The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

First Commentary: Orality and Literacy in Teaching

            Ong provides us with some very convincing arguments that there is a marked difference between the thought processes of a purely oral society compared to a literate society. One cannot deny that his examples of the work A. R. Luria appear to show very conclusively that the oral speaker thinks in more lifeworld terms, meanwhile the literate or even semi-literate man is capable of more abstract thinking processes. Ong clearly states that “Literate users of a grapholect such as standard English have access to vocabularies hundreds of times larger than any oral language can manage” (p. 14).On the whole I find myself in agreement with him. However, I have several in laws who are illiterate and when we have problems it is often due to misunderstandings because I have used language in a different way than they do.

            Therefore, I find myself left with doubts about the validity of some of his arguments. I wonder if it is really possible for a literate person to know what questions to ask an illiterate person in order to determine their thought processes. I can empathize if I have this skill, but I have been literate all my life. I have had access as Ong quotes Finnegan as saying to “The new way to store knowledge … in the written text. This freed the mind for more original, more abstract thought” (Ong, p. 24).Is it possible to be objective if I have so much more language to command? I believe that as teachers we need to look at orality and literacy at all levels of education. I train teachers from kinder to high school. It is important for kinder teachers to realise how important their use of language is. Children entering kinder garden are being exposed, often for the first time, to new language and new voices. Ong (p.71) explains how one can become immersed in sound. Children love repeated sounds and the use of onomatopoeia and alliteration is crucial for keeping their attention. Small children develop language skills when language is introduced in an additive and aggregative way.

            I think almost all teachers would agree that storytelling and giving new information using story telling techniques is a standard practice. However, when we come to older children the reverse is true. Mexico, in particular, is a very sociable and oral culture. However, in the secondary and high school, children until recently, were expected to increase their knowledge by almost exclusively literate means. Whereas, in primary school they were encouraged to vocalise their thoughts, now they are expected to listen to the teacher, read their textbook or investigate on their computers and finally to produce a written document or answer a written exam. Oral skills are not encouraged and children are told to not waste their time talking. It would appear that these teachers believe that “Writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life” (Ong, p. 81).  Some teachers have tried to change the heavily weighted literary elements of their teaching method by getting their students to present their investigation to the group. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this has not been very successful; as most students read their presentation and some adolescents find it a traumatising experience to be singled out to speak in front of the group.

            I became aware of these drawbacks about a few years ago and I have tried to adapt my curriculum accordingly. I see no reason why students have to read alone or in silence. I encourage my students to read aloud in groups and to each other. I find this allows them to stop and discuss relevant points, take notes (written or pictorial) or ask for help if a concept is not clear. I give them options on how to present their knowledge, either, mental or conceptual maps, written summaries, pictorial representations or in oral form. Most of my students come from families were reading is not a common pastime and very few of them read for pleasure. Ong states that “High literacy fosters truly written composition” (p. 94) and I find myself in agreement to some extent. Nevertheless, if a culture does not have very developed literary skills, I believe that it is necessary to find some intermediate path between orality and literacy and from the results I have encountered in my classroom I think that combining orality and literacy is one method that is effective.   

 Ong, W. (2002). Orality and Literacy.  New York: Routledge.

September 29, 2009   2 Comments

Twilight of the Books…is the end near?

I read an interesting article in the New Yorker concerning the history and future of reading for pleasure. Ong and his theory of secondary orality are discussed in the article, but the work of Maryanne Wolf caught my eye (or my mind?). Here is an excerpt of  a section which made me think of this week’s readings and Ong’s theory that literate minds would not think as they do were it not for the technology of writing:

 “The act of reading is not natural,” Maryanne Wolf writes in “Proust and the Squid” (Harper; $25.95), an account of the history and biology of reading. Humans started reading far too recently for any of our genes to code for it specifically. We can do it only because the brain’s plasticity enables the repurposing of circuitry that originally evolved for other tasks—distinguishing at a glance a garter snake from a haricot vert, say.” (Crain, 2007,¶8)

If this is true, what are the long-term effects of such repurposing? Will we lose the ability to recognize garter snakes?  😉

I am of the opinion that the brain did not “rewire” to adapt to reading, but instead grew (created new connections, new synapses) from literacy. I suppose this could be what Wolf considers “repurposing”, and I admit I have not read her book. However, I don’t think our brain is rerouted resources from one area to another. I think our brains slowly formed new and effective pathways of thought.  What do you think?

(There is a nice discussion citing Ong and secondary orality in the article too!) Erin

Crain, C. (2007). Twilight of the books. The New Yorker. Available online 29, September, 2009, from

September 29, 2009   1 Comment