The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Category — Commentary 1

Commentary 1: Walter Ong and Sociodynamic Implications of Literacy

In the third and fourth chapters of Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong compares characteristics of orality and literacy, showing how consciousness is dramatically changed – “restructured” – by literacy.  In exploring this transformation, though, he appears to miss the full significance of the confluence of several of the changes he describes.

Ong examines orality and literacy in relation to a variety of psychodynamics of orality, characteristics of thought and expression.  He shows how oral story forms differ from literate in style and structure; the types of knowledge, and conceptualization that each favours.  He further explores differences in use of memory between orality and literacy; in what is remembered, and how.

Against this extensive background he looks at research on early textual works based on oral creations (Milman Parry on the Iliad and the Odyssey; qtd. in Ong: 58), and more recent work with living narrative poets in Yugoslavia (Albert Lord; qtd. in Ong: 59), and concludes that oral memory works quite differently than literate memory: the “fixed materials in the bard’s memory are a float of themes and formulas out of which all stories are variously built” (60).  He contrasts use of such formulaic elements with the methods and expectations of literate people memorizing from text, and writes at length about differences between orality and literacy with respect to the possibility of “stable” repetition or reproduction, and makes the point that even the idea of faithful reproduction differs between the two.

Ong relates that Lord, in his work with the Yugoslavian bards, found that “[l]earning to read and write disables the oral poet . . . it introduces into his mind the concept of a text as controlling the narrative…” (59)  This was in reference to the process of oral composing, but it reflects the fact that oral narrative is by nature fluid, that variations in the story between tellers are part of the evolution of the culture and the form.

Such variations reflect the unique storyteller, the audience and the circumstances of the telling; the unvarying essentials reflect the needs and beliefs of the group or culture.  “Originality”, Ong writes, “consists not in the introduction of new materials but in fitting the traditional materials effectively into each individual, unique situation and/or audience” (60).  Ownership of the essential story in oral culture is communal; restrictions on how a story is told or used, by and to whom, in what season or context, arise from  – and belong to – the story, the community and the culture.

This creates a world in which neither the storyteller nor the listener exists in isolation; they are dependent each on the other, partners in shaping and perpetuating narrative.  The Okanagan author Jeanette Armstrong writes that “I am a listener to the language’s stories, and when my words form I am merely retelling the same stories in different patterns” (qtd. in King: 2).

All this serves as the groundwork for a detailed examination of how consciousness itself is restructured in a literate world.  The effects are profound.  Language, through text, becomes external – “detached from its author” (78); as such it is “context-free” or “autonomous” (Ong references the work of E.D Hirsch and David R. Olson respectively; 79) and becomes irrefutable, unresponsive, and altogether unaccountable – as Ong delightfully says “inherently contumacious” (79).  It is now mediated, requiring tools (and propagating technologies)… it precipitates a fundamental shift in the human awareness of self in place, and in time; and it greatly increases the potential for restriction of access to knowledge and dissemination of ideas.

Tucked among this survey of shifts in human consciousness and culture Ong mentions the potential for private ownership of words,  noting that “typography had made the word into a commodity” (131), and acknowledges that it was a boon to the increasingly individualistic nature of human consciousness, and the growing tendency to perceive “interior . . .resources as thing-like, impersonal” (132).

Unfortunately, he pursues this idea no further, and so overlooks one of its most significant implications.  It seems that he knows it well subconsciously, yet while it informs his entire work he doesn’t actually address its implications explicitly.  The process of transferring “memory” outside the mind paradoxically makes story both external to the thinker and external to the community.  Ong has already observed that “[p]rimary orality fosters personality structures that in certain ways are more communal and externalized, and less introspective than those common among literates” (69).  But he stops short of recognizing the full consequences of this particular psychodynamic – and sociodynamic – shift: that literacy makes possible both the private ownership of knowledge and the knowledge of private ownership in a way never before imaginable.

In an oral culture, knowledge, once shared, was ‘common’; if ‘protected’, was secret.  While knowledge had currency, and rules or custom or interests might determine what was told to whom, by whom, and when, its commodification in the modern sense was impossible.  Like the Kiowa grandmother in N. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn, oral peoples knew that words “were beyond price; they could neither be bought nor sold” (85).  Knowledge could not be packaged for sale, nor last year’s knowledge devalued and replaced – at a price – with this year’s.

Private ownership of land and resources is likewise enabled by literacy; being dependent on the ability to demonstrate and enforce possession.  The ability to create, delineate, and enforce ownership through what are essentially ‘text acts’ allows relations of ownership to take place at a distance; removes the need for physical demarcation and presence.  Physical possession is no longer nine-tenths of the law.  And in a literate world, the two can be combined: knowledge can be owned, controlled, traded, suppressed, or disseminated even by those who can not create it themselves.

Ong apparently does not appreciate the broader sociodynamic implications of literacy in relation to the existence of textual knowledge as a commodity.  Ironically, the money he earns for his publisher is a manifestation of what Ong overlooked.

Works Cited

King, Thomas.  The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative.  Toronto: House of Anansi, 2003.

Momaday, N. Scott.  House Made of Dawn.  New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.

Ong, Walter.  Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.  London: Methuen, 1983.

October 23, 2009   1 Comment

Commentary 1: Instability of Text

It was difficult to choose one article to comment on, as several of the readings for Module 2 inter-weaved together so nicely. I read several together in one sitting and as I began the last article, the ideas suddenly began to synthesize. I was brought to alarm by The Instability of the Text, and the inevitable loss of information and knowledge. Perhaps a great part of the points raised in the readings are common sense, but it is so much more daunting to suddenly realize that a great part of our knowledge today is stored as a series of 0’s and 1’s. And just like a simple virus can completely wipe out a hard drive, something analogous could affect our network servers and delete everything that was stored on the server.

Language itself is ever-evolving. The Oxford English Dictionary documents these changes in the English language by showing various uses of each word with a variety of quotes from different periods of time. This evolution is also evidenced by the fact that reading Shakespeare can sometimes be like reading a whole different language.

Add to this the impermanence of the medium. In comparison to our ancestors’ stone engravings, our ink and paper manuscripts are easily destroyed—hardly permanent. In elementary school, a high interest novel such as the latest Harry Potter paperback cannot last very long before it requires a replacement. With digitization, vast volumes of books such as the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as encyclopedias can all be reduced to one DVD. O’Donnell notes that technology is constantly changing and machines become obsolete very quickly. It is obviously much easier for an archeologist to read a stone engraving than a small, shiny disk.

O’Donnell opens his article with a brief discussion regarding variations among copies of books from the same publisher, same edition. The abundance of multiple copies makes it a difficult task to ascertain reliability—which version is the truest to the author’s intentions? Even if we had all the text down pat, what about the formatting? The use or lack thereof could largely point to the meaning of the text to (i.e. shape poem).

The accessibility to the text is another issue. O’Donnell discusses various types of software used to open data files, but recognizes that some are more common than others (i.e. .pdf) but each also carry their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, some cannot be edited, others provide a certain type of encoding only.

In his article, Kelly describes a dream dating back to the great library at Alexandria, “to have in one place all knowledge, past and present. All books, all documents, all conceptual works, in all languages”, and argues that the Google Books initiative makes this dream seem possible. The only difference is, with digitization, the library is not only restricted to the elite, but becomes “truly democratic, offering every book to every person.” The archival of ‘all knowledge’ is a formidable feat, only possible through digitization with the technology that we have today. Scholars in developing countries can now have access to items that they previously would have needed to travel halfway across the world to get. Patients who want to learn more about their afflictions or the most recent research can access what was previously open to physicians only.

O’Donnell makes a strong case. Text cannot be permanent and reliable if we represent text digitally.

However, in light that language, and life itself is ever-changing, is it imperative that text be permanent?


Brand, S. (1999).  Escaping the Digital Dark Ages. Retrieved from

Kelly, K. (2006). Scan This Book! Retrieved from

O’Donnell, J. J.  The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. Retrieved from

O’Donnell, J. J. (1998). Avatars of the World: From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. 44-49.  Retrieved from

October 8, 2009   1 Comment

Commentary 1: On Virtual Libraries

shelf browse

shelf browse

I was quietly amused upon discovering the “visual shelf” in the Library Catalogue section of my new school’s website, especially as this coincided with the readings on virtual libraries.  Aside from looking up books using a standard search of title, author, or topic, students and staff can browse the shelves either from the computer or the comfort of their own home, by simply sliding a box along the image of a shelf of books.  However, is this a virtual library by any means?  It may be designed to appeal to the computer-savvy nature of today’s child, yet the child still needs to move out of the virtual shelf into the actual school library in order to find the information they seek.

A simple definition for a virtual library is “the worldwide collection of online books, journals and articles available on the Internet.” (PCMAG)  O’Donnell’s definition is that it is a “vast, ideally universal collection of information and instantaneous access to that information wherever it physically resides.” (O’Donnell)   A more complex interpretation, quoted from Kaye Gapen, states that a virtual library is:

the concept of remote access to the contents and services of libraries and other information resources, combining an on-site collection of current and heavily used materials in both print and electronic form, with an electronic network which provides access to, and delivery from, external worldwide library and commercial information and knowledge sources. (Martell)

The simple definition, that of the collection of materials found on the Internet, is exactly that: too simplified.  Yet when one uses a search engine on “virtual libraries,” one finds a barrage of results that use this definition of a virtual library, most of them categorized by subject matter or educational institution.  The site that claims to be the “WWW Virtual Library” is simply a series of tiered, nested categories that eventually result in several collections of links. (WWWVL)  This example is in no way universal in its scope, as it is monitored by a small group of people who determine what should be included and what should not; nor does it even meet the simple definition of being the collection of materials found on the internet.

If a library is to be deemed a virtual library according to O’Donnell, then it should be ideally universal, vast, and accessible instantaneously.  O’Donnell himself recognizes that this is a fantasy that has roots at least as far back as “of the first major Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the so-called Septuagint.” (O’Donnell)  He goes further to state that the dream of the virtual library has not changed since this time, only that the “technical possibilities” have.  (O’Donnell)  However, such a library would be impossible to come to full fruition, because of the fact that, as technologies “advance,” the library itself would become obsolete, and a new creation would need to be included.  In addition, O’Donnell addresses the problem of the “ever-accumulating geometrically expanding heaps” of information that would accrue if this virtual library included a historical collection of everything from the past along with the current and future knowledge base.  (O’Donnell)

Gapen’s definition seems a little more realistic and a little more usable in today’s world.  Unlike O’Donnell, her definition allows for a sifting mechanism of sorts in that her virtual library is limited to “current and heavily used materials.” (Martell)  However, who determines what materials will be heavily used?  In other words, who determines what will be in this virtual library?  Gapen herself describes the virtual library as a “library metaphor for a societal control revolution,” (Martell) implying that some group somewhere is imposing their beliefs on the library consumers.

Needless to say, the meaning of the word virtual itself implies that a virtual library does not physically exist; it just appears to exist.  This is a paradox in itself, though; does that mean that the knowledge we gain from a virtual library is not actually knowledge – it just appears to be knowledge?  Perhaps the term virtual in the realm of academic information in a world of electronic technology needs to be challenged, as the answer to that question is most obviously “No.”

The current state of the Internet exacerbates the problems both O’Donnell’s and Gapen’s definitions of the virtual library in the sense that there is an overabundance of information and, as yet, no effective way of accessing  accurate information quickly and efficiently.  It is by far much easier and faster to find information than by the previous methods of the past, yet it is still far from perfect, and as O’Donnell suggests, once we get close to the ideal virtual library, new technology will be in place that will make that ideal obsolete.

Works Cited

Martell, C. (1999). Reaching into the Mist for the Elusive “Virtual” Thing. Journal of Academic Librarianship25(2), 132.

O’Donnell, J. J. (1994). The virtual library: an idea whose time has passed. Proceedings of the Third Symposium on Gateways, Gatekeepers, and Roles in the information Omniverse (Washington, D.C., United States). A. Okerson and D. Mogge, Eds. Association of Research Libraries, Washington, DC, 19-31. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from,2542,t=virtual+library&i=53926,00.asp

The World Wide Web Virtual Library. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from

October 7, 2009   1 Comment

Commentary 1: An Observation of How Orality and Literacy Have Changed Interactions Between People

Technology has made significant impacts in oral and written communication and interaction. The difference can be observed between oral and literate cultures through the introduction and evolution of writing technologies. Ong (2002) posits that oral cultures developed mnemonic patterns to aid in memory retention of thought, while literacy forces the creation of grammatical rules and structured dialogue. The jump from orality to literacy would have been a challenge for the cultures wishing to preserve their traditions and thoughts in writing and yet, the knowledge to write and record information has enabled many cultures to pass down important pieces of knowledge to future generations.

Ong (2002) explains how, despite being a late development in human history, writing is a technology that has shaped and powered intellectual activity and that symbols are beyond a mere memory aide. As outlined by Ong, oral cultures had the challenge of retaining information in a particular manner, where, when written, the characteristics of oral speech become more evident with certain patterns of speech.  Given that oral cultures had the challenge of retaining information, does literacy require orality? Postman (1992) supports Thamus’ belief where “proper instruction and real knowledge must be communicated” and further argues that despite the prevalence of technology in the classroom, orality still has a place in the space for learning.

As writing technologies evolve, culture and society have the tendency to evolve toward the technology; thus, developing new ways to organize and structure knowledge (Ong, 2002) in order to communicate information and changing the way interactions take place. The construction of speech and the construction of text change depending on the technology. For instance, with the computer, the individual is permitted to delete or backspace any errors in speech or grammar and construct sentences in different ways with the assistance of automatic synonyms, thesaurus or dictionary usage. Before the computer, errors could not be so easily changed with the typewriter, whose ink would remain on the paper until the invention of white out. Tracking the changes to the original Word document with which this paper was composed would reveal the number of modifications and deletions – a feature of technology that cannot be characterized in orality because culture may note errors in speech but cannot effectively track where each error was made. In public speech, one can observe the changes in behaviour, the pauses, and the “umms” and “uhhs” of speech. This is also how the interaction differs from the norm.

With text messaging, the construction of information is often shortened, even more so than one would find with instant messaging. The abbreviated format of text to fit within a limited space has taught individuals to construct conversations differently; in a manner that would not have been so common 15 to 20 years ago.  The interaction between individuals changed since text messaging requires more of a tendency to decipher the abbreviated format. In a sense, text messaging uses some form of mnemonics in order to convey messages from one person to another. This seemingly new form of literacy, in some cases, requires more abstract thinking and as Postman (2002) suggests, may require orality to communicate the true message, which may occur in the form of a phone call.

Learning materials presented in shorter formats becomes more important, particularly for educational technologies like mobile learning, where technologies such as netbooks and mobile phones are utilized for classroom learning. Postman (1992) posits there is a need for an increased understanding of the efficiency of the computer as a teaching tool and how it changes the learning processes. With mobile technologies, the interaction could be limited by abbreviated formats, as seen with text messaging, and in some cases, may not be an effective form of learning for some students. Despite the invention of newer technologies, orality often helps clarify thought processes, concepts and information. While the student can absorb knowledge on literacy alone, orality can assist in the retention of information.

The complexity of written communication can be taken a level further with the basis of writing – pictograms – images that can be recognized and deciphered by most individuals. Gelb  (in ETEC 540) argues that limited writing systems like international traffic signs avoid language and can yet be deciphered by illiterates or speakers of other languages. Although most traffic signs can be clear, some do require translation for the meaning to be clear, whether the translation is made orally or through writing. Ong (2002) supports the notion that codes need a translation that goes beyond pictures, “either in words or in a total human context, humanly understood” (p. 83).

While writing and writing technologies have evolved and changed the way interactions and communication take place, one thing has not changed: being able to find the most basic way to communicate to individuals illiterate of other languages – a characteristic that orality cannot communicate to individuals who are unfamiliar with a language. Thamus feared that writing would be a burden to society, but its advantages outweigh the disadvantages (in Postman, 2002).


Gelb, I. J. (2009). Module 2: From Orality to Literacy. In ETEC 540 – Text Technologies: The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing. Retrieved October 4, 2009 from

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

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

October 6, 2009   2 Comments

Universal Library

I chose to write about the universal library because this topic has been close to my heart since I was 12 years old.  My biggest dream was to read all the books in the world in all the languages in the world.  Many of my friends were eager to point out how ridiculous that dream was – after all I only spoke Ukrainian and Russian and a bit of Polish and German – the basics I learned from my Grandmother.  I would not let these naysayers dissuade me from my dreams.  How difficult could it be to get a foreign book in translation?  By then I had already read all of Dumas’ adventures of the Three Musketeers and Jane Eyre as well as other classical writers.  Some books were typed on a typewriter and shared among trusted friends and you learned early on that those books were not to be talked about with people who you did not implicitly trust.

O’Donnell asserts that “[the] main features of this vision are a vast, ideally universal collection of information and instantaneous access to that information wherever it physically resides.”  This idea appeals to me tremendously I would love to be able to have access to all of Tolstoy’s works and be able to read my favorite passages whenever I like without having to dig through boxes or travel to the library.  This is not to say that I would not rather have a book in my hand but since it is not easy to find some books in their original language, especially the rare first editions, I would love to see a copy on line.  O’Donnell characterizes this as a

The dream today is weighed down with silicon chips, keyboards, screens, headsets, and other cumbersome equipment — but someday a dream of say telepathic access will make today’s imaginings suddenly as outmoded as a daisy-wheel printer.

It may be so, but where would we be without our imaginings?  The idea of a virtual library is a noble one.  As Hillis points out in the Brand article,” we are now in a period that may be a maddening blank to future historians–a Dark Age–because nearly all of our art, science, news, and other records are being created and stored on media that we know can’t outlast even our own lifetimes.”  True as this may be, should we stop all scanning projects because we are worried about being able to retrieve data.

I will tell you this- when I was doing the readings, and exploring the virtual libraries, I found books of songs and stories that my Grandmother sang and told me when I was a child.  What a gift from people who these books probably meant nothing to!  Where Stewart Brand prophesizes, “there has never been a time of such drastic and irretrievable information loss as right now” and blames the computer industry’s production schedule for the rapid advancement of standards, it must be pointed out – since the process of standardization really took hold, we have seen technologies last many years.  HTML is nearly twenty years old.(Wiki)  The JPEG picture format was defined as a standard in 1992. (Wiki)  The Portable Document Format (aka PDF) is over sixteen years old (Wiki) and is now an open standard.  And a file created with the first version of these standards can still be read on computers today.  He remarks “civilization time is in centuries” but how many of us can understand the earliest books in the English language?  Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or even the works of William Shakespeare are only a few hundred years old, but they seem to be an entirely different language!

While it is true that the media will probably not outlast our lifetimes, I’m sure that was apparent to the authors of medieval manuscripts.  However – they did not stop copying out illuminated sheets of manuscript simply because they might not survive a fire.  The fires in Alexandria marked a huge blow to the body of knowledge of the time – but one fire in one city will not wipe out a universal library.  There will be backup to tapes, redundant hard drives, and redundant locations to store data.  Sure, if the power goes off that information will just sit there – but think about how it sits there.  Each hard drive is created as a sealed environment and the data could well be readable in 100 years.  The motor that drives the plates inside the drive may have failed, but the platters and the data they contain, could last a very long time.  Under ideal conditions, to be sure – but what book left outside on the table will last beyond the year?  The reason books have been such an efficient method of passing information across the ages isn’t because they are inherently better.  There have simply been so many of them written that a few were bound to make it.  Really, the body of knowledge we inherited from three hundred to two thousand years ago is remarkably small.  I do not know if a universal library will work better for longevity, but it will give more people access to books they might never have otherwise seen.  I do not advocate the end of all print media – it is good to have an alternative to the electronic versions, but I think the electronic versions will become the ones that people make use of.


Brand, S. (1999).  Escaping the Digital Dark Ages. Retrieved from

Kelly, K. (2006). Scan This Book! Retrieved from

O’Donnell, J. J.  The Virtual Library: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed. Retrieved from

O’Donnell, J. J. (1998). Avatars of the World: From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. 44-49.  Retrieved from

October 6, 2009   1 Comment

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

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.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

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

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Commentary 1: An Analogy

Chapter 1: The Orality of Language

This chapter is divided into two sections.  In the first section, “The literate mind and the oral past”, Ong introduces the reader to the concept of a division between orality and writing by quoting many linguists and other scholars throughout history.  He is painting us a picture of what human communication looked like before writing.  He first quotes Ferdinand de Saussure noting, “Writing has simultaneously usefulness, shortcomings and dangers”, and that, “Still he thought of writing as a kind of complement to oral speech, not as a transformer of verbalization” (2002, p.5).  This made me realize that is strikingly similar to how many people feel about information and communication technology (ICT).

Throughout the chapter, I was constantly thinking about the analogy between the introduction and influence of writing and that of computers knowing that the latter is one of the main themes in this course.  In this analogy, ‘orality’ (as pre-writing communication) represents ‘literacy’ (as pre-computer communication).  Therefore, Saussure’s second idea above would be translated into, “…computers are a kind of complement to written communication, and are not a transformer of verbalization”.  This is clearly not a perfect analogy, however it has given me an interesting and enlightening perspective on the influence of ICT.  For example, Ong points out that out of 3000 spoken languages presently, only 78 have a literature (2002, p. 7).  That is nearly 40% whereas the percentage of the world’s population using the Internet is less than 25% (2009).

Ong goes on to explain how, despite much resistance and criticism early on, writing gradually and eventually gained more credibility than oral communication of matters such as law, science, business, etc.  Part of that most likely had to do with how readily available the information was made as well as how objective it was.  If it were only available orally, than whoever was looking for specific information would have had to locate the person who actually knew the particular information.  Then when they found that person, the information might not be the same as the last time he or she said it.  Whereas, if it were written in a wall, scroll, book, etc, the information would be much easier to access and would be the same every time it was accessed.  This fits with the analogy where the Internet makes information much more accessible than traditionally having to go to a library to find written information that had a good possibility of being inaccurate because it was out of date.

The example Ong gives from “Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric” also fits nicely into the analogy; “rhetoric was and had to be a product of writing” (2002, p. 9).  Most students that have access to a computer would not even consider composing a weblog entry, much less an essay, on pen and paper.  If Aristotle were alive today, he might say that writing is and has to be a product of computers.  That might be stretching it somewhat; however the point is that the vast majority of all writing today is composed on computer.  Ong goes on to say, “Thus writing from the beginning did not reduce orality but enhanced it…” (2002, p. 9).  Many educators today argue that students consistently produce more and better written work when they are given the opportunity to compose their thoughts on a word processor.  The ability to easily correct mistakes, rearrange text, change words, etc helps students to relax and just let the thoughts flow.  Does writing have to be a product of a computer?  Probably not; but how often do you draft an important document with a hand held writing implement?

The second section of this chapter is, “Did you say ‘oral literature’?”.  This section brings us much closer to the present day thinking about the differences between orality and writing.  Eventually scholars accepted writing so much that, “oral art forms were essentially unskillful and not worth serious study” (2002, p.10).  Taking the analogy further, we can say that academic textbooks and journals are not (or will not be) trusted and used for research as much as electronic information found online.  This again comes down to availability, convenience and the ability to maintain the most current information.  In an online program such as MET, it is possible to complete all the coursework without ever setting foot in a conventional library.

One of the most interesting and perhaps difficult ideas to envision in this first chapter is what it was really like to live without any writing (2002, p. 11).  It is essentially impossible for literate people to grasp the idea.  Concluding the analogy, sometimes I find it very difficult to remember what life was like before computers.  Younger generations, of course, will not have the option of recalling that memory.  Of the few (predominately) oral cultures left, hardly any are unaware of writing and its many benefits.  They also know that by becoming literate, they will inherently give up many benefits of their primary orality.  Knowing this is very difficult, but “we have to die to continue living” (2002, p. 15).


Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics. (2009). Internet Usage and World Population Statistics. Retrieved October 3, 2009 from Miniwatts Marketing Group. Web site:

Ong, W.J. (2002). Chapter 1: The Orality of Language. In Orality and Literacy. (pp. 5-15). London: Routledge.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

What’s Wrong with Ong?

Determinism and Great Divide theory

In Orality and Literacy, Ong sets out some useful comparisons, but falls into the trap of implying that the categories he uses to describe and enumerate the differences between oral and literate cultures are sufficient to describe them.  Further, in an attempt to support the Great Divide theory he elaborates, he ventures into technological determinism with the claim that technology shapes man—particularly, the way people think.

Ong (1982) writes: “Technologies are not mere exterior aids, but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word” (p. 81).  This introduces a kind of chicken and egg argument since man has first to find a reason and the means to invent a technology in order for it to have its purported transformational effect on consciousness.  In Ong’s view, writing is the technology that not only distinguishes oral from literate cultures, but also creates a schism between because it changes the very way they think: “More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness” (Ong, 1992, p. 77).

A more recent advocate of a similar view concerning the effects of technology on the minds of students is technophile Marc Prensky.  He has famously argued that current students, whom he terms Digital Natives, have been mentally transformed by the various technologies to which they have been exposed to the point that the methods used by their Digital Immigrant teachers are no longer effective: “…it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed—and are different from ours—as a result of how they grew up” (Prensky, 2001).  Prensky has been justly critiqued by numerous writers, including McKenzie (2007), who dismisses Prensky’s brand of determinism in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants as “…a rather shallow piece lacking in evidence or data, Prensky offers the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ to set up a generational divide. His proposition is simple-minded. He paints digital experience as wonderful and old ways as worthless.”

It should be noted, however, that notwithstanding his journey down the slippery path of technological determinism, Ong has done useful work in elaborating the distinctions between oral and literate cultures.  If, in fact, his categorizations were a rhetorical device of the sort he discusses (Ong, 1982, p. 108), an agonistic means of illuminating the differences between literate and oral cultures, it would be more effective.  Instead, as Chandler (1994) points out, such binaries lead to a “… sharp division of historical continuity into periods ‘before’ and ‘after’ a technological innovation such as writing assumes the determinist notion of the primacy of ‘revolutions’ in communication technology. And differences tend to be exaggerated.”  There is also the danger of generalizing too widely and overlooking potential overlap.

Ardi with cell phone

Technological determinism? It didn't take long for someone to imagine what impact 21st century technology might have had on Ardi.

It is an interesting coincidence that in the same week the class is studying Ong’s Great Divide approach to orality and literacy, another classic Great Divide is being seriously challenged.  News of ‘Ardi’ (short for Ardipithecus ramidus) a specimen of a female human precursor who predates the famous 3.2 million-year-old Lucy by a million years, appears to throw into question the missing link theory of human evolution (Shreeve, 2009).  Paleontologists have long studied chimpanzees, assuming a human evolutionary path from apes to Lucy.  Ardi now makes it appear that any common ancestor might have been much further in the past and unlike modern apes.  Here again, the understandable, logical tendency to categorize, compare and contrast—strategies we teach students in English class to prepare their compositions—sets up overly simplistic false dichotomies which do not, ultimately, provide a complete picture.

As Chandler (1994) observes, dichotomy is sometimes an attempt to simplify complexity—in the case of orality and literacy, cultural complexity.  Such complication is far more likely to result not in a clean break between orality and literacy, but in an overlapping of the various systems based on more mundane and practical considerations such as trade and commerce.  This, in turn, challenges the elitism in the deterministic view such that, as Gaur (1992, p. 14) argues, there are no primitive scripts “…only societies at a particular level of economic and social development using certain forms of information storage” appropriate to their circumstances.  Thus, continuity theories (Chandler, 1994), offer a more complete view incorporating the notion of interaction between overlapping modes and media which, in turn, allows for a more evolutionary and less deterministic understanding which eliminates the need for a missing link to explain historical discontinuities.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Available:
Gaur, A. (1992). A history of writing [revised edition]. London: British Library.
McKenzie, J. (2007). Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation [Online]. From Now On, 17(2). Available:
Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routlege.
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. NCB University Press, 9(5) [Online]. Available:
Shreeve, J. (1 October 2009). Oldest “Human” Skeleton Found—Disproves “Missing Link.”  National Geographic Magazine [Online]. Available:

October 4, 2009   2 Comments

The Impact of Literacy on First Nations Oral Cultures

The question of societal transitioning from orality to literacy and the subsequent affects upon the societies in question has been central to the readings thus far in the course.  In our Western society, we have seen a gradual change from orality to literacy from the time of the Greeks to present day. (Havelock, 1991)  While the change towards literacy has happened quite recently in comparison to the life of languages as a whole, literacy has nonetheless become inextricably linked to Western society:

            “The two, orality and literacy, are sharpened and focused against each other, yet can be seen as still interwoven in our own society.  It is a mistake to polarize these as mutually exclusive.  Their relationship is one of mutual, creative tension, one that has both a historical dimension as literate societies have emerged out of oralist ones-and a contemporary one as we seek a deeper understanding of what literacy may mean to us as it is superimposed on an orality into which we were born and which governs so much of the normal give and take of society.”  (Havelock, 1991)

First Nations’ Literary Transitioning           

 It would be erroneous to assume that literacy is as inextricably linked to all other cultures as it is ours.  Ong suggests that “of all the many thousands of languages-possibly tens of thousands-spoken in the course of human history, only around 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all.  Of the some 3000 languages spoken that exist today only some 78 have a literature.”  (Ong, 2000,  p. 7)  Many newly or semi-literate cultures exist close to or alongside literate ones, such as the First Nations groups which span North America, and more specifically, the First Nations groups of the Gitxan, Nisga’a and Shim Sham, upon whose territories I live in Northern British Columbia. 

            These groups have been thrown violently into the grasp of literacy, much unlike the European culture which “slowly moved over into the ambiance of analytic, interpretive, conceptual prose discourse.”  The First Nations groups of Northern British Columbia were introduced to literacy approximately one hundred years ago, long after writing had been well established as a Western way of life.  These peoples were forced to accept literacy and everything that went with it, such as formal schooling, as a predominant means of survival.  The youth were forced into residential schools as a means of training them to become both literate participants in society, and “westernized”, in terms of behaviours and thinking.  Whether this was based on a pre-planned conspiracy or simply misguided good intentions is not the focus here.  Rather, the question that has arisen for me repeatedly since the onset of the course is “What has been the ultimate affect on the First Nations cultures in Northern British Columbia in particular, from having been forced into the literacy agenda long after the agenda was deeply entrenched in the Western society imposing it?”

A Fundamentally Oral Culture        

    The First Nations were historically an oral culture, with oral histories and oral documentation.  As a result of the domination of the Western culture, they have been forced to incorporate the literary means of life with no historical markers to guide them on how to do so. 

Western society has embraced literacy so much that the “rhythmic word as a storage well for information slowly became obsolete.  It lost its functional relationship to society.”  (Havelock, 1991, p. 25)  The First Nations were simply thrown into this unfamiliar system which was dissimilar to their culture, which both embraces and credits the spoken word.  Eigenbrod states that for the First Nations cultures “the truth and accuracy of the spoken words is guaranteed by the personal experience of the speaker: ‘What I do not remember, I will not say.’” (Eigenbrod, p. 90) 

Despite these beliefs of their own culture, the First Nations groups find themselves having to defend their culture and territory, doing so by playing by the rules of the dominant literacy based society to the point where often from the Native perspective “literacy is associated with political power, dishonesty, and injustice.” (Eigenbrod, 90)


In the Delgamuuk trial, involving the Gitxan people of the Upper Skeen region, the Gitxan fought to have their oral histories recognized as viable proof of traditional land rights based on historical evidence of occupation of the territories in question.  After a long and complicated court process, the Canadian Government agreed to recognize oral histories, ruling that “oral histories can be used to prove occupancy of the land and they will be given as much weight as written records” (Where are the Children website) with a stipulation attached designating control over the decision as to whether or not the oral histories are adequate proof resting on the Government’s shoulders.  Again, despite recognizing the power and influence of oral history in the First Nations culture, the power of the literate society was ultimately imposed on the land title recognition process further solidifying the idea that “those who know how to write are in control and use their power to appropriate land that is not theirs.” (Eigenbord, p. 90)

The Struggles for First Nations Youth

While this example shows some of the struggles on a large scale, there are an abundance of smaller scale examples as well.  First Nations youth struggle in the school system where they show “over-inclusion in various special needs categories and [have] literacy rates well below provincial averages.”  (Fettes, p. 2)  They are coming to literacy based schools from a home life and culture still linked in value systems and thought patterns of an oral society.  One hundred years is simply not enough time to change over a pattern of thinking that has existed for more than 10 000 years.  (Dickason, 1992) 

First Nations cultures were those of hunter gatherer until the change of lifestyle brought on by the Europeans forced them away from their oral language patterns which were largely based on storytelling as a means of conveying history, record keeping and teaching through apprenticeship based learning.  

What happens to these students who follow a social discourse of learning as “use of silence, listening and observing versus speaking, answering questions [and] demonstrating knowledge” (Peltier, 2009, p. 3) when they are introduced to a schooling model that values and rewards the very characteristics which oppose their oral apprenticeship style of learning?  

The result is a gap between two cultures in terms of approaches to language, value of oral tradition, and ways of thinking which have been developed as a result of approaches to language.  (Ong, 2000)  Thought patterns that have been developed through the home culture oral developmental influences are suddenly put into question in the school system and seemingly need to be overwritten for academic success to occur.     

Embracing Oral Teaching Techniques to Reach First Nations Learners

Research suggests that the techniques used to engage learning in pre-literate children are similar to those used in oral based cultures and thus may be transferable to newly-literate cultures such as the First Nations of British Columbia.  Mark Fettes outlines in his paper,  Imaginative Engagement in Culturally Diverse Classrooms:  Changing Teacher Thinking and Practice within a Community-University Research Alliance, examples of the successful utilization of  an imaginative educational approach in classrooms across British Columbia noting that “students from predominantly oral cultures…may have abilities of understanding and language use that are barely tapped in pedagogies oriented to text-based literacy….Imaginative education seeks to keep children’s oral abilities, and the kinds of understanding that accompany them, alive and developing throughout the school-age years.”  (Fettes, 2005, p. 6)

Learning as a Culturally Mediated Activity

If learning is, as Vygotsky purports, a culturally mediated activity, (Lantolf, 1994) and the context of learning, oral or literary, shapes cultures as a whole, (Ong, 2000) how can we expect First Nations students to process information in the same way as students born into literacy cultures. 

The question of First Nations students’ academic success seems to be a complex issue of colliding cultures, ways of thinking, and differences in approaches and goals of learning.  Perhaps Ong is correct in asserting that literate cultures can never truly “conceive of an oral universe of communication or thought except as a variant of a literate universe”, (2000, p. 2)

However, in looking closely at the populations’ First Nations students that are not able to be successful in the literary based school system it seems necessary and timely to work within our limited frameworks of oral cultural understanding to attempt to create changes that could benefit these First Nations youth in our school systems. 

In attempting to create a link that will enable success between the two, perhaps it is true that “no bridge built out of the certainties inherent in the literate mind can lead back into the oral magma” (Illich, 199, p. 34) but the need for at minimal a basic level of understanding is becoming apparent in order to provide students coming from cross-literal-oral backgrounds the support they require.


 Dickason, Olive P.  (1992).  Canada’s First Nations:  A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times.  Retrieved from,M1

 Eigenbrod, R.  The Oral in the Written:  A Literature Between Two Cultures.  Accessed at

Fettes, M.  (2005)  Imaginative Engagement in Culturally Diverse Classrooms:  Changing Teacher Thinking and Practice within a Communitiy-University Research Alliance.  Accesses at:

Havelock, Eric.  (1991)  The Oral-Literate Equation:  A Formula for the Modern mind.  Literacy and Orality.  Cambridge University Press, New York.  Accessed at

 History or Indian Residential Schools.  Assembly of First Nations.  Accessed at

 Illich, I.  (1991) Oral Metalanguage.  Literacy and Orality.  Cambridge University Press, New York.  Accessed at

 Judgements of the Supreme Court of Canada.  (2007).  Retrieved from

 Lantolf, J.  (1994)  Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning.  The Modern Language Journal.  78, iv.  Accessed at

 Ong, W.  (2000)  Orality and Literacy.  Routledge, New York.

 Peltier, S.  (2009)  First Nations English Dialects in Young Children:  Assessment Issues and Supportive Interventions.  Encyclopedia of Language and Development.  Accessed at:

 Where are the Children:  Healing the Legacy of the Residential Schools.   Accessed at

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Commentary #1 ~ The use of symbols for early language acquisition

Commentary #1

Kelly Kerrigan  ETEC 540- Section 65A

The use of pictures to convey meaning or as tool to aide memory has been used both in traditional oral cultures and literate cultures. Ong, in his book Orality and Literacy (1982), discusses the ideas of rebus writing, ideographs, and pictographs in both cultures, including specific cultural examples. I will first summarize these ideas and examples and then will further the argument that pictures are a necessary part of language acquisition in a literate culture. Specific focus will be on younger learners, those who are learning disabled, and secondary language learners.

Ong (1982), discusses the use of symbols and pictures as the beginnings of the modern alphabet. “Most if not all scripts trace back directly or indirectly to some sort of picture writing…”(p.85). One example that is still used today is the Chinese writing system, a complex array of characters which takes, on average, twenty years to master. This writing system enables a level of understanding that would not happen orally, due to the diverse collection of dialects within the Chinese culture. The use of pictographs, symbols that convey meaning to a physical object, allows for scripts to emerge, however  with each culture each will use a different meaning associated with the symbol. For example, an image of a book could mean simply a book, or it could mean a building, such as a library, depending on the cultural use.  Similarly, an ideograph, according to Ong, is where the “…meaning is a concept not directly represented by the picture but established by a code” (p. 86). Egyptian hieroglyphs contain examples of pictographs, ideographs, and rebus writing. Rebus writing, another type of pictograph is a sound/symbol, with the symbol representing what the sound signifies. Since the English language has many homonyms, the meaning of the word might not be immediately clear. An example that Ong points out is the picture of a foot, with an arrow pointing to the sole. In rebus writing, the image could mean the sole of the foot, the spiritual soul, or a type of fish. Rebus puzzles are now commonly used in educational settings.


Example: Rebus Puzzle
Image source:

Ong discusses pictographs with specific attention to their use in oral cultures. I must expand on his explanations in saying that the use of pictographs is also incredibly important in the language acquisition of young learners, those who are learning disabled, and secondary language learners. When young children begin to acquire language, it is done so aurally, with children picking up phonemes and basic word commands from a very young age. Their baby babble then moves into more audible reflection of everyday speech. When children enter school, their vocabulary increases, however it is when a child sets down to write in a literate culture, that symbols and pictures begin to aid in their learning. Much like young learners, older learners will use pictures as a way to aid their memory for specific tasks (aides memoire). Their aides memoire, however are not as rudimentary as those who are in the early stages of language acquisition. “In the semi-phonetic stage, we’ve found children use one, two or three letters to represent words [in their writing]…represent[ing] some speech sounds heard in the words” (Cook.1995, p.66). Most children will soon move from this stage and introduce vowels and form more coherent written word, however for learning disabled students, this is not always the case. “… The ability to make paradigmatic responses in oral language tasks does not ensure that a child will automatically transfer and apply this ability to written language tasks…” (Cartelli, 1978, p. 314).

Learning disabled students, in Cartelli’s (1978) study “…appeared to experience major difficulty in organizing key verbal elements and in understanding the use of language in unlocking the written symbolic code” (p.318) This has major implications for those teachers who work with learning disabled students, for more emphasis must be placed on the use of symbols to represent verbal and written language. Some learning disabled students only use pictures as a form of language communication. The use of pictographs to create sentences and to respond to commands (either by pointing to a fixed board, or using specialized technology to type out answers) are the only way for non-verbal children to communicate in the literate world. The same can be said for secondary language learners. In the early stages of language acquisition, many learners are parroting or mimicking other native speakers. They will respond well to visuals from the start, and will then use these same pictures as support for questions and small assignments later on (Haynes, 2005, n.p.).

To conclude, the use of pictographs have their place in both oral and literate cultures. The necessity of using pictographs, including rebus writing and ideographs within the classroom, have shown to have merit for early language acquisition. Learners rely on the use of symbols to communicate from a basic rudimentary level as well as at a cognitive level for those who are non-verbal and learning disabled.


Cartelli, L. (1978). Paradigmatic Language Training for Learning Disabled Children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 11(5).

Haynes, J. (2005) Stages of Second Language Acquisition.
Retrieved October 1, 2009 from

Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen.

Robertson, K., & Randolph, L. (1995). First steps for early writers. Teaching Pre K-8, 25(6), 66.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

New literacy and the library debate

Last year during a particularly severe round of budget cuts a parent at a School District meeting asked why we spend money on books.  She wanted to know if libraries were a thing of the past and should we be wasting money on print literature.  Having a position as a teacher-librarian and being an avid lover of literature I found myself appalled at this statement.  I was not alone.   How could someone suggest that the book was a device that would sink into obsolescence?  After all, I could never picture myself curling up with a laptop and reading The Life of Pi.  But perhaps I am in the minority.


If the reading of books is on the decline as Caleb Crain (2007) suggests then it may be so that in the near future libraries will be converted to other uses in our schools.  As a librarian I am particularly interested in how the notion of text is changing for my students and it was for this reason that rather than doing a degree in Library and Information Studies I chose to enrol in the Masters of Educational Technology program.  As text changes so too does the job of the librarian in today’s schools.  This position is increasingly becoming a technology position as more and more information is accumulated, stored and even created initially in a digital format (Grafton, 2007).  Teacher-librarians must now become experts in multiple literacies as they help to guide their students through these varied information sources.


In his article, Future reading: digitization and its discontents, Grafton (2007) addresses the rise and potential fall of the library and while the change that the modern library may not be matched in scale to the changes it has encountered before there is a great deal to be gained from examining its past in order to predict its future.  In fact the impact of the rise of the printing press on the library was so profound that an entire system of cataloguing and managing the flow of information became necessary.  As a librarian I am constantly discussing this issue with colleagues.  Will librarians be tasked out to catalogue web-based information or is its status too potentially fleeting to make it worthwhile?


            Perhaps the most intriguing idea here is that even the staunch world of academia now turns to a search engine before it enters the library’s stacks when it begins research (Grafton, 2007).  Grafton points out that journal subscriptions are on the rise and the sale of university-press books are dwindling and one only has to look at our own work in the MET program to see evidence of this.  In fact, as UBC holds subscriptions for to electronic journals for student and faculty access it is becoming rarer that students are required to purchase custom course materials in print form for their courses.


            Grafton (2007) exposits that we will still need our libraries because the physical form of the text or book impacts how it is used and this cannot be duplicated in digital form.  He speaks of historians gleaning information from notations made in family bibles and binding methods that speak to elements of social history.  Concern here though is that he is addressing the book in historical context.  It seems already relegated to a thing of the past.


            Where I think that the demarcation line may lie is between text in the form of information and that in the form of literature.  While research and information gathering is increasingly dominated by the web the digital book has met with some resistance from those of us who love the feel and portability of a good book.  Where the library must refocus itself is in dealing with text as it evolves into a digitally dominated format.  It must refocus, as it has always done, to meet the needs of a changing text-space but its role as a place where literature lives will be slower to change.





Crane, Caleb (2007).  Twilight of the books: What will life be like if people stop reading?  New York: The New Yorker.


Grafton, Anthony (2007).  Future reading: Digitization and its discontents.  New York: The New Yorker.

O’Donnell, James J. (1994).  The virtual library; an idea whose time has passed.  Gateways, Gatekeepers, and Roles in the Information Omniverse: Proceedings of the Third Symposium. Eds.  Ann Okerson and Dru Mogge. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries Office of Scientific and Academic Publishing. 19-32.

Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London and New York: Methuen.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Knowledge-Power Literacy-Orality

The Secret and Magic Power: Orality and Literacy

Power-Knowledge Literacy-Orality

Noah Burdett

U.B.C. Master of Educational Technology Candidate

Knowledge is a difficult concept to define.  One point that has been made clear by Michel Foucault and others is knowledge is fundamentally connected to power.  Many have heard the cliché that  “knowledge is power.”  If power relations are viewed in terms of access to knowledge than how is access changed in oral and literate cultures?  The questions itself is of a great divide nature and will help to demonstrate the fallibility of setting oral and literate cultures as binaries.

By comparing characteristics of literate and oral societies one is able to demonstrate that the control of information in any form of society is an important factor in the creation of inequality, regardless of how that information is transferred.

Culture and Language

Culture will be examined in a broad context and will provide a platform for comparison, but it should be understood that “culture” is not meant to illustrate that difference do not exist, not all oral or literate cultures share the exact same attributes.  However, members of a specific community do share culture. To suggest that culture is shared also suggests that it is learned from others and that it is transmitted. If culture is shared than it is also not a private entity thus one cannot have a private culture and must be a participant.

The method of transmission is the medium of language.  Language is thus the key to membership within a culture and to learn a language is to become a cultural member; to become a cultural member is to learn a language (Parkingson and Drislane 1996).  As language is key factor in the creation of culture, does ones participation in relation to other depend on how that language is transmitted either orally or through a written system?

Oral Cultures

In a primary oral culture knowledge is embed within the knower.  To find knowledge one has to seek out a member of the culture that knows.  Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy attributes the need to be intimately connected to the knower because of the property of sound, “sound exists only when it is going out of existence,” (Ong 2008, p. 70). The time space relationship of sound prior to recording technologies creates a circumstance where members of a primary oral culture relate “intimately to the unifying, centralizing, interiorizing economy of sound as perceived by human beings” (Ong 2008, p.73).

When knowledge is embedded in the knower and the knower possess the power to chose and distribute the knowledge as he/she sees fit, a power structure is created. Thus in an oral society knowledge is power as it is embedded.  A member of an oral culture is positioned within their culture is determined by your situation within the collective and how others view your knowledge base.  The act of embedding knowledge within individuals creates a power structure of the knower and the seeker.  The structure is evident in Plato’s Phaedrus[i] where Socrates acts as the knower and Phaedrus as the seeker, the irony being that this is a written work. It can be said that knowledge as power works within oral societies to create inequality.

Literate Cultures

Written forms of language change the embodiment of knowledge, but not the power structure.  Writing provides a way to detach the knowledge from its author and audience, giving knowledge a form permanence, rigor, and objectivity. As Ong describes, with the written word “each reader enters into his or her own private reading world,” (Ong 1982, p. 73).  The act of separation would seem to create a power dynamic between those that can access the information in a written form and those that cannot.  Examining the history of education using Learned Latin and other chirographically controlled languages demonstrates how power and knowledge are still controlled within written systems even though the knowledge can be separated from the knower.

Learned Latin became the written language of scholastics for some 1400 years. Ong describes learned Latin as “a language written spoken only by males, learned outside the home in a tribal setting, (Ong 1982, p. 111).  Learned Latin became a chirographical language spoken and written by its users and separate from their mother tongue.  Learned Latin served as a way to isolate a community of male literate that wanted to share a common intellectual heritage. Creating a group that was in control of it of a form of language transmission further enhanced the isolating aspect of the written word and creates a scenario where knowledge and power create inequality.

Knowledge as power will be controlled and transferred within a culture regardless of how individuals are connected with that knowledge either through orality or literacy or both.  The similarity of the power-knowledge relationship exemplifies that within oral and literate society “differences of behaviour and modes of expression clearly exist, but psychological differences are often exaggerated,” (Chandler 1994).  The human ability to isolated and alienated is not text or orally based.  Demonstrating the connection between power-knowledge relationship in both oral and literate cultures also demonstrates that the binary opposition of the two misses the human component of both.

If the move from orality to literacy continued existing forms of power than using technology of writing as causal mover of change may also be overstated.   For example, Ong attributes the isolating aspect of Learned Latin with making possible “the exquisitely abstract world of medieval scholasticism and of the new mathematical modern science which followed on the scholastic experience, (Ong 1982, 112).  Attributing these scientific and mathematic developments to the language in which they are expressed does not determine that it was because of the language that they were made possible.  Ong’s claim reduces a complex time and process to single phenomenon and does not incorporate a perspective that views the larger cultural and social context.  The above has shown that literacy and orality are components of the human experience but should never be seen as single driving forces for our behaviours.


Excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus (Retriever, 29 September 2009 from:

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 29 September, 2009 from:

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Parkinson, G. & Drislane, R. (1996). Exploring Society: Pathways in sociology. Toronto: Harcourt Canada.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Teaching Elementary Text and Technology, are we Caught in a Power Struggle? A Commentary on Modern Text Teaching Practices.

An issue that has become more apparent to me during my revision of the course readings is that text is a constantly changing technology that is difficult to define. If the nature of text is that it is constantly being redefined than why have we not completely adjusted our teaching practices accordingly? If the current generation understands text as something that is viewed on a screen then their rules and definitions are different that the traditional views of text.  Why do (primarily, elementary) educators concentrate on the current ‘archaic’ ways of teaching writing with a pen and paper if this is the case? I propose that this phenomenon is based on power struggles between educators and the public and a lack of technological assimilation in the school system.

Ong states that “There is no way to write ‘naturally’ (Ong, p.81).” This statement can viewed in a negative perspective. Should educators be teaching students in this day and age to write with a pen on paper and to practice their handwriting? The reality is that they will be using computers for the rest of their lives. Educators see this as an unnatural way to write.  We are clinging to past views and perspectives by teaching writing and text in its current pedagogical form. Educators need to realize that it is alright to learn about and to use new technologies. It is actually natural to accept these new ways of learning and realize that this is the way of the future. “Technologies are artificial, but – paradox again – artificiality is natural to human beings. Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it. (Ong, p.82)”

Despite what many educators may think, there is a benefit in teaching these modern technologies. Bowers states this idea clearly in the following quotation: “Computers continue the tradition of representing print as a form of cultural storage… (Bowers et al, p.188).”  If we think about text in this context there is much that can be learned about our teaching practices. Some modern internet writing technologies are frowned upon. We tell our students that facebook is a waste of time, and we do not encourage use of online forums, but why? Could it be that educators are worried about losing their grip on the power of text technology? “Some societies of limited literacy have regarded writing as dangerous to the unwary reader, demanding a guru-like figure to mediate between reader and text (Goody and Watt taken from Ong, p..92).” It seems that educators are engaged in a power struggle to maintain their control over the education system.

Are we simply selling technology monopolies to the public in teaching reading and writing in its current form? In the 21st century there is a unique digression that is occurring in teaching text to students. Despite the changing requirements and needs for computer knowledge in the workplace, educators are not teaching these skills adequately. In elementary schools, computers are not seen as a core component of text education despite the fact that most currently written text is computer based. This situation is power based, and educators do not want to lose the influence that they currently hold. “Those who have control over the workings of a particular technology accumulate power and the workings of a particular technology accumulate power inevitably form a kind of conspiracy against those who have no access to the specialized knowledge made available by the technology (Postman, p.9).”

Students are often more engaged in learning when they are using technologies that they relate to. “Students are more willing to do more editing, to spend more time reviewing their text and improving it (Viadero, 1997b, p.13).” Despite this, educators still concentrate on older fashioned methods for text education, why? Ong has stated that often it takes time for modern technologies to be assimilated into our collective consciousness. Until this occurs there is always going to be a divide and a power struggle between teachers who believe in the ‘regular’ ways of teaching text and those that believe in the benefits of computer usage. “People had to be persuaded that writing improved the old oral methods sufficiently to warrant all the expense and troublesome techniques it involved (Ong, p.95).”

There is no doubt to me that text and computers are becoming more linked together. It is commonplace for students to submit their assignments electronically. The modern workplace requires the ability to write and read text electronically. One thing that I’ve realized through the first months readings is that text is a constantly evolving process, from its origins in the oral tradition to modern computers. As educators we need to be able to evolve with those technologies in order to provide the workforce of tomorrow a modern text education. This starts with educators being able to accept that perhaps, it is our socially responsible duty to provide this education. Until educators are willing to work with, not against modern text technologies we will always have this struggle.  “Where technology is used and where the teachers are given the right kinds of support and training and the right kind of equipment, then (they) are able to actually implement some of the best theory and practice regarding the teaching of writing (Viadero, 1997b, p.13).


Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Viadero, D. (1997b, November 10). A tool for learning. Education Week, 17(11), 12-13, 15, 17-18. Available:

Bowers, et al. (2000) Native People and the Challenge of Computers: Reservation Schools, Individualism, and
Consumerism in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring, 2000), pp. 182-199.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Remixing Writing


The emergence of digital technologies challenges the traditional perception of writing as the inscription of characters (alphanumeric representation of ideas) onto a tangible medium. Changing storage media demands the incorporation of new definitions of writing to include non-tangible medium. In an era where many creators bypass traditional “hard media” in favour of electronic storage devices, what is “written” may in fact never involve “writing”. The detachment of the author from a work enabled the proliferation of a multitude of ideas;  as Walter Ong states “writing establishes…autonomous discourse which cannot be directly contested or questioned” (Ong, p.77). While individuals can access multiple writings, the static format of traditional codex inhibits interactions with the text. Jay Bolter states “digital media are refashioning the printed book” (Bolter, p 3). Nowhere is this more evident than the multiple projects of compiling a universal library on the World Wide Web. While there are many who oppose the digitization of the printed page, the benefits are discernible and imaginable.

Universal Literacy

The goal of literacy programs is for the reader to make connections (text to self, text to text and text to world) with any given texts (Keene and Zimmerman, 1997). The concept of a universal library and the magnitude of text distributions/manipulations possible by the World Wide Web revolutionize traditional views of literacy.

In his article “Scan This Book”, Kevin Kelly depicts writing, bound as codex, as existing as an island; isolated from other texts. Similar to Ong’s perception that writing is the interiorization of thought, the separation of the word from the living present, Kelly states:  “Its only movement comes when a reader picks it up to animate it with his or her imagination” (Kelly p. 3).  The digitization of writings affords the reader the opportunity to easily connect to the world as well as other texts through the means of hyperlinks. Kelly presents the idea of a user-driven “library”; one where the writing in books can be “crosslinked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture…every page reads all the other pages..” (Kelly, p  4). Readers will be able to personalize their literary experience further by the addition of tags “a public annotation, like a keyword or category name, that is hung on a file, page, picture or song, enabling anyone to search for that file” (Kelly p 4). Thus the text of the book or writing will no longer be separate from that of any other work. The deep links will allow users to traverse the “pages” of a book following link upon link ad infinitum. Additionally, readers will be able to “create” books from pertinent snippets from the abundance of information available on virtually every topic. Resonant of Ong’s description of oral societies  that are empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced   (Ong, p 45), Kelly proclaims “when books are digitized, reading becomes a community activity” (Kelly, p5).  The shared annotations, hyperlinks, tags, etc. become fodder for interactions which transcend time and space.  This is truly the conceptualization of “text to self, text to text and text to world” connections in a format heretofore unimagined, the remix into reordered books.

It is interesting to note that while the medium is new, the concept of the personalization of the reading/writing experience is not.  One has only to look at perhaps the oldest known medicinal works. De Materia Medica authored by Dioscordes was produced about 512 AD in its oldest and most famous form, an illustrated Byzantine manuscript.  The Anicia codex version of the work was amended, rearranged and annotated as it passed through the hands of various owners, (Discordes, n.p.) similar to Kelly’s vision of the annotations of digital book pages. “From this deep structuring of knowledge comes a new culture of interaction and participation” (Kelly p. 6). Different perhaps, but not new.  The difference will be in the dynamic interaction of ideas, not limited by constraints of time and space as were the static interactions visible in archaic documents.

“Once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do” (Postman, p7). Efforts to resist technological innovations are futile; (think Luddites) a better course of action is to embrace technological innovations and harness them.


Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing space computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Dioscorides: Materia Medica. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2009, from

Keene, E. O. and Suzanne Zimmerman. (1997). Mosaic of thought teaching comprehension in a reader’s workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kelly, K. (2006, May 14). Scan This Book. New York Times. Retrieved September 30, 2009, from

Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Ong on Plato – As a Reactionary: Commentary 1

Commentary #1 ETEC540
Commentary 1 :Orality & Literacy: Ong on Plato – As a Reactionary

Above: Artist’s rendering of Platonic forms [retreived online Sept 2009]
Ong asserts, in his discussion [pp78-81] that Plato’s views about writing as expressed in the Phaedrus, demonstrate a reactionary response to the advent of writing, which was perceived by Plato as a threat to the primacy of orality and of the spoken word (Ong, 2002). Ong places Plato’s critique of writing along side similar critiques that have been issued by various figures over the course of the history of western culture during periods of technological transition. Ong mentions Hieronimo Squarcifico for example, who believed that the proliferation of books [circa 1477] was leading to a population that was less disciplined and less studious (Ong, ibid).
Resistance to technological change, and an investment in the status quo, were not the only characteristics of Plato’s views. According to Ong, quoting Havelock (1963) Plato’s entire epistemology “…was unwittingly a programmed rejection of the old oral, mobile, warm, personal interactive lifeworld of oral culture…” (Ong, ibid, pp79). He also states that Plato was “not at all fully aware of the…forces at work in his psyche to produce this reaction or overreaction…to lingering, retardant orality” (Ong, ibid, pp 80).
This discussion will explore some of the implications of Ong’s claims and examine the epistemological and philosophical underpinnings that provided support for Plato’s position. It will be shown that there was much more than just a resistance to a new technology, and a rejection of oral or written culture, involved in this critical stance about writing asserted by Plato. Plato’s denigration of writing and more generally about the role of art, was consistent with the ontological schema that supported his fundamentally mystical philosophical worldview.
A little background about the Phaedrus itself makes sense here. It is Plato’s famous work examining the nature of Love, through a dialogue purporting to be a discussion between Socrates and one of his colleagues Phaedrus. Important for our purposes here, it discusses some of the characteristics of writing and reveals also a critique of the role of artists [including poets] in society.
Ong lists four items that Plato suggests are wrong with writing; that writing is inhuman, that it destroys memory, that it lacks interactivity and that consequently it is passive. To understand why these characteristics and especially why interactivity was so critically important for Plato, it is necessary to understand the hierarchical nature of the Platonic world.
The highest discourse or reasoning procedure possible in pursuit of the ultimate virtue [Knowledge] is achieved through the interaction of oppositional pairs. Meaning is derived from the tension between two poles [one vs many, etc.] or is derived from the back and forth motion of thesis, ant-thesis and synthesis (Jones, 1970).
Ong fails to discuss the fundamentally mystical [not agnostic] philosophical system [The Forms, Hierarchy of Being] that supported Plato’s views. His hierarchical ontological schema [idealism] places man within a dualistic reality in which the world of sensory impressions [The World of Appearance] and observational data are not be trusted. That is, it is not the outside world [the world in which one makes scratches on paper or applies paint to canvas] that is the ‘essence’ of what it is to be human, nor, importantly, can one ever really know this outside world commonly referred to as ‘reality’. The ‘Essence’ of being, and the highest form of knowledge, can be apprehended through reason, it cannot be written down or ‘pictured’, made visible, etc.
Plato, using Socrates as his voice, sought a solution to the threat [as they both perceived it] of Sophist relativism, which they believed would lead to a society of moral anarchy. It was this perceived need to counter relativism that was largely responsible for Plato’s development of a rationalistic system and his concept of the Forms (Jones, 1970). Plato’s ideas about the nature of he Forms is complex, full exposition of the subject lies outside of the scope of this discussion.
However a brief synopsis of it is required to understand Plato’s hierarchical constructs of both reality and of the mind. Plato asserted that knowledge cannot be of nothing, of that which does not exist, and that real knowledge is eternally true and unchangeable. Therefore, the objects of knowledge, which he called Forms [or Ideas] must be eternal and unchangeable also. There is a form for every class of objects, [dog, table, beauty, god] and perceivable objects themselves are merely imperfect copies of the Forms.
The nature of reality that unfolds from these crucial assumptions is laid out in the” The Republic” in the metaphor of he Divided Line wherein reality is segmented into a dualistic schema, the Intelligible World and the World of Appearances.
Important to his construct of the mind is the hierarchical division of states of mind, thus, within the World of Appearances and at the base of the hierarchy is Imagining [including the production of art], which is the lowest form of cognition. Ascending ‘up’ to the next level is a better way of perceiving, the realm of Belief. Within the Intelligible World, the first level of the states of mind is Thinking, where the first type of real knowledge [mathematical knowledge] is attained. Finally as one ascends to the highest level to the realm of the Forms themselves, one has the potential to achieve true Knowledge [gnosis], arrived at through the employment of dialectic reasoning.
In summary, although Ong correctly notes some of the objections to writing made by Plato, he is not just another exemplar of a reactionary, as it relates to historical change nor in terms of an example of a simple or binary rejection of oral versus written culture.
Writing in the Platonic world, like art production, takes place in the world of appearances. Therefore, it can only be a pale copy, a transcription of the process, [later refined and expanded in the work of Kant] of dialectical reasoning. Plato’s views on writing were not merely a reaction or response to, a transition from orality to written culture but rather, a logical outcome of the profoundly complex views expounded in his philosophy.

Ong, W.J. (2002) Orality and Literacy, New York, NY Routledge, Publishers
Pages 78 – 81 Plato, Writing and Computers

Plato, excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus [retrieved online September 2009]

Jones, W.T. (1970) The Classical Mind: A history of Western Philosophy, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers

October 4, 2009   1 Comment