The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Time to set aside childish uses of technology

From Ong and his critics to O’Donnell, Brand, Kelley and Grafton grappling with some of the more pressing concerns of the digital era (storage, digitization of books and access to same, respectively)—Module 2 covered a lot of ground!  I particularly enjoyed Kelley’s discussion of the economic aspects of digitization (shipping books to China for scanning, for example), and contrasting of business models (a much under-rated influence) as the world of copyright and protected copies gives way—not without much wailing and gnashing of teeth—to the age of free (though not worthless—an important distinction) digital copies.  Kelley is correct: “The reign of the copy is no match for the bias of technology” (2006, p. 13).

The question of how this progression of technologies has and will continue to modify reading and writing and thus education is not just at the centre of this module, but of the course.  I couldn’t help, however, relating this discussion to one in which I have been engaged for some time now concerning the role of information and communication technologies (computers, cell phones, smart phones, social networking applications, etc.) in the lives and learning of our students.  As a secondary teacher, I tend to think of that age group first in this regard, particularly since I believe it’s still the age (13-18) of most rapid adoption and most intense use.  Having said that, I am regularly told of middle schoolers developing cell phone and Facebook habits to rival those of their older contemporaries, and undergrads still inhabiting the high school world of more than a thousand text messages a day and religious, narcissistic Facebook updating.

This particular facet of technology in schools: the uses it is put to by teens and the effect it has on their learning, was the focus of our school pro-d Sept. 25—which I inadvertently became involved in organizing.  I’m not on the pro-d committee, but as the teacher-librarian responsible for purchasing, I was asked to order 80 copies of the book The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future —one for each member of the teaching staff.  They arrived on the last day of school in June and were distributed for summer reading. Then last month I was again recruited to set up a Skype discussion with the author, Mark Bauerlein, an Emory University professor.  Bauerlein acknowledges that the title is a provocation and adds that he is not a technophobe.  One of his main arguments is that while there is clearly tremendous power in the current technologies of reading and writing that we employ (email, databases, online access to thousands of books and newspapers, blogs, wikis, etc.), and we would certainly not want to give them up, the uses to which teens put them as a result of their developmental stage locks them into a kind of adolescent feedback loop.  This narrow preoccupation unnaturally extends adolescence (mentally, at least) to the detriment of acquiring knowledge and maturity—which are, after all, also important functions of secondary and post-secondary education.  Bauerlein opened our 67-minute pro-d Skype session with a 15-minute summary of his thesis, and then fielded questions from teachers.  He was challenged as often as he was lauded, but I must admit, I find his argument persuasive an in accordance with my observations and those of many of my colleagues.  I have been teaching secondary full-time for a decade now, so I experienced roughly five years of little to no cell phone and Facebook penetration before the explosion in their use of the last five years.  Again, I think Bauerlein is correct to worry about the quality of communication texting and the Facebook Bathroom Wall promote as well as the 24/7 intrusion of adolescent concerns (What are my friends doing? Where are we meeting tomorrow? Who said what about whom?) that these technologies permit.  The mental space and even quiescence that used to exist when teens were alone at home in their rooms reading or doing homework no longer exists thanks to texting and Facebook.  Bauerlein suggests that the current technologies allow teens to become far too self-referential and this crowds out the (previously) natural expansion of interests to less egocentric concerns.  Of course, there is still the top 10 percent who will use ICTs to organize peace rallies and email pictures of a toxic spill to the traditional media (after starting a Facebook and Twitter group on the topic).  It’s the other 90 percent he worries about—and I agree.  In any case, coming out of this pro-d dialogue, I may have come off a little more curmudgeonly than usual over in the Orality and Literacy discussion where I chimed in with some of these musings in a thread started by Drew. I’ll see if I can attach an excerpt of the Skype discussion with Bauerlein.  (He gave me permission to record the exchange.)

Bauerlein excerpt (11 min.)

Note: Bauerlein does allow that most of the studies in his book are American and his observations are about U.S. teens.  I would submit, however, that based on similar Canadian studies I have seen, the behaviour of Canadian teens is not significantly different where ICT use is concerned.


 Bauerlein, M. (2008). The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.  New York:  Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Kelley, K. (16 May 2006). Scan This Book! New York Times.

October 5, 2009   2 Comments

Why Teachers Need to Understand the Differences Between Oral and Literate Cultures.

Commentary 1

Take any classroom in a large urban center in Canada and it is possible to find a first nations learner sitting next to someone from Africa, who is sitting behind someone from India, who is across from someone who is from England. Although this class is rich in cultural diversity, it presents challenges meeting the needs of all the learners. One of the differences that teachers may find in their classes is one of oral-literate cultures. Understanding these differences and knowing how to build on their strengths will help educators to provide relevant and meaningful experiences for their students.

The understanding of the differences between the non-literate and literate cultures has long been of interest to many scholars. In his essay “Biases of the Ear and the Eye” David Chandler (2009) defines the “Great Divide” theories as theories that “tend to suggest radical, deep and basic differences between modes of thinking in non-literate and literate societies.” Read ‘simple versus advanced.’ Chandler goes on to explain that alternatives to the Great Divide theories are the “Continuity” theories. These theories hold that there is not a radical difference in the modes of thinking in non-literate and literate societies, but rather a continuum of thinking. It is recognized that differences in expression and behavior exist, but not to the extremes that great divide theorists would have one believe. Chandler refers to Peter Denny’s comment that “ all human beings are capable of rationality, logic, generalization, abstraction, theorizing, intentionality, causal thinking, classification, explanation and originality.” He goes on to say that we can find greater cultural differences between two literate cultures or two non-literate cultures. He cautions that it is dangerous to presume that non-literate societies are all the same as there can be great variations from society to society or even with-in a single society. One of the books that Chandler recommends reading “which offer(s) excellent correctives to the wild generalizations “ is Literacy and orality, by Ruth Finnegan (1988) who says that it is important to look closely at the uses of orality and literacy, to look for patterns and differences and through this we will avoid making generalizations about poorly understood uses of orality and literacy.

Chandler’s ‘continuum’ of orality and literacy can be found in many of our classrooms today. In order to meet the needs of our different learners we must incorporate cultural sensitivity in the class. Teaching from a culturally sensitive perspective is not just about teaching different cultural holidays, foods and dress. It is about understanding, and honoring the ways of learning and knowing of these different perspectives along the continuum. In his address “How to eradicate illiteracy without eradicating illiterates “to UNESCO, Munir Fasheh tells the story of his illiterate mother who was a seamstress. One day after many years of believing that he should “fix” her, making her literate, he saw her take many pieces of cloth and form it into “ a new and beautiful whole”. It was through the act of creating clothing for her customers that he saw her as a wise and knowing person. He recognized that she knew math, maybe in a different way than he knew math, but she knew it. Fasheh says that we need to “ become aware of the diversity of ways of learning, knowing, living, perceiving, and expressing – and that such ways cannot be compared along linear measures.” (Fasheh, 2002)

Fasheh shares his fear that our world places too much emphasis on reading and writing. This fear is supported by Havelock (1991) who says that our education system places primary importance on quickly learning to read and write. He challenges us to consider our “oral inheritance” as well. Fasheh cautions “ We need to look not only at what literacy adds … but also at what it subtracts or makes invisible.” (Fasheh, 2002)

Constructivism is a current and popular learning theory that holds that learners generate knowledge and meaning through their life experiences. This theory recognizes that the cultural background of the learner plays a significant role in the learners understanding of the world. Wertch (1997) tells us that it is crucial that we recognize and honour the learner’s cultural background as this background will help to shape and create the understanding that the learner constructs. If we recognize that some learners come from an oral culture we can use that information and the strengths of learning in an oral culture to provide more appropriate learning opportunities. Croft (2002) in her article Singing under a tree: does oral culture help lower primary teachers be learner-centered? suggests that learner-centered strategies (an important feature of constructivist teaching) that are developed in literate cultures may not be relevant in teaching in an oral based culture. She suggests that the pedagogies used should be developed from the local context. If the learners come from a primarily oral-based culture, use the strengths of that oral culture. Havelock (1991) even suggests that orality is really a part of all of us. “Oral inheritance is as much a part of us as the ability to walk upright.” (p.21) and that all class rooms should encourage singing, dancing and recitations.

Understanding the differences between oral and literate cultures is important, not to compare, but to build on that understanding. Chandler reminds us that that social context with which we use the specific medium is really what is most important, not that one is better than the other. Honoring and celebrating both mediums will make our classrooms places of tolerance where no one is invisible.


Chandler, D. (2009). Biases of the Ear and the Eye. Retrieved from retrieved Oct.4, 2009
Croft, A. (2002). Singing under a tree: does oral culture help lower primary teachers be learner-centred? Internatinal Journal of Educational Development , 22, 321-337.
Fasheh, M. (2002). How to iradicate Illiteracy without iradicating Illiterates. For the UNESCO round table on “Literacy As Freedom.” On the occasion of The International Literacy Day 9-10 September 2002, UNESCO, Paris. Paris.
Havelock, E. (1991). The oral-literature equation : a formula for the modern mind. In D. &. Olson, Literacy and Orality (pp. 11-27). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wertsch, J. (1988). Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Harvard University Press.

Cultural Relevance

October 5, 2009   3 Comments

Verba Volant Scripta Manent

Verba Volant Scripta Manent 

(Lat. “spoken words fly away, written words remain” )

            In describing the qualities of sound, Ong (2002) points out to its evanescent nature as well as its capability of surrounding the speaker and immersing him/her in the center (p.71). In primary oral cultures this immersion affected man’s perception of the world and consequently generated an ego-centric approach in its interactions with it. On the other hand, spoken words have the power of binding together the speaker and the audience, uniting them in the “interiorizing force of the oral word” (p.74).

             In both Western and Eastern cultures, bards used to (and still continue to do in some parts) travel and recite or sing poems and personae tell stories to sustain the cultural heritage in a society. This helped build a “communal soul” (Ong 2002) that caused them to react to situations in a collectivist nature rather than an individualist’. The bards used to rely on their memory for recitation, but made slight modifications depending on the mood and receptiveness of the audience.

             As natural as the need to communicate orally with others, man’s desire to leave a permanent artifact that would withstand time led him to create a “sequencing of standardized symbols in order to graphically reproduce human speech, thought or other things in part or whole” (Fischer, 2001). This definition incorporates the first varied forms of bone and stone markings dating back to 100,000 years that point out to purposeful engraving as a form of writing, As mankind developed higher level thinking and artistic skills, he began to create more sophisticated artifacts. Cuneiform writing – which has been used as earliest as 3500 BC by the Sumerians and then the Assyrians in Mesopotamia grew out not only of the need to record business transactions, but also to spread the “word of wisdom” through epics, myths and proverbs (Kramer, 1961).  

            Ong (2002) describes how when an alphabetical or other script enters into a particular society, it is looked upon with skepticism and even regarded as dangerous. Even nowadays, book burning is not an uncommon practice in parts of the world governed by totalitarian regimes. If written words cannot defend themselves because they are unreal, as Plato has Socrates declare in Phaedrus, then why is there such intolerance for them?

             There is no doubt that writing leaves a permanent mark in time when sound vanishes into air just like thoughts that flicker in a human’s brain do. Writing is indeed “the most important invention that has transformed human consciousness” (Ong, 2002).


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

Kramer, S.N. (1961). Sumerian Mythology: A study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C. [Rev. ed.]. Retrieved from

 Fischer, S.R. (2001). A History of Writing. Retrieved from






October 5, 2009   1 Comment


Discussions between orality and literacy have old roots. In one of the poems of Rumi, (the great philosopher, 1207-1273) there is a story with the title of “Moses and the Shepherd”. In his beautiful poem,

Moses (symbol of literacy) heard a shepherd (symbol of orality) on the road praying, “God where are you? I want to help you, to fix your shoes and comb your hair. I want to wash your clothes and pick the lice off. I want to bring you milk to kiss your little hands and feet when it’s time for you to go to bed. I want to sweep your room and keep it neat,…

Moses could stand it no longer, “Who are you talking to?” “The one who made us, and made the earth and made the sky.” “Don’t talk about shoes and socks with God! And what’s this with your little hands and feet? Such blasphemous familiarity sounds like you’re chatting with your uncles. Only something that grows needs milk. Only someone with feet needs shoes,…

The shepherd repented and tore his clothes and sighed and wandered out into the desert.

A sudden revelation came then to Moses. God’s voice:
You have separated me from one of my own. Did you come as a prophet to unite, or to sever? I have given each being a separate and unique way of seeing and knowing and saying that knowledge. What seems wrong to you is right for him.

This broken-open lowliness is the reality, not the language! Forget phraseology….

I won’t go to the remaining of the poem and its main spiritual message but it may emphasize the differences between the cultures, even 800 years ago.

In module 2 of this course, Ong shows lots of valuable points to us in his book. According to Lippert (1982) “Ong’s book is a landmark for studying culture and communication”. In his well written book, Ong considers communication via different approaches by looking at the environment for communication, the environment of communication, and the environment created by communication. He explains how they are connected to each other.

However, there are also some criticisms to Ong. The most serious of them comes from the categorical distinctions between orality and literacy. According to Connors (1988) there are numerous literacies, and to believe that reading-writing abilities in contemporary culture create cognitive abilities or constitute the only meaningful sort of literacy is narrow and discriminatory. Kaschula (1995) approaches oral cultures and the interaction with literacy from an African perspective that is close to orality in fact (in the analysis of the use of Xhosa poetry techniques in preaching styles). He objects that “One needs to be careful not to be rigid in one’s views of what exactly should make up orality as opposed to literacy in a society where both clearly coexist side by side” and feels that Ong’s description is too close to the great divide theory.

Ono and Sloop (1992), also believed that Ong privileges a moment in Western culture, “to the exclusion of a wider perspective of culture that sees Africa and Asia as central moments in the genesis and revelation of orality.”

Ong is also criticized for his philosophical assumptions of technological determinism and neutrality of media. In addition to Chandler (1994), Ess, Kawabalta, and Kurosaki (2007) considered Ong to have a tendency toward a technological determinism that is no longer seen to hold up in the face of empirical evidence

However, even after 27 years of its original publication, Ong’s book is reprinted again and again. This proofs that his book to be a valuable source by readers to discuss. It is an open-ended study that invites more research to be done on human-literacy relationship.

Perhaps if Ong had coined and used the term ORACY (orality/literacy) to indicate a continuity of his categories, more admires and less criticisms would have existed !

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Available:

Connors, R. J. (1988). [Review of the book The muse learns to write: Reflections on orality and literacy from antiquity to the present.] Quarterly Journal of Speech, 74(3), 379-381.

Ess, C., Kawabalta, A., & Kurosaki, H. (2007). Cross-cultural perspectives on religion and computer-mediated communication. Journal of Computer-mediated Communication, 12(3), 939-955.

Kaschula, R. H. (1995). Preachers and poets: Oral poetry within the religious cosmology of the Xhosa. South African Journal of African Languages, 15(2), 65-73.

Lippert, P. (1982). [Review of the book Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word]. Etc., 39, 399-402.

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

Ono, K. A., & Sloop, J. M. (1992). Commitment to telos–A sustained critical rhetoric. Communication Monographs, 59, 48-60.

October 5, 2009   2 Comments

Commentary 1


Black and White


Walter Ong, in his 2002 edition book presents a black and white view of orality versus literacy. In his view the presence of literacy alters the human mind. On page 77, Ong refers to how writing restructures the consciousness of man, “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing, but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form”.  In his historical explorations and in cited reports of studies of non-reading cultures, we are presented with his evidence to support that stance.


The chart accompanying the commentary summarizes in very simple terms the way he divides the one state from the other, with page references from the 2002 edition.1 Though the chart summary is considerably simplified, it does give a sense of the strong reported divide between the two psychosocial states as put forward.


Through the examples he gives, he assigns culture-wide transformative effects of becoming literate. Others such as Chandler feel the situation is more like a spectrum and that these two states may not be as separate as Ong purports them to be. Chandler in his chapters, Technological Autonomy and Reification in the Technological or Media Determinism study, explores this issue and states, “Rather than being ‘outside’ society, technology is an inextricable part of it”. The tools of literacy would be interpreted to be interwoven or melded within the socio-cultural milieu rather than being a separate ‘thing’ that influences.


An area that is not dealt with within the course readings is the child, as pre-literate. A young child has many of the characteristics attributed to oral cultures, with the exception of agonistic or rhetorical since these are cultivated oral skills and attitudes. Early age language acquisition mimics early language and writing development historically, as pictorial representations of objects, or pictograms are slowly replaced by alphabetic writing for the developing child. Likewise some the attributes Ong has given to literates are present in pre-literate present-day children. They are informally logical, and categorical in their dealings with others and the world. Context free, and autonomous, children are in a world of their own.  They are independent, and explore on their own.  In support of Ong’s position is a study by Castro-Caldas & Petersson, et al. (1998) showing in fact that brain activity is changed by the process of learning in scans of the brain, not just in psychological testing.  


Secondary orality shares features with both primary orality and literacy, except with mixed media interlinking and retrieval, a third system is there—a new literacy, which many now term hypermedia.  It is like a de-evolution, whereby bits and bytes are the new alphabet and the words are no longer the units of interest—it is the nodes or connections between key concepts that matter. The icons of the modern interface are a return to the pictograph, and emoticons and hypertext add depth, seeking to re-inject more contextual meaning.


One might agree with Ong that literacy irreversibly changes the minds of those in the cultures or perhaps literacy has an impact on each individual’s developing mind as proposed. As the web has evolved, there has been an increasing proportion of visual and aural data, and hypertext, while static text is decreasing. Though some of this is due to increased bandwidth, the medium is changing fast in the 2.0 web and we are literally moving away from static black and white in secondary orality media environments. If literacy affects the developing mind, then early exposure to the post-literate fast-paced online hypermedia may change a human beings mind in a new way, as yet unfathomed.





Ong, W.J. (2002) Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Menthuen.


Chandler, D. (2009). Technological or Media Determinism. Accessed online October 3, 2009 at:


Castro-Caldas, A., Petersson, K.M., Reis, A., Stone-Elander, S., and Ingvar, M. (1998). The illiterate brain: Learning to read and write during childhood influences the functional organization of the adult brain. Brain, Vol. 121, No. 6. P 1053-1063. Accessed October 2009 online at:

Simple contrast derived from Ong

Simple contrast derived from Ong

October 5, 2009   1 Comment