Sunday, 5 October 2014

Why do we value writing so highly?

In our modern language exams we continue to value writing too highly as a skill. In the new GCSE being taught from September 2016  it will be worth 25% of marks (compared with 30% now). At A-level it will continue to have a high value, even though, as currently proposed, part of the written assessment will be in English.

It is hard to argue that writing is as useful a language skill as speaking, listening and reading. When most people think of being proficient at a language, they are thinking of proficiency in speaking and listening. Most of the contexts we use a new language involve listening and speaking. Yet we continue to set numerous writing tasks in the classroom and at home; we continue to give writing quite a heavy weighting in exams. Why?

We can partly blame tradition. In the days of grammar-translation writing was preeminent since the teaching of modern languages evolved in large part from the way Latin had been taught. Accuracy trumped communication and accuracy was most easily assessed by correcting writing. Nowadays teachers value communication more highly than accuracy. However, our teaching and assessment methods have, somewhat begrudgingly, only taken partial account of this. We have further to go and, at some time in the future, we no doubt will give writing its appropriate place.

Technology plays as important role. In the past it was either impossible or not easy to set listening and speaking tasks at home. This is no longer the case. Computers, tablets and mobile phones make it easy to record and store the voice. Internet links with school should now make it pretty easy to upload and download recordings. Yet most teachers default to writing tasks, most likely because collecting and marking books is more familiar. It is hard to break with established practice and some teachers are reluctant to master new technologies.

Does this mean we should largely abandon writing as a skill? After all, computer translation is becoming more and more accurate and does a very good job at a simple level. I would argue against this, not because we need to develop written skill per se, but because writing supports and helps embed the other skills. Writing out answers to comprehension exercises or grammar drills allows for some thinking time and is one (less than perfect) source of comprehensible input. It does allow students to think through the use of structures and to develop their grammatical and communicative competence.

Thinking pragmatically, it also is the type of skill which keeps classes usefully busy when they and the teacher need some "down time". It is still a way to exert class control, even though it is used far less for this than in the past. A pupil with pen in hand writing notes or typing on a computer keyboard, writing exercises or a composition may be less likely to lose focus.

A written record of a student's knowledge and skills is also permanent evidence, easy to access.The teacher is able to look back through a student's progress more easily on paper than by going through voice recordings.

Deep down, have we found it hard to escape from the idea that writing is somehow more serious, more rigorous than speech? I am sure there is something in this. An educated person has traditionally been viewed as someone who, as well as speaking in an articulate fashion, reads a lot, spells correctly and writes grammatically. The most highly educated people also continue to value standard forms of the language over dialect, despite some evolution in this regard.

Is writing the most demanding skill to master in language learning? Does this give it higher value? Probably not. That honour goes to speaking. At least with writing you have time to reflect, edit, redraft, do more mental translation from the mother tongue, use a dictionary. Speaking, on the other hand, places greater demands on the learner. Very quick reactions to listening input and recall of vocabulary and structure are required. Speaking in the classroom is also an activity which makes many students self-conscious. Less able students are often more comfortable writing things down at a simple level than trying to put sentences together orally.

I would hope that, if we continue to assess the four skills separately (we do not have to), we move towards valuing listening and speaking more highly, reading and writing less. A sensible balance at GCSE and A-level might be something like: Speaking 30%, Listening 30%, Reading 25%, Writing 15%.


  1. Writing should be valued highly. In fact, productive skills (writing, speaking) are harder than receptive skills (reading, listening), so they should weigh more. I suggest writing (30%), speaking (30%), reading (20%), listening (20%).

  2. I agree. We speak far more than we use any of the other skills. Good writing is far more than grammatical accuracy. No one listens much nowadays, more interested in thinking up what to say next to impose own opinion, and it's easy to find a piece of native speech which would be incomprehensible even to most teachers!!