It’s important to understand the differences between oral and written forms of communication. In this lesson, we’ll explore the definitions and characteristics of oral and written discourse.

Getting the Message Across

Tom is a history teacher with a message to give his students. There is a test coming up, and Tom wants to be sure that his students have all of the information they need to be successful. Tom must decide what the best method of delivery for this information is. Should he orally review the material for the test, or should he give students the information in writing? Tom must decide between using oral discourse or written discourse in preparing his students for the test.


To understand fully the meanings, characteristics of, and differences between oral discourse and written discourse, we must first look at some specific definitions. Discourse is a term used to explain the transfer of information from one person to another. It implies the use of words and sentences in context for the purpose of conveying meaning. Discourse can happen either orally—through spoken language—or in written format.

Oral Discourse

Oral discourse is just as it sounds. It is communication or transfer of information using words that are spoken. For oral discourse to happen, someone must be speaking either in conversation or through oral delivery of information, such as in a lecture or presentation. Oral discourse lends itself to the use of speech acts, which are functions of communication that might include congratulating, ordering, demanding, promising, hinting, warning, or greeting. Oral discourse often also contains discourse markers, such as words that create pause or separation of ideas (such as ”well,” ”so,” ”anyway,” or ”you know”).

Written Discourse

Written discourse is also the transfer of information, but, as its name suggests, it involves the written word. To be successful, the writer and the receiver must have the necessary skills for delivery of information; the writer must be able to write, and the reader must be able to read. Written discourse is often tied with genre, or the type and/or structure of language used to imply purpose and context within a specific subject matter, especially when looking at literature.


There are several characteristics that are unique to each type of discourse and several reasons why a person might favor one form of delivery over the other.

With that in mind, here are some positive characteristics of oral discourse:

  • Meaning is supported by nonverbal communication and other factors such as tone and intonation
  • It can be done spur of the moment
  • The audience is known to the one delivering the message
  • The pace of communication is generally determined by the speaker
  • More personable and involves a shared situation between speaker and listener

Now, here are some negative characteristics of oral discourse:

  • Words are often not given as much consideration before they are spoken
  • It is often less planned and contains less structure
  • There is a tendency to use words with fewer syllables and less complex sentences
  • Once delivered, it cannot be changed or taken back
  • The receiver of information must listen to the whole speech or presentation at once in order to get full meaning
  • Oral information is only permanent if it is continuously passed from one person to the next

Let’s now take about the characteristics of written discourse in the same way, starting with some positive characteristics of written discourse:

  • More precise as words can be thought through and carefully chosen
  • Once written, words can still be changed or rearranged in order to make communication more precise
  • There is a tendency to use larger words and more complex sentences to make the message more interesting
  • Writing can happen over a period of time with much consideration given to the message and its delivery
  • The receiver can spread reading out over a period of time so as to give full attention to meaning
  • Writing is a permanent record of information

On the other hand, here are some negative characteristics of written discourse:

  • The pace of communication is determined by the reader or receiver of information
  • The audience for written discourse is not always known
  • The meaning might be supported by visual graphics, but there are no nonverbal communication cues to read
  • It is less personable and can be very one-sided

Classroom Applications

When looking at the differences between oral and written discourse as they apply to the classroom, one of the areas to consider is participant structure, which refers to the different methods by which we can involve students in discussion and learning. In general, there are four main levels of participant structure:

  1. Whole class or whole group
  2. Small group
  3. One-on-one
  4. Independent learning

Oral discourse lends itself more toward whole and small group structure as it is easier to share information with groups of students when delivering that information orally. Written discourse might also be used for group learning; however, it is not as easy to ensure that all students are reading and understanding the information as it is to simply to deliver that information orally.

Written discourse lends itself more toward one-on-one and independent learning structures. When working with a student in a one-on-one situation, it’s easy to have that student read aloud so as to monitor reading fluency and comprehension while also delivering necessary information. Students who are working independently will still need that transfer of information, which, in the absence of a teacher, must happen through written discourse.

Looking back at Tom, the history teacher, all four levels of participant structure might be applicable. Therefore, a good combination of oral and written discourse would be best.

English Language Learners

Lastly, let’s talk about English language learners, or (ELLs). Careful consideration should be given to the use of oral and written discourse when working with English language learners. Frequent use of oral discourse in the classroom setting is essential for ELLs as they need to be able to listen to and interact with the language (including its sometimes confusing and unfamiliar discourse markers) as information is delivered. Written discourse, on the other hand, might be preferred as a supplement to information delivered orally in class so that the ELL student is able to take that information home to read and review at his or her own pace.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review what we’ve learned;

Oral discourse is the transfer of information using spoken words. It often involves the use of discourse markers, such as ”well,” ”so,” and ”anyway,” as well as speech acts, which give the information a special purpose, such as a greeting, warning, or congratulation.

Written discourse is a transfer of information that requires that the words be written down. Written discourse, when speaking of literature, lends itself toward the use of genre, which is a specific subject matter and the structure of language used to give purpose to the writing.

Oral and written discourse have unique characteristics that might be seen as either positive or negative, depending on the purpose or intent of the overall discourse, or transfer of information from one person to another.

When applied to the classroom, oral and written discourse might be delivered through any one of four different levels of participant structure:

  • Whole class
  • Small group
  • One-on-one
  • Independent

ELL students might prefer the use of written discourse when needing to review information presented in the classroom, but use of oral discourse in the delivery of information is essential for these learners as they interact with the language.