The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

A Symbiotic Relationship: The Written and Spoken Word

A Symbiotic Relationship: The Written and Spoken Word

by  Delphine Williams Young

ETEC 540       University of British Columbia    October 4, 2009

Plato, through Phaedrus, as alluded to in Ong reveals that the controversy about new forms of technology overtaking and even destroying the older forms is not a new phenomenon.  Plato’s argument continues as Postman (1992) states that “a new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything.” Ong further argues that it is impossible for literate cultures to operate in like manner as pre-literate ones. Therefore, he is in a sense agreeing with Postman that since the technology of writing came into being, our society has changed considerably.

 Ong has in fact embraced the Great Divide theory by indicating pre- literate cultures do not possess similar thought processes as literate society. Do Homo sapiens differ simply because they are not manipulators of new technology? Are human beings evolving into higher creatures as time passes?  Ong seems to categorize human beings as being fundamentally different because of the dispensation in which they exist. He is somewhat like the techno-evolutionists which classify the time span in which new technological developments take place as “progress” and give these periods labels such as: the space age, industrial age, electronic age, the age of autonomy …The term ascribed to those who seek to elevate speech as being primary or foundational and writing as secondary to it is phonocentrism according to Chandler (1994). Chandler criticizes those who seek to suggest that there are “radical, deep and basic differences between modes of thinking in non-literate and literate societies.”

 Marie Clay (1994) in her many studies done with children, who led to the concept of emergent literacy, can offer insights into the positions held by these two theorists. Clay found out that reading and writing can develop simultaneously in young children. In other words some children do not learn how to read first and then write after. Writing is often easier for some children to begin with than reading. Orality and writing can function as partners as proven by these clinical examples. I am also an example of  a child who would write beautifully and not understand a single word.  Britton (1993) corroborates with his findings that has led him to posit that children naturally begin to write from the self, move on to write to get things done and finally begin to write creatively when they realize that writing is something that they can manipulate to unearth their individual creative instincts.

How then can writing which most phonocentrists agree that is really speech written down be something vastly different from writing? New technologies do add a new dimension to other technologies as writing has. I believe that new technology emerges from each society depending on how the society perceives itself. Upon close scrutiny of the dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates, one realizes that the conversation ends with Socrates offering the suggestion that writing is important in assuaging the transient nature of short term memory. This dialogue exemplifies that society will always resist change but once there is human desire for the change to occur, it most certainly will. Writing is a technology which converged with orality and this relationship will only expand as humanity creates even more diverse spaces for self expression. Therefore, the peoples who existed in pre-literate cultures are no different in their need and desire to  find a way to preserve their heritage than those who are from literate societies that are still finding alternate ways  to share ideas. This class is a prime example.

However, one can agree with Postman that all new technologies should be carefully scrutinized for adaptation  so that we can appreciate the source from which they emerged. According to Ong , “ to try to construct writing without investigation  in depth of orality out of which writing is permanently grounded is to limit one’s understanding” (Ong, p.77)


Britton, James. (1988) Teaching Secondary School English: Readings and Application ed.D Sheridan New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Chandler,D. (1994) Bias of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories. Phonocentrism.(online) retrieved October 3, 2009  http://www.aber.acuk/medis/documents/litoral.htm

Clay, Marie (1994) Writing Begins at Home : Preparing Children for Writing Before They Go to School.  Auckland: Heinemann.

Ong, Walter (1982) Orality and Literacy: Technolizing of the Word. London and New York: Metheuen.

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

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 5:33 pm }

I agree with you that change should be introduced with care especially in young children. My brother was a victim of the changeover to phonetic reading system in England in the 1960’s.

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