As an instructor of adult ESL students, I found the study of orality and literacy very valuable and informative for understanding my learners’ strengths and challenges. Currently, I’m teaching students whose orality is much higher than their literacy, both in English and their first language. Their listening and speaking skills are much stronger than their reading and writing ability because they have had limited years of education, and what schooling they did have was largely oral, with little exposure to print. Many of them struggle to read basic text or write complete and correct sentences, but speak quite fluently, even eloquently, at times. It was informative to see some of this behaviour reflected in Ong’s descriptions of oral cultures.
Although I am a language instructor and avid reader, I had never contemplated the development of text and all the incremental steps involved. Therefore, I enjoyed tracing the development of literacy from papyrus scroll, codex, manuscript, to new media. On the surface, it’s hard to believe there is a connection between these seemingly disparate writing spaces, but the readings and discussions showed they were revolutionary for their time and each an important step in the development of reading and writing. Living in such a print rich environment where so much of our attention is directed toward text and visual communication, we take for granted the existence of text and images. Therefore, it was fascinating to see the journey from orality to multiliteracy, including the “secondary orality” of radio and television, to the ubiquity of electronic writing and rebirth of the visual that we are experiencing today.
Observing low literacy students using new media is both predictable and eye-opening. Of course, their struggles with paper-based print carry over to electronic media, but some have surprisingly sophisticated navigation skills and are competent at following hypermedia to find the information they need. Students who are not able to follow paper-based text and complete the required tasks are sometimes able to do so on computer using links and icons. Their comprehension may improve due to the decreasing ratio of text to visuals since the images make content more concrete and decrease the amount of text required to relay information. Also, since sites are navigated by easily recognized icons, and audio and video content is increasingly accessible, these students may need to rely less on print literacy skills. However, to maximize these benefits, students must receive training and practice in developing their multi-literacy skills. When I look back at my introductory post, I can see my definition of literacy was focused solely on reading and writing on various platforms. I now see that it is much more complex than that and must include the skills to search for, analyse, assess, manipulate, and use information effectively.
Have a great break, everybody!