Written Language and Foreign Language Teaching

Vivian Cook 
Writing Home

Draft of chapter in Cook and Bassetti (2004) L2 Writing Systems

Since the decline of audiolingualism as a teaching method, there has been little public debate about the respective roles of spoken language and written language in language teaching or about how to teach the writing system itself. This chapter argues that it is time to start thinking again not only about the general relationship between spoken and written language in language teaching but also about how to teach the specifics of writing. It is then concerned with the acquisition of an L2 writing system in foreign language teaching classrooms. The term 'writing' is used here in the general superordinate sense which subsumes both writing and reading; the discussion thus extends beyond the writing system to the uses of the system. The question is how teaching should use writing at the beginners level rather than at more advanced levels of writing, which have received more attention. The chapter looks at teaching through the lens of specimen coursebooks. It draws on Cook (2004) for its general concept of writing systems and for some of the details of L2 writing systems and on the overall idea of multi-competence one mind with two languages (Cook, 2002). More general discussion of teaching materials for beginners from an L2 user perspective can be found in Cook (2003).

1. The relationship of spoken and written language in language teaching

The priority of spoken over written language has been a constant theme in language teaching methodology (Banathy & Sawyer, 1969) and it formsed article 1 of the International Phonetic Association in the 1880s: 'Foreign language study should begin with the spoken language of everyday life' (cited in Stern, 1983). The audiolingualism of the 1960s established the first principle of scientific language teaching as Speech before writing (Lado, 1964). The over-riding importance of the spoken language is implicit in almost all language teaching methods at the start of the twenty-first century. The major exception is the teaching of languages with character-based scripts (Chinese and Japanese) where the writing system has always played a crucial role in the early stages of teaching.

The reasons advocated for the primacy of speech are usually derived from the pronouncements of linguists, say Lyons (1968: 38) 'the spoken language is primary and writing is essentially a means of representing speech in another medium'. The linguistic arguments used to justify the primacy of speech are typically:

        children acquire their first language in spoken form before written: Because many people acquire languages by hearing them first, many teachers prefer to expose students to the spoken form first (Harmer,1998: 53).

        spoken language existed in many countries long before written.

        many languages today still essentially lack a writing system , like Swiss German or Ulster Scots.

        many individuals are illiterate, the world-wide illiteracy rate for the year 2000 being 20.6% (UNESCO Statistical Yearbook, 2000).

While these statements are unquestionably true, they say nothing direct or relevant about L2 acquisition or about the desirability of teaching spoken rather than written language to students who are already literate.

In addition teachers sometimes claim that:

        some students only need the second language in spoken form.

        some students demand to be taught the spoken form.

        early writing may cause interference in speaking from the written forms in sound-based scripts.

Again, true as these statements may be, they show only that a proportion of students need speaking or that there is some caution to be used in teaching writing, not that writing should be taught as a secondary form of language. It is probably equally true that some students need written language, demand written language and may have interference in writing from speech (for example the frequent use of full stressed forms of English auxiliaries 'will' and 'shall' rather than their usual reduced spoken form 'll' /l/). The claims of both linguists and teachers seem to be based on an implicit view that all writing systems are sound-based; such claims have not been conceived in terms of meaning-based systems.

In many ways the whole tradition of teaching European languages since the Reform Movement of the 1880s has been to pretend that the first language does not exist in the foreign language teaching classroom and to make the students start from scratch as if they did not already have another language. So far as the teaching of the written language is concerned, this fails to recognise that becoming literate in a first writing system has already changed the learner in ways that cannot be undone. To be specific:

        literate people reason in a more abstract way (Luria, 1976). People who have learnt to read have different perceptions of the world and store information differently from those who do not (Goody, 2000). The actual brains of literate people differ from those of non‑literates (Petersen et al., 2000).

        literate people perceive language differently. Literate English people believe there are more sounds in 'ridge' /rIdZ/ than there are in 'rage' /reidZ/ (Derwing, 1992) because of the extra letter <d> in the written form. English children do not 'hear' the phoneme /n/ till after they have acquired the letter <n> (Treiman et al., 1995). As Olson (1996: 100) puts it, 'Writing systems create the categories in terms of which we become conscious of speech'. Written English is pre-analysed into words by spaces, into types of nouns by capital letters and into grammatical constructions by commas, full stops and semi-colons. The very units of language we perceive vary according to our L1 writing system; the phonemes and words that exist for speakers of alphabet-based writing systems may be far from the minds of those using a syllable-based writing system, let alone one based on morphemes.

It is then time for language teaching methodology to rethink its emphasis on the spoken language in the beginning stages. While there may still be valid grounds for the primacy of spoken language, there is no reason why it should be adopted on the grounds of the beliefs of the 1880s or the largely irrelevant arguments of linguists.

2. Learning to use a second language writing system

What in fact do people need to know to be able to read and write in a second language? Let us sum up the types of information covered in many chapters of this book, using English as the main example of a second language, i.e. a sound-based, far from transparent, alphabetic system. The areas are not in any particular order.

A) Students have to learn the appropriate direction of reading and writing, whether left-to-right as in English, right-to-left as in Arabic, top-to-bottom in columns as in some traditional Japanese and Chinese (or occasional English street signs), or the complexities of Hindi where vowels are placed at the beginning of the word before the consonants.

Though changing direction undoubtedly creates problems in acquiring an L2 writing system, at least initially, particularly with the complex eye-movement involved in reading, little has been documented. It probably contributes to the well-known slowness of Chinese readers of English compared to other L2 readers (Haynes & Carr, 1990), at least for those Chinese readers still using the traditional column arrangement. Arabic students in England have reported that their children attempt to write English from right-to-left, though such mirror writing is not uncommon among native English children.

B) Students have to learn to make and recognise the actual letter or character shapes. Variation between languages partly depends on the medium, whether keyboard, pen or brush, but also on movement English makes circles predominantly in an anti-clockwise direction Japanese in a clockwise direction and on sequence of construction English makes vertical lines before horizontal, Japanese the reverse (Sassoon, 1995). Letters may also have contextually determined forms, say the 97 or so necessary for linking the 28 letters of Arabic; interestingly the font devised by Gutenberg for the German Bible in 1455 originally had over 300 different letter forms to mimic the variation in handwriting. Of course for many users the basic skill nowadays is the ability to type text in at a keyboard, whether a PC or a mobile phone.

In terms of recognition, students also have to be able to see the different versions of a letter as the same, say the three alphabets <a A a> or the differences between serif and sans-serif fonts <A A>, let alone differences in handwriting say < > for capital <I> (see Sassoon (1999) for an extensive discussion). This extends to variations in font, for example the older fonts for German such as < > rather than <ss> as in <bei> (bite) and the difference between so-called serif (lines of varying width) and sans-serif (lines of uniform thickness) scripts in Japanese, say せんしゅう versus せんしゅう.

Clearly L2 students' handwriting shows the transfer from the L1WS, both from sound-based L2WSs with different alphabets Greek use of <α> for <a> in English < > (arises) and from characters to letters the Japanese use of horizontal before vertical strokes in English < > for capital <E>. This transfer of physical actions from the L1WS to the L2WS is perhaps only documented by Sassoon (1995).

The computer has added new dimensions to this. At one level the keyboard itself may differ from one writing system to another. It is impossible to key in a tilde <~> by itself on some Spanish keyboards as it is incorporated into separate letters, i.e. <> or <>. Inputting characters in word processing Chinese and Japanese is complex; for example a typical word-processing program requires the user to type the words in roman letters, say < hatarakisugi > (to work too much) the program automatically converts this into hiragana syllabic symbols namely はたらきすぎ, then this is converted into kanji characters 働き過ぎ (sometimes involving a choice between alternative kanji for the same pronunciation).

Additionally there are transliteration systems that allow Greek speakers to use the Roman alphabet for e-mails (Tseliga, 2003). Crucially the access to many character dictionaries depends upon knowing the order in which the strokes of the character are made, now much less available because the keyboard cuts out the need to write characters.

C) Students have to learn to use the phonological processing route for relating letters and sounds in an alphabet-based writing system such as English, so that they can link written <bus> to spoken /bs/ and vice versa. In less transparent alphabetic writing systems, they need to use complex correspondence rules.

Mistakes with phoneme-grapheme correspondence rules are common in L2 students' work in English (Cook, 1997), for instance vowel alternations such as <a>/<e> in <catagories>, <e>/<i> in <defenetely>, <a>/<i> in <privite>, alternations of <s>, <c>, <z>, <t> in <immence> or <amasing>. The difficulties with the phonological route are:

        The L2 phonological system, which the L2 learner may not use in the same way as a native speaker in this case similar to the problems of children who have not yet developed the adult system or who speak with a dialect accent that is not the one reflected in the standard correspondence rules.

        The projection of the learners' L1 phonological system on the L2WS, say the lack of final voicing in German revealed in English spelling 'recognice'. Japanese students have <l>/<r> problems with <blackets>, <grobal>, <sarary> (salary) etc, showing they do not use the /l~r/ contrast in the same way as native speakers. It may of course be difficult to distinguish such phonological transfer from deficiencies in knowledge of the L2WS.

        The correspondence rules that govern the relationships between letters and sounds in a particular language. The correspondence rules that English employs for showing say 'short' versus 'long' vowels are hardly appreciated by L2 learners, whether consonant doubling <accomodation>, <forgoten> or silent <e> in <mor> or <mane> (man). Nor are the three spelling systems of English (Albrow, 1972): basic as in final /k/ corresponding to <ck> 'mock', romance as in final /k/ corresponding to <que> 'baroque', and exotic as in final /k/ corresponding to <k> 'amok'.

D) Students have to learn to use the lexical, morpheme-based processing route. In an orthographically deep alphabet-based writing system they need this route to deal with individual words and meanings, so that they can, say, link <does> with /dz/ in one direction and /jt/ with <yacht> in the other; in character-based systems they need this route to deal with the character-to-meaning correspondences for example between and the meaning 'person', or in reverse between 'person' and , 'benevolence' and , 'Ren' (surname) and   (all pronounced /ʐən/). In English, according to Seidenberg (1992), perhaps the most frequent 200 words have to be processed as one-off items by this route. Students show many mistakes with words that have to be remembered as idiosyncratic such as <rong> for <wrong> and <payed> for <paid>.

The lexical route is also used for direct access to the lexicon within the Chomskyan model of spelling as lexical representation: the fact that there is a single plural 's' morpheme is shown by spelling it as <s> despite the variation in pronunciation between /s/ in 'books', /z/ in 'rugs', and /iz/ in 'badges'; the links between different forms of the same word are maintained by preserving the spelling, the letter <o> is used in <photograph> and <photographer> despite corresponding to /u/ and //respectively.  However, while it clearly takes some time for children to perceive the common feature of 'ed' in 'played', 'liked' and 'watched' (Nunes et al., 1997), adult L2 learners seem not to have the same difficulty (Cook, 2004).

E) Students have to learn orthographic regularities in less transparent writing systems, in English for instance:

        the three letter rule that distinguishes content from function words ('in/inn', 'an/Ann' and 'I/eye/aye' ).

        the constraints on letters not occurring in final position, say <v>, <j> or <h> (apart from a handful of items such as <spiv>, <raj> and <blah>).

Again these orthographic regularities provide a frequent source of error for students, the use of final <ck> rather than <k> 'thik', of double <o> as in 'wood' but not of double <aa> (apart from say <baa>), of final but not initial <ll> ('dull' versus 'llud'), of silent <e> in reading as a clue to the preceding vowel, and so on. L2 learners develop these orthographic regularities along with the sound and meaning-based routes (Cook, 2004).

F) Students have to learn to use punctuation marks and other typographic features that show different structural relationships in the sentence, <Johns book?>, or provide clues to reading aloud, say potential pauses shown by commas in lists such as <apples, oranges, pears and lemons>. The actual punctuation marks differ slightly in form across languages, for instance the goose-feet quotation marks used in French <le verbe avoir >, the initial upside-down Spanish question marks <> and exclamation marks <> and the hollow punctuation mark < > and listing comma < > of Chinese. Typography in the broad sense ('the structuring and arranging of visual language', Baines & Haslam, 2002: 1) also plays a crucial part in the interpretation of the page. Though little studied, these features form an important aspect of reading and writing in an L2 writing system.

G) Students have to cope with the creative use of spelling and other typographical devices in shop-names such as 'Kidz Kutz Hair Design' (Kids Cuts). Novel spelling also occurs frequently in text messages 'C U 4 T' (see you for tea) and other computer-mediated communication, now perhaps the commonest form of written language for many users. L2 users too may need to master the features of e-mail, for example Arabic-speaking businessmen using English for communicating with each other.

H) Students have to learn to use the forms and functions of written language, so that they can use the appropriate words and grammar for, say, writing an e-mail rather than making a phone-call, have greater lexical density in more formal genres (Biber, 1995) and so on. At the most general level, this has to some extent been catered for in language teaching, as we see below.

In general adding an L2WS to a L1WS can lead to issues resulting from:

        the influence of one writing system on another, i.e. an aspect of transfer.

        the creation of a new system.

        language-internal contradictions, interlocking phonological as well as orthographic systems; etc.

Some of these problems are also found in children learning an L1 writing system, some only in the acquisition of an L2 writing system because of the knowledge of the L1WS already present in the learner's mind. Some of these eight areas outlined above (A to G) are common to all writing systems, some peculiar to one or two; some 'obvious' and giving little trouble, others leaving problems that persist throughout people's lives. But it would be very hard to function as a reader or writer in a second language without them.

3. Written language in modern language teaching coursebooks

Let us now look at some of the ways in which written language is utilised in a sample of beginners courses, limiting ourselves to the acquisition of alphabetic L2 writing systems. The course-books have been chosen to provide useful illustrations, rather than to be statistically representative of good current coursebooks: namely six adult low-level courses: four for English Atlas (Nunan, 1995), Reward (Greenall, 1994), Changes (Richards, 1998), Headway Elementary (Soars & Soars, 1993) and two for other languages Ci Siamo (Guarnuccio & Guarnuccio, 1997) for Italian and Libre Echange (Courtillon & de Salins, 1995) for French. Changes, Libre Echange and Atlas claim to be suitable for beginners, Reward for 'intermediate', Headway for 'elementary'; Ci Siamo does not specify level. Any criticisms of these courses implied below are not aimed at undermining these courses, which have many other virtues; my own beginners' EFL course People and Places (Cook, 1980) had very similar characteristics. All the courses apart from Ci Siamo are monolingual and are stand-alone volumes.

The most crucial aspect to look at for language teaching is the overall functions of written language within the L2 user's world outside the classroom and the uses for it within the classroom. The written language found in the course-books falls into a limited set of categories:

a) scripted dialogues

A typical example comes where two characters are introducing each other.




Buongiorno. Io sono la signora Pasotto. Lei come si chiama?

Mi chiamo Lucy, cio Lucia Lucia Burns.                         (Ci Siamo, 1)

All the coursebooks use scripted textbook dialogues, far more well-formed and cohesive than any natural spoken language (Cook, 1970). Occasionally, as in Libre Echange, they are taken from authentic film-scripts again invented rather than authentic speech. The main use of these written texts is to present spoken language in written form. However, paradoxically, the spoken language portrayed is far from ordinary, more like the well-scripted dialogues of a play or film. The dialogues are neither fish nor fowl, far from speech written down but equally far from normal written language in vocabulary, syntax and lexical density.

b) written elements in teaching tasks

The written language is also used as an integral part of teaching:

      language explanation

Elements such as grammar are explained to students in written language, as in:

J'ai lou Ici, le participe pass est employ avec le verbe avoir et il est invariable. (Libre Echange: 32)

Even the first lessons of these course-books use the authentic written language of grammar discussion, with a technical L2 vocabulary way outside the usual limits of beginners 'participe', 'verbe' (Libre Echange: 32); 'adjectives', 'conjunction', 'wh question' (Atlas: 16), or 'Naming objects', 'Asking and saying where things are', 'Prepositions of place' (Changes: 17). It is debatable whether these explanations are addressed to the beginner students or are intended for the teacher or designed for later reference purposes. Sometimes these explanations are given in the first language (Ci Siamo).

      conveying L2 word meaning

A perpetual problem in language teaching is how to convey the meaning of words in the second language. From the Direct Method through the Audiovisual Method down to the present day, a common technique is ostensive definition through the presentation of pictures with labels. Ci Siamo (p. 136) uses Michelangelo's David with 24 labelled parts including 'il dito' (finger) and 'la spalla' (shoulder) (but with an added item 'la foglia' (leaf)). Similar is the use of picture captions ' la terrasse d'un caf chic' (on the terrace of a smart cafeteria) (Libre Echange: 91), though this is often turned into an exercise of finding a name for a picture. This technique then represents a straightforward everyday use of written language, found in notices, encyclopaedias etc.

      giving instructions for teaching exercises

Students' books provide written directions for the activities they have to do, for example:

Look at the pictures and find these places. Label the pictures. (Atlas: 25)

This represents a normal function of written language in the style of instructional texts such as cookbooks, for instance the dominance of imperatives, but is again way above the spoken language of the students in terms of grammar and vocabulary.

      asking comprehension questions

Another unavoidable element in language teaching is checking whether the students have understood, in these courses often covered by written questions:

Who are they? Listen to their conversations. Spell their surnames. (Changes: 6)

The overall point is checking on comprehension of elements of spoken or written text through written language, sometimes in disguised ways. Outside educational contexts, it is rather unusual to be, say, quizzed on today's headlines after we read the newspapers.

c) providing exercise props

The written language can also provide material for practising the spoken language:

      lists of words

Many activities rely on lists of words:

Match the foods and drinks to the words in the chart apples, carrots, bread, butter, beef, coffee (Changes: 37)

Little outside the educational context provides a model or a purpose for these isolated bits of written language. The only parallel might be making a speech from notes, which is self-prepared and far more complex.


Information necessary for the exercise can be conveyed through realia and graphics, such as catalogues:

i jeans 1 avorio L.50.00, 2 nero L.79.00, 3 prlav L.73.000 (Ci Siamo,  )

Maps are particularly popular whether San Francisco (Atlas), London (Changes), Dublin (Reward) or Urbania (Ci Siamo). While these represent a normal use of written language for display and information, the students are learning the names for the clothes etc rather than deciding what to buy, i.e. a codebreaking rather than a decoding activity. The written language is the 'block' language of noun phrases, proper names, prices etc rather than being 'full' sentences or having textual coherence.

      fill-in forms and charts

Students fill in copious amounts of information into charts and the like:

Daily Planner Monday Morning Afternoon . Evening (Atlas: 31)

and forms:

Carte Internationale d'Embarquement 1. M/Mme/Mlle ___________ Nom ______ (Libre Echange: 39)

Mostly their response is a single written word or phrase rather than a complete sentence or paragraph, usually acting as the basis for a later oral exchange. While it is of course necessary to fill in such forms from time to time in everyday life, this is usually an unavoidable chore. The language is fragments and isolated words. Most of the charts and forms in the coursebooks have no outcome other than providing material for a teaching exercise.

      sentence completion

Perhaps the most ancient teaching technique gets students to fill in blanks in sentences before saying them aloud:

Et laitues, il y a laitues? (Libre Echange: 84)

or to construct sentences from jumbled words:

Rearrange the words to make questions and answers and then practice them: you/where/live/do ... (Atlas: 20)

In a sense this exploits the permanency of written language so that the whole sentence can be present simultaneously for the student to play with, again using written language in a way unparalleled outside a classroom.

   making up sentences

Students are given questions and answers in a jumbled order and have to pair them appropriately, for example My perfect weekend as seen by Stephen from Leeds and Paula from Nottingham (Reward: 90). Sentences are also constructed from jumbled words:

How many statements and questions can you make from these words?
I  dessert  she  want  any  steak  don't  fries they  coffee  some  he  wants (Atlas: 83).

This too is a purely pedagogical use of written language, inconceivable outside a classroom, relying finally on reading aloud.

d) written texts

Some course-books also present written language through continuous texts longer than a single sentence:

      short information texts

Cultural information is often conveyed through short texts, typically about 50 words long:

biographies: Beryl aged 95 from Nottingham (Changes: 95)

first person accounts: Sun Hee Shi talks about her birthday (Changes: 88)

factual accounts: Amazing Animals ('Did you know the kangaroo can't walk at all?', Changes: 81).

Only Reward features a real short story, by Roald Dahl, and extracts from books such as Paul Theroux's The Kingdom by the Sea. These short texts resemble pieces of travel guides or children's textbooks rather than normal reading. Little of our everyday reading consists of passages of this type (particularly when they are pretexts for arranging information in columns or completing sentences).


Specimens of letters occasionally form a basis for the students' own writing, for instance refusing an invitation (Atlas: 98) or telling a friend about Italian pastimes (Ci Siamo: 47).

Let us then sum up the conclusions about beginners course-books reached in this section:

      scripted dialogues are primarily a way of teaching spoken language by providing a permanent record, not of teaching aspects of the written language itself.

      written language is often a device for explaining, giving instructions etc, i.e. a kind of meta-language of teaching rather than a way-in to writing itself.

      written language within teaching activities is mostly a pretext for spoken exercises, involving uses of language seldom encountered outside textbooks.

      texts are mostly restricted to short quasi-factual biographies etc, with some longer texts about 'interesting facts', seldom recognisable as text types that would occur outside a teaching context.

These features seem typical of the course-books. Though they may be taught differently by different teachers, there is no reason to think that the average beginner will encounter a totally different range of written language than that represented in these coursebooks.

None of the courses explicitly teach any of the areas A-H listed in section 2 in any depth. A few courses implicitly teach aspects of the phonological processing route (C) the different sound correspondences of <c> and <g> are briefly mentioned in Teach Yourself Italian) and Ci Siamo those for <s> in Changes (p. 17); most of them mention the letter names, called 'pronunciation' by Atlas (p. 25), and encourage students to spell words out loud using them (Changes: 10). Nor is there any attention to punctuation. The elements in the French writing system that differ from other European languages, such as the accents, goose-feet and cedilla, are untreated in Libre Echange, unless concealed in pronunciation practice such as Le e tombe parfois (Libre Echange: 85). Not only do these course-books distort the nature of written language in using it as a prop for spoken language but they also fail to approach written language systematically.

Taking English as a target L2WS, we can summarise what a proper coursebook might include:

A. direction: students with L1WSs with a right-to-left direction such as Arabic need to be guided into the left-to-right nature of English.

B. letter formation. Students with different alphabets in the L1WS, such as Greek, or with characters, need to be helped in the basics of letter recognition and production.

C. phonological processing. Students need to learn the correspondence rules for the English writing system; students from meaning-based L1WSs need to be told the extent to which the English writing system depends upon phoneme-grapheme correspondence.

D. lexical processing. Students need to be encouraged to treat English as partially meaning-based one-off symbols, say for common words and for unique words.

E. orthographic regularities. Students need to know the rules that govern the pure arrangements of letters other than those that depend on letter-sound correspondences.

F. punctuation and typography. Students may need instruction into the marks and layout themselves or into their specific use in English.

G. creativity. Students need to appreciate the systematic deviations from the standard spelling system used in English.

H. functions. Students need to know the ways in which the resources of the writing system can be used in different genres and for different purposes.

The disappointment about the course-books is not so much that they are doing anything wrong in terms of teaching the writing system as that they simply do not bother to cover any of these points. Yet each page they present has potential difficulties for the student coming from another writing system. Take a specimen page, say page 17 from Atlas, in terms of typography. This is headed '2 This is my Sister' across a full colour photo of two heads; it consists of 4 exercises of different types illustrated with full-colour drawings, one of five smiling people representing a family.

        headings are in sans-serif <Warm-Up> and text in serif <Look at the picture>, common say to English newspapers but not universal.

        turns in dialogues are prefaced by speakers labelled A and B and a colon:
              A: What's your name?

but without quotation marks. However some subheadings to 'Unit Goals' are given in italics as quotations with double quotation marks

          "My name is Tony Shaw."
a feature of American rather than British style.

        The overall  arrangement on the page is based on a small left column for general headings and numbered tasks on the right, sometimes divided into sub columns for vocabulary lists (bold), e.g.:

          check    underline    circle    fill in     cross out

At one level this can be seen as relying on left-to-right, top-to-bottom arrangement, at another its lightness on the page, its use of photographs, its mixing of fonts, italics and bold face and its bitty layout, makes it resemble a mail-order catalogue rather than a unified page of prose in a book. In a culture where education is presented as a serious matter, this light-hearted presentation can be considerably off-putting.

4. Spelling syllabuses

Perhaps concentrating on course-books is unfair and writing systems have been thought about at greater length within the educational sphere. Let us take two examples of current curricula for modern languages, one set by a national body in the UK, the other by a cross-national body in Europe.

i) The Adult ESOL Core Curriculum in England (DfES, 2001) is aimed at the million adults with literacy problems in the UK who do not have English as their first language, whether as ethnic minority communities, refugees, migrant workers or partners. It describes three levels Entry (with 3 sub-levels) and Levels 1 & 2, all defined in terms of UK school curriculum equivalence; for example the end of the Entry level is the same as the UK National Curriculum Level 5. It is divided into the conventional teaching distinction of the four skills speaking, listening, reading and writing. Here is the entire content of the section on 'Spelling and handwriting'.

Entry 1:  spell correctly some personal key words and familiar words

            write the letters of the alphabet using upper and lower case

Entry 2:  spell correctly the majority of personal details and familiar commonwords 

            produce legible text

Entry 3: spell correctly common words and relevant key words for work and special interest

            produce legible text

Level 1:  spell correctly words used most often in work, studies and daily life

            produce legible text

Level 2:  spell correctly words used most often in work, studies and daily life, including familiar technical words

            produce legible text

It is hard to see how this syllabus begins to engage with the aspects of the writing system described above. Its core is the spelling of words 'common' words, 'key' words, 'technical' words, perhaps assuming that only the lexical meaning-based route is necessary for English (D). The description of the letter forms (B) is confined to ideas about 'legibility', hardly crucial given the illegibility of much native-produced hand-writing and that most written language is probably produced using a keyboard these days. The curriculum goes no further than a common-sense list, uninformed by any idea of writing system or of the problems inherent in switching from one writing system to another. It does not accommodate the fact that the students come with a variety of different L1 writing systems. Nor does it mention the everyday problem of EFL teachers in England that some students are not literate in their first language.

ii) The European Framework (Council of Europe, 2001) provides 'a common basis for the elaboration of language syllabuses, curriculum guidelines, examinations, textbooks etc across Europe'. It lists ways in which learners can 'develop their ability to handle the writing system of a language':

a) by simple transfer from L1,

b) by exposure to authentic texts ,

c) by memorisation of the alphabet concerned,

d) by practising cursive writing,

e) by memorising word-forms ,

f) by the practice of dictation.

Unlike the UK ESOL curriculum, this seems clearly informed by a concept of what it means to teach writing systems across languages, balancing different routes and different scripts in a principled fashion, uncluttered by the long history of the teaching of English spelling. It covers aspects of (B) letter-formation, (D) the lexical route, and possibly other areas of 'transfer'; it does not need to mention others such as direction because of its limitation to languages used in Europe, which share a common left-to-right direction. But at least it is a step in the right direction.


To sum up, a systematic approach to teaching written language in the early stages of second language acquisition would:

1) teach distinctive aspects of the written language, e.g. spelling, capital letters, punctuation, functions etc. The written language would be handled systematically, not simply as a spin-off from speech and its distinctive aspects would receive emphasis of their own.

2) use the written language 'authentically' in the coursebook: newspapers, notices, road signs, headlines, advertisements etc. Students who attempted to get a picture of the current written language from current beginners coursebooks would get a very strange impression indeed.

3) exploit the written language properly, i.e. employ tasks that are proper written language rather than lead-ins to writing.


Albrow, K.H. (1972) The English Writing System: Notes towards a Description. London: Longman.

Baines, P. and Haslam, A. (2002) Type and Typography. London: Laurence King.

Banathy, B.H. and Sawyer, J.O. (1969) The primacy of speech: an historical sketch. Modern Language Journal 53, 537-44.

Biber, D. (1995) Dimensions of Register Variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cook, V.J. (1970) Freedom and control in language teaching materials. In R.W. Rutherford (ed.) BAAL Seminar Papers: Problems in the Preparation of Foreign Language Teaching Materials. On-line at: Freedom and control in language teaching materials

Cook, V.J. (1980) People and Places. Oxford: Pergamon.

Cook, V.J. (1997) L2 users and English spelling. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 18 (6), 474-488.

Cook, V.J. (ed.) (2002) Portraits of the L2 User. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Cook, V.J. (2003) Materials for adult beginners from an L2 User perspective. In B. Tomlinson (ed.) Developing Materials for Language Teaching (pp. 275-290). London: Continuum.

Cook, V.J. (2004) The English Writing System. London: Edward Arnold.

Council of Europe (2001) Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Online document: http://www.coe.int/T/E/Cultural_Co-operation/education/

Courtillon, J. and de Salins, G.-D. (1995) Libre Echange. Paris: Hatier/Didier.

Derwing, B.L. (1992) Orthographic aspects of linguistic competence. In P. Downing, S.D. Lima, and M. Noonan (eds.) The Linguistics of Literacy (pp. 193210). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

DfES (Department for Education and Skills) (2001) Adult ESOL Core Curriculum in England. Online document: http://www.dfes.gov.uk/ curriculum_literacy/.

Goody, J. (2000) The Power of the Written Tradition. Washington: Smithsonian Institute.

Greenall, S. (1994) Reward. Oxford: Heinemann.

Guarnuccio, C. and Guarnuccio, E. (1997) Ci siamo. Victoria: CIS Heinemann.

Harmer, J. (1998) How to Teach English. Harlow: Longman.

Haynes, M. and Carr, T.H. (1990) Writing system background and second language reading: a component skills analysis of English reading by native speaker-readers of Chinese. In T.H. Carr and B.A. Levy (eds.) Reading and its Development: Component Skills Approaches (pp. 375-421). San Diego: Academic Press.

Lado, R. (1964) Language Teaching: A Scientific Approach. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Luria, A.R. (1976) Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Lyons, J. (1968) Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunan, D. (1995) Atlas. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

Nunes, T., Bryant, P. and Bindham, M. (1997) Spelling and GrammarThe NECSED Move. In C.A. Perfetti, L. Rieben and M. Fayol (eds.) Learning to Spell: Research, Theory and Practice across Languages (pp. 151-170). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Olson, D.R. (1996) Toward a psychology of literacy: on the relations between speech and writing. Cognition 60, 83-104.

Petersen, K.M., Reis, A., Askelf, S., Castro-Caldas, A. and Ingvar, M. (2000) Language processing modulated by literacy: a network analysis of verbal repetition in literate and illiterate subjects. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12 (3), 364-382.

Richards J.C. (1998) Changes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sassoon, R. (1995) The Acquisition of a Second Writing System. Exeter: Intellect.

Sassoon, R. (1999) Handwriting of the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge.

Seidenberg, M.S. (1992) Beyond orthographic depth in reading: equitable division of labour. In R. Frost and L. Katz (eds.) Orthography, Phonology, Morphology, and Meaning (pp. 85-118). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Soars L. and. Soars, J. (1993) Headway Elementary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stern, H.H. (1983) Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Treiman, R., Zukowski, A. and Richmond-Welty, E.D. (1995) What happened to the "n" of "sink"? Children's spelling of final consonant clusters. Cognition 55, 1-38.

Tseliga, T. (2003) Computer-mediated Greeklish: key linguistic and socio-cultural issues. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Brighton.

Unesco (2000) UNESCO Statistical Yearbook. Document available online: http://www.uis.unesco.org/en/stats/statistics/yearbook/YBIndexNew.htm