The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Commentary 1: An Observation of How Orality and Literacy Have Changed Interactions Between People

Technology has made significant impacts in oral and written communication and interaction. The difference can be observed between oral and literate cultures through the introduction and evolution of writing technologies. Ong (2002) posits that oral cultures developed mnemonic patterns to aid in memory retention of thought, while literacy forces the creation of grammatical rules and structured dialogue. The jump from orality to literacy would have been a challenge for the cultures wishing to preserve their traditions and thoughts in writing and yet, the knowledge to write and record information has enabled many cultures to pass down important pieces of knowledge to future generations.

Ong (2002) explains how, despite being a late development in human history, writing is a technology that has shaped and powered intellectual activity and that symbols are beyond a mere memory aide. As outlined by Ong, oral cultures had the challenge of retaining information in a particular manner, where, when written, the characteristics of oral speech become more evident with certain patterns of speech.  Given that oral cultures had the challenge of retaining information, does literacy require orality? Postman (1992) supports Thamus’ belief where “proper instruction and real knowledge must be communicated” and further argues that despite the prevalence of technology in the classroom, orality still has a place in the space for learning.

As writing technologies evolve, culture and society have the tendency to evolve toward the technology; thus, developing new ways to organize and structure knowledge (Ong, 2002) in order to communicate information and changing the way interactions take place. The construction of speech and the construction of text change depending on the technology. For instance, with the computer, the individual is permitted to delete or backspace any errors in speech or grammar and construct sentences in different ways with the assistance of automatic synonyms, thesaurus or dictionary usage. Before the computer, errors could not be so easily changed with the typewriter, whose ink would remain on the paper until the invention of white out. Tracking the changes to the original Word document with which this paper was composed would reveal the number of modifications and deletions – a feature of technology that cannot be characterized in orality because culture may note errors in speech but cannot effectively track where each error was made. In public speech, one can observe the changes in behaviour, the pauses, and the “umms” and “uhhs” of speech. This is also how the interaction differs from the norm.

With text messaging, the construction of information is often shortened, even more so than one would find with instant messaging. The abbreviated format of text to fit within a limited space has taught individuals to construct conversations differently; in a manner that would not have been so common 15 to 20 years ago.  The interaction between individuals changed since text messaging requires more of a tendency to decipher the abbreviated format. In a sense, text messaging uses some form of mnemonics in order to convey messages from one person to another. This seemingly new form of literacy, in some cases, requires more abstract thinking and as Postman (2002) suggests, may require orality to communicate the true message, which may occur in the form of a phone call.

Learning materials presented in shorter formats becomes more important, particularly for educational technologies like mobile learning, where technologies such as netbooks and mobile phones are utilized for classroom learning. Postman (1992) posits there is a need for an increased understanding of the efficiency of the computer as a teaching tool and how it changes the learning processes. With mobile technologies, the interaction could be limited by abbreviated formats, as seen with text messaging, and in some cases, may not be an effective form of learning for some students. Despite the invention of newer technologies, orality often helps clarify thought processes, concepts and information. While the student can absorb knowledge on literacy alone, orality can assist in the retention of information.

The complexity of written communication can be taken a level further with the basis of writing – pictograms – images that can be recognized and deciphered by most individuals. Gelb  (in ETEC 540) argues that limited writing systems like international traffic signs avoid language and can yet be deciphered by illiterates or speakers of other languages. Although most traffic signs can be clear, some do require translation for the meaning to be clear, whether the translation is made orally or through writing. Ong (2002) supports the notion that codes need a translation that goes beyond pictures, “either in words or in a total human context, humanly understood” (p. 83).

While writing and writing technologies have evolved and changed the way interactions and communication take place, one thing has not changed: being able to find the most basic way to communicate to individuals illiterate of other languages – a characteristic that orality cannot communicate to individuals who are unfamiliar with a language. Thamus feared that writing would be a burden to society, but its advantages outweigh the disadvantages (in Postman, 2002).


Gelb, I. J. (2009). Module 2: From Orality to Literacy. In ETEC 540 – Text Technologies: The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing. Retrieved October 4, 2009 from

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.


1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 5:07 pm }

I could not imagine my life without the written word and yet all around me there are small villages which have never had a written language.

2 Stuart Edgar { 11.30.09 at 1:34 pm }

I found this commentary very useful as a reminder of the issues we dealt with at the beginning of the course and it helped to give me a better overview of the issues as they have developed through the course. I think that the topic of the nature of pictograms as an international language relates very well to Bolter’s discussion of hypermedia.

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