The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Orality, Literacy, Multiliteracy and K-12 Education in B.C.

Try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything.  In a primary oral culture, the expression ‘to look up something’ is an empty phrase: it would have no conceivable meaning.  Without writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual.  They are sounds…they are occurrences, events (Ong, 1982, p.31).

In inviting us to imagine one of the characteristics of a primary oral culture, Ong introduces his chapter on the psychodynamics of orality, describing the characteristics of thought and expression in oral culture.  For members of fully-literate cultures, it is difficult to imagine a context in which people have not had access to the written word whether for purposes of personal organization, expression or enlightenment.  Similarly, it would be difficult, I suspect, for a member of a fully digitally-literate culture to imagine a culture where no one has ever “Googled” something.

Ong’s presentation of the characteristics of orally based thought indeed draws attention to the patterns and generalities which differ from the characteristics of literate thought.  For example, Ong (p.45) suggests that Oral culture is “empathetic and participatory” in the case of learning information; to acquire knowledge in oral culture is to become empathetic and close to it, while in so-called literate culture, the act of writing causes a separation, a distancing between the knower and the known.  Moving further still, in the case of digital literacy, I wonder whether or not a written word transmitted via the Internet might be yet another degree of separation between the knower and the known.

Yet, what does it mean to be ‘literate’? Ong discusses orality in detail, frequently contrasting it to literacy by means of discussing the features of oral-based thought.  Although he does not provide us with a single, salient definition of literacy, in his distinction between the characteristics of oral and literate culture, Ong provides details that suggest that the meaningful use of reading and writing indicates literacy.  This can be illustrated by the above epigraph.  When Ong poses the contrast of ‘looking up’ information, he is specifically alluding to the ability to read and write information for the purpose of preserving and transmitting said information; a categorical feature of literacy.  At the time that Ong’s work was first published, I would argue that the definition of literacy would not have been disputed a great deal, and that when one talked about literate people, one meant people who could read and write.  In fact, Merriam-Webster (2009) simply characterizes literacy as having the ability to read and write.  It becomes clear through Ong’s analysis that without this ability, oral cultures are unable to produce a language that is as grammatically complex, analytic, or novel as that of literate cultures.

Are oral cultures at a disadvantage in a world driven by digital (and literate) technologies? British Columbia is a cultural milieu; our schools have any number of cultures represented in them—both from oral and literate traditions.  By Canadian common definition, literacy is “the ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities at home, at work and in the community – to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (Canadian Education Association, 2009).  This definition goes beyond the simplicity of the previous, but still leaves the question: What is ‘printed information’ and does an ‘illiterate’ (or oral) person require this information in order to acquire knowledge and realize potential? UNESCO (2003) proposes that literacy is:

[T]he ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.

This definition, in contrast to the others presented previously, acknowledges a plurality in the concept of literacy; it allows for various forms of viewing and representing of written materials to be incorporated into literate society, allowing for the proposition of multiple literacies.

Cazden, Cope, Fairclough, Gee, et al (1996) argue that the diversity and multiplicity of communication and culture in today’s world calls for a much more extensive view of literacy than past classifications based solely on familiarity of the written word.  They propose that today’s globalized society does not fit the traditional view of literacy, and that technology-based and multimedia texts must also be accounted for as a part of literacy, or multiliteracy.  Eshet-Alkalai (2004) broadens the idea of multiliteracy and extends it to digital literacy by naming five distinct literacies present among digital literates, including photo-visual literacy.

The concept of literacy has changed since Ong first presented the characteristics of oral culture. In keeping with UNSECO and the Canadian Education Association, for students in B.C., literacy education now includes four categories, rather than the traditional two: reading, writing, viewing and representing (B.C. Ministry of Education, 2006, 2007), including specific learning outcomes for oral literacy, and allowing for greater participation from students of many cultural backgrounds, not just Ong’s ‘literates’.  Are oral cultures at disadvantage when it comes to literacy education?  Since Canadian society relies so heavily on the written word—be it by hand or machine—I would argue that yes, oral cultures are still at a disadvantage.  This is especially pertinent as scholars such as Ong have historically devalued and dismissed oral culture as primitive or homeostatic (p. 46).  Times are changing, however, and with the proliferation of digital communication and multimedia in the 21st century, multiliteracy, rather than monoliteracy appears to fit best.


B.C. Ministry of Education. (2007). English language arts 8-12. Integrated Resource Packages. Retrieved October 1 2009 from

B.C. Ministry of Education. (2006). English language arts K-7. Integrated Resource Packages. Retrieved October 1 2009 from

Cazden, C., Cope, B., Fairclough, N., Gee, J., et al. (1996). A pedagogy of mulitiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review 66(1).

Canadian Education Association. (2009). Some international and national definitions of literacy. Retrieved October 1 2009 from

Eshet-Alkalai, Y. (2004). Digital literacy: A conceptual framework for survival skills in the digital era. Journal of Educational Media and Hypermedia 13(1) p. 93-106.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (2009). Literate. Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved October 1 2009 from

Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge.

UNESCO. (2003). The plurality of literacy and its implications for policies and programmes. UNESCO Education Sector. Retrieved October 1 2009 from

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 5:37 pm }

I just wanted to add that as most oral cultures belong to indigenous or minority groups they often face severe educational disadvantages in school.

You must log in to post a comment.