Why Is Writing More Difficult Than Speaking?

Speaking about Writing
Speaking about Writing. HeroImages / Getty Images

For many English learners learning to write fluently in English is much more challenging than learning to speak fluently. Even for advanced level learners, written communications can come much more slowly in English than spoken communications. There are a number of reasons for this:

Written Communication is More Formal

Writing in English needs to follow rules of grammar much more closely than in spoken English.

For example, if someone says 'Please borrow me your pen' in conversation, it's clear from the context that the speaker intended to say 'Please lend me your pen'. In written communication, words are even more important because they lack visual context. Especially if you are working in a business setting, making mistakes can cause miscommunication which might lead to problems. In conversation, you can smile and make a good impression. With writing, all you have are your words. 

Spoken Communication Allows for More 'mistakes'

Imagine if you're at a party. You might have a conversation with someone and only understand a few words. However, because you're in the context of a party, you can make all the mistakes you want. It doesn't matter. Everyone is having fun. When it comes to writing, there's not so much room for error.

Less Reflection Goes into Spoken English than Written English

Spoken English is much more spontaneous that written English.

It's looser and mistakes don't necessarily impact your ability to communicate clearly. In writing, it's important to think about how to write to the intended audience. You need to understand who will be reading your writing. It takes time to figure these things out. 

Expectations are Much Higher for Formal Written English

We expect more of what we read.

We expect it to be true, entertaining or informative. When there's expectation, there's pressure to perform well. With speaking, with the possible exception of giving a presentation, there's not nearly so much pressure—unless you're closing a business deal. 

Tips for Teaching Written English Skills

It is important when teaching written English skills - especially for business English - to be aware of the challenges that learners will face when learning to function in a written English environment.

The following points can be helpful when considering how to teach English writing skills:

  • Acquiring speech is an unconscious act, whereas learning to write takes a conscious effort on the part of the learner. One reason many individuals find it difficult to write is because of the necessity of learning a mapping skill in order to use written language.
  • Written language must be filtered through some sort of system, this system can be phonemic, structural or representative, etc. The individual must not only learn to recognize the meaning of words orally, but also go through a process of transcribing these sounds.
  • The process of transcribing sounds requires the learning of other rules and structures, thereby cognizing a previously unconscious process.

    Finding the Right Voice—The Hardest Trick in Writing

    Another reason some individuals might find it difficult to write, is that written language takes on many different registers depending on the function of the written word. Often, these functions are unrelated to spoken language and can thus be considered 'artificial' to the speaker. These functions are often only used in written speech and are therefore even more abstract to some individuals than the already difficult transcription of simple spoken language into an alphabet.

    These layers of abstraction, beginning with the transcription of oral sounds into a written alphabet and advancing to solely abstracted functions of written language, are daunting to many individuals who then understandably become frightened of the process. In the worst cases, where individuals do not possess or do not have the opportunity to learn certain cognitive skills, an individual might become fully or functionally illiterate.