Oral vs Written Text

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Subject: [PD 3886] are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Wrigley, Heide
Date: Wed Aug 5 15:25:33 EDT 2009

Hi, Ann and welcome to the list serve.

I thought you made an excellent point that I'd like to reinforce.

Just because you hear a text (rather than reading it), doesn't mean you understand the information presented. Abstract concepts, sophisticate language, uncommon vocabulary, sentences with multiple subordinations, and writing that is not organized well all present huge barriers to understanding. And that goes for any kind of text—oral or written.

Comprehension difficulties don't disappear just because a text is read.

Speech to text can facilitate access to ideas where literacy is a challenge, particularly at lower levels. But once the text itself becomes more difficult—it may need to be scaffolded, explained, and discussed so that literacy students can come away with a solid understanding of what's been heard.

There is a corollary to the work being done as part of studies in "language access" for those who speak a language other than English. There is an assumption by many agencies that anything that is translated into the native language must be comprehensible to anyone with basic literacy. It's not, of course, nor will it become much easier if it is read aloud if the language is not modified or otherwise supported by text aides such as graphic organizers. Quite often it is the cognitive challenge that's inherent in the text that throws students, not (just) the medium.


Heide Spruck Wrigley
Literacywork International

Subject: [PD 3887] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Steve Kaufmann
Date: Wed Aug 5 15:40:29 EDT 2009

I agree with Heide and that is why it is so important for struggling readers, or second language learners, to be able to choose texts of interest to them, where the context is familiar or meaningful to them. Ideally these texts are graded for difficulty, based on the learners' vocabulary level. If these conditions are met, the use of audio can only help the learner. This is true regardless of the kind of technology which is used to provide the audio.

I would also suggest that test to speech produces voice which is not natural, and therefore low resonance. it does not engage the emotions of the learner. A face to face teacher is best, and a natural recording comes next.

I would also challenge the idea expressed earlier that we are entering an age where people read less, or where reading is less important, or where audio will replace the written word, or replace braille. I think that those who read well will continue to enjoy a significant advantage, at school and in the work place. That is why basic literacy has to be the goal.


Steve Kaufmann

Subject: [PD 3890] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Glenn Young
Date: Wed Aug 5 16:07:50 EDT 2009

And just because you read it does not mean you understand it either ...

How ever a person gets the information we need to work on comprehension ....

Glenn Young

Subject: [PD 3894] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Tom Sticht
Date: Wed Aug 5 16:56:51 EDT 2009

Heide, Steve, and all: The following article presents some research on whether texts are easier to understand than written texts. Two of the studies are with students in an adult literacy program. The piece is also relevant to the discussion of using text-to-speech machines for adults. Tom Sticht

This article first appeared in the September 2003 issue of Literacy Today (issue no. 36).

From oracy to literacy

Dr Thomas G Sticht

Adults who struggle with literacy are usually tested on their reading ability. But can their oral language skills be used to measure and also improve their reading? DR Thomas G. Sticht, an international consultant in adult education, explains the 'reading potential' of adults.

As children grow up, their listening ability develops first and reading ability is acquired later. This leads to the concept of 'reading potential'. When they enter the primary grades, children can generally comprehend more by listening than by reading. For instance, a child in the first grade may comprehend stories by listening just as well as the average third grader can comprehend the same stories by reading. Therefore, the average first grader's listening score can be said to indicate a 'reading potential' of the third grade level. This is because if the average first grade child could instantly comprehend by reading as well as he or she can by listening, they would have a reading ability comparable to a typical third grader's reading ability.

The concept of 'reading potential' is important for adult literacy educators for at least two reasons. Firstly, people are frequently designated as learning disabled based on a measure, such as an 'intelligence' test. Often, these people are at their appropriate age level or above, but on a reading measure they are one, two or more years behind. That is, they are not reading 'up to their potential'. Listening tests are one way of assessing people's 'intelligence' or 'verbal IQ'.

The second reason that reading potential is important is, because of their age, adults in need of literacy education are expected to have developed fairly high levels of competence in oral language. This would provide the adult literacy learner with a fairly high level of reading potential. In turn, this leads to the expectation that the adult's literacy problems may be solved fairly quickly with a brief period of training in decoding the written word, so that the language comprehension competence already possessed in oracy may be transferred for use by the newly developed literacy.

Contrary to this expectation, in research in the United States, when some 2,000 adults were assessed to compare their skills in both listening and reading, the anticipated higher level of listening over reading ability was not found, even with adults reading at the second grade level. In another study, a prison population of men reading at the fourth grade level showed only about 1.5 grade levels of potential (Sticht & James, 1984 ).

Using a different test of listening and reading skills, 71 native speakers of English in an adult literacy programme had an average reading level at the 4.8 grade level, while their reading potential was 6.0. Interestingly, 45 adults with English as a second language had average reading scores at the grade 4.8 level while their reading potential score was at the grade 4.4 level. In other words, their listening skills were lower than their reading skills, so when the listening score was converted to a reading potential score, they performed below their actual reading level (Sticht, 1978)!

Further research (Sticht & Beck, 1976), assessed the reading potential of 42 native English speakers and 32 speakers who had English as a second language, in an adult literacy programme. The native speakers had an average reading level at grade 6.2 level and a potential at grade 6.4 level. The non-native English speakers read at an average grade 4.3 level and had a potential at grade 4.4 level.

Generally speaking, these data on listening and reading suggest that adult literacy educators may have to provide many of the least able adult readers (less than fourth grade ability) with not only effective instruction in phonemics, phonics and other decoding knowledge, but also extensive opportunities for these adults to develop lots of new vocabulary and content knowledge using their oracy skills. This way, they can raise the adults' reading potential by listening and speaking and the instruction in decoding can help them comprehend what they are able to read at their new level of potential.


T. Sticht and J. James (1984) Listening and reading. In R. Barr, M. Kamil and P. Mosenthal (eds.) Handbook of Reading Research, New York: Longman.

See also: T. Sticht (2002) Teaching Reading With Adults. Online at www.nald.ca under Full Text Documents.

DR Sticht is an American who has worked in adult literacy since 1966 when he developed methods for helping blind students read through listening. He has served in the United Kingdom since 1992 as a consultant in adult basic skills for the Basic Skills Agency and on adult literacy research with the Department for Education and Skills. He was recently awarded UNESCO'S Mahatma Gandhi medal in recognition of 25 years of service on the international jury that selects the literary prizes awarded annually by UNESCO.

Contact Tom Sticht at tsticht at aznet.net

The National Literacy Trust is an independent charity and relies on voluntary contributions. If you have found our website useful, please consider making a donation. Every penny helps.

Subject: [PD 3895] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Wrigley, Heide
Date: Wed Aug 5 17:01:49 EDT 2009

Glenn writes

And just because you read it does not mean you understand it either ...

Absolutely, Glenn! I totally agree


Subject: [PD 3898] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Steve Kaufmann
Date: Wed Aug 5 17:53:27 EDT 2009


I feel that listening and reading reinforce each other. It is easier to learn vocabulary if we can read. We get a visual as well as an aural clue. We can cross train our brain, which experiences the new words and phrases by using sound and sight. We are engaging different neural circuits. I think that audio is an inseparable part of language learning. Until I am well along in a language I avoid reading texts for which I do not have audio.

I also feel that a deliberate program of vocabulary accumulation is important. Computers now enable us to do things to help. Learners can hover and see the meanings of words in their language, or in simple language. Previously searched words or phrases are highlighted in yellow. Unknown words are highlighted in blue. Definitions and learning hints used by other learners appear in a pop up, when the cursor hovers over these words. And of course audio is provided. And the saved words are automatically put into flash cards for review.

Can literacy learning not take advantage of these methods?

Steve Kaufmann

Subject: [PD 3901] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Steve Kaufmann
Date: Wed Aug 5 17:55:45 EDT 2009


My reading and experience suggests that the brain learns better from experience and example, rather than by explicit instruction. I also believe that word knowledge, and the experience of seeing and hearing words often, in many contexts, is a bigger contributor to understanding than critical thinking.

Steve Kaufmann

Subject: [PD 3899] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Anne Murr
Date: Wed Aug 5 18:16:04 EDT 2009


You said, "Just because you hear a text (rather than reading it), doesn't mean you understand the information presented." Agreed!

Several other factors also come into play:

VL difficulties:
Auditory learners will benefit more from listening than visual learners. I am not an auditory learner so listening is not my preferred mode of learning. (When someone gives me oral directions, I get lost after the second, "turn left at the next stop light").

Just making materials available audibly and visually does not make a person a learner. Study skills also need to be taught.

VL benefit:
Text-to-speech on computer monitors has the multisensory benefit of both auditory and visual learning. This makes repeated readings accessible also.


Subject: [PD 3914] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Anne Murr

Date: Wed Aug 5 19:17:35 EDT 2009

Thanks, Steve, for making the connection that language learning principles apply whether learning in your native or second (third) language. (One of our learners, African American dyslexic, when she found out what ESL meant, remarked, "Maybe English IS my second language!")

What software are you referring to that highlights searched words in yellow and unknown in blue and also utilizes audio?


Subject: [PD 3909] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: steven pritchard
Date: Wed Aug 5 19:26:16 EDT 2009

I'm not speaking for anyone else except myself I learned most of what part of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet from along playing album which I played over and over as I was growing up. I remember things from hearing them from a tape or a record now with the help of MP3 players and CDs listening to them over and over I have gained some knowledge.

Don't get me wrong, I could quote to you almost every line of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet because I own the video I've seen it many times. I could quote it to you right now seeing and hearing has helped vs. reading it, why? The fact is I'm a slow reader I don't read much because I'm a slow reader I can get the knowledge faster and just as accurate by hearing it from iTunes or CD or MP3 been reading the book.

But now the technology exists for me to put my words on paper in text form without even touching the keyboard, the technology exists for me to take a test either by an instructor reading that test to me or with the help of various freeware that exist like browse allowed. Downloading books for free, hearing them read to me has been a major plus not everyone is the same, some people are better at watching a person do a task over and over until they get it whether it's running a register, and then having them do it over and over or watching it on a video or DVD or hearing it on MP3 just have to find out which technology works best for that individual person be at the browse allowed the K. reader mobile Dragon NaturallySpeaking something as simple as a DVD or CD or even a person reading a test to the individual.

Those are my comments thank you

One more thing this tool but I'm using, this Dragon NaturallySpeaking is on loan to me by the Drake University adult literacy Center in Des Moines now. This is a tool that works great for me. If I wrote everything I have just spoke into this microphone it wouldn't look as nice with sound kind of like I'm stupid, that may not make a lot of sense my typing skills are good my grammar between one and ten I would give it a -1. For any more information regarding the Dragon NaturallySpeaking or the K. reader mobile or any other technology please contact the Drake University adult literacy Center Des Moines Iowa.

steven pritchard

Subject: [PD 3912] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Steve Kaufmann
Date: Wed Aug 5 19:38:57 EDT 2009

Anne wrote "Just making materials available audibly and visually does not make a person a learner. Study skills also need to be taught."

It is difficult to make learning "study skills" seem fun. It is easier to make reading and listening to subjects of interest, seem fun. So I would start with listening and reading and leave the "study skills" until later.


Subject: [PD 3922] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Steve Kaufmann
Date: Thu Aug 6 10:18:24 EDT 2009


That is how LingQ works. We have just uploaded a new version and we are working through some bugs and so the site is a little slow right now. Registration as well as use and download of learning content, and most of the functions I described are free. Have a look. The audio is recorded, not text-to-speech. There are 10 languages including English.


Subject: [PD 3920] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Steve Kaufmann
Date: Thu Aug 6 10:39:15 EDT 2009

I can imagine speech recognition is a great tool for learning to read, since the learner can see familiar and meaningful content (his or her own thoughts) appear as text. For most people who have literacy problems, however, I would imagine that it is more important as a tool for improving reading skills, than as a substitute for basic literacy. In my experience with Dragon speak, it was only about 80% accurate, so you still need to know how to read to use it, from a practical point of view.

I agree with Stephen that the MP3 player is a powerful literacy learning tool. Difficult books become easier if we can hear them first. I could never pay attention when trying to read Proust, but after listening to the audio book I really came to appreciate the inherent poetry of Proust's prose.


Subject: [PD 3930] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Martin Senger
Date: Fri Aug 7 07:57:42 EDT 2009

Pax Steve!

I agree that the brain learn best by example, but I also strongly believe that you often have to explain the implications of the grammar explicitly to let the student know the relationship between the grammar and the meaning. Case in point: the difference between "What are you doing?" as opposed to "What do you do?"

I practice "grammar association" by repeatedly pointing out the grammar behind the meaning (or meaning behind the grammar?) when examples in class present "teachable moments." Note that I said "point out." I do not ask nor expect my students to explicitly remember the grammar. At some point, my students begin to "notice" the grammar by themselves.


Martin E. Senger

Subject: [PD 3948] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Steve Kaufmann
Date: Fri Aug 7 14:54:14 EDT 2009

Understanding and explanation of grammar does not equate to using words correctly. All Chinese people can understand the concept that in English we say "he" and "she", which they do not do in spoken Chinese. after 10 years of grammar instruction, many Chinese struggle with this when speaking English and are as likely to say "my husband, she" as "he". Ditto for the present tense third person singular. These, as well as your examples are just patterns that we have to get used to. They can be pointed out. They can saved and reviewed on flash cards etc..But in my experience the explanation matter less than the exposure and the alertness, attentiveness and interest of the learner.

Subject: [PD 3950] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Dan
Date: Sat Aug 8 20:47:04 EDT 2009

I found with Chinese speakers of English that deconstruction of a sentence as to what it meant often seemed to help. In TOEFL prep classes, we would not move from the grammar based questions until the students in the group could explain the meaning of the sentence. While these students understand grammar they often did not understand the meaning. Only with repeated practice at the sentence level did comprehension of both written and oral English seem to improve. I had students who came to my adult education class who were in college but could not make themselves understood to Americans nor could they understand basic conversational English.

While this group of college students were not the target of my class they interacted well and often assisted other students in various ways. Supporting one another was a major requirement in my classroom which promoted interaction and review. Often Chinese students wanted to look up words in the dictionary which they had already looked up 50 times before and work on word for word translation. Getting them involved in communication based activities seemed to do more to help them increase their fluency rather than passive activities like listening to taped dialogues repeatedly.

I think the example presented below does not really address the question of how grammar explanation helps students. I had a wonderful friend and co teacher who often made the mistakes mentioned when she was speaking quickly in English. She was journalism and English major and had lived in the U.S. since childhood. I agree that exposure, alertness and attentiveness plus learner interest are huge factors in students' growth, but I do not see them as sufficient.

Dan Wann

Adjunct Faculty Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana
Adult Education Consultant

Subject: [PD 3952] Re: are oral texts easier to understand than written texts
From: Steve Kaufmann
Date: Sun Aug 9 18:24:10 EDT 2009


I am sure that your Chinese students had gone through years of English grammar study in China. Discussing the meaning of sentences is a good thing to do, although I find that often the problem is that these students do not really know what the words mean, their scope in English. They are stuck with a limited dictionary definition or translation into Chinese, at best, or have forgotten the meaning of the words entirely.

That is why at LingQ we focus on words and phrases. Learners can ask for the meaning of phrases. But mostly they continue to come across the words that they have looked up, now highlighted in yellow. The meaning of the word that comes from a dictionary is only a Hint. The picture become clearer over time. Knowing that word has been looked up before helps. Learners are conscious of an increasing confidence as to the meaning of the word.


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