse analysis has presented us with a fundamentally different way of looking at language compared with sentence dominated models, one in which the traditional elements of grammar, lexis and phonology still have a fundamental part to play, but one which is bigger and more immediately relevant.

  • What is more, we now know more about what people actually do with language when they speak and write, and no longer have to rely on what textbooks largely based on intuition and sometimes, sadly, on Classical-based notions of what ‘good’ usage is, claim to be the way people speak and write.


McCarthy, M. (2000). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, Cambridge: University Press.
Penny, W. K. (2002). Form and Function of Linguistic Items in Discourse: Analysis of a Spoken Text.
Schiffrin, D., Tannen, D. & Hamilton, H.E. (2001). The Handbook of discourse analysis. UK: Blackwell Publisher.