The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Category — Commentary 1

First Commentary: ‘Writing’ Defined

 ‘Writing’ Defined

Ashley S. Jones

ETEC 540



Searching the term writing in the Oxford English Dictionary Online (1989), came up with numerous definitions, of which I have chosen three:

  1. The action of one who writes, in various senses; the penning or forming of letters or words; the using of written characters for purposes of record, transmission of ideas, etc.
  2. Style, form, or method of fashioning letters or other conventional signs (esp. in handwriting or penmanship); the ‘hand’ of a particular person.
  3. Wording or lettering scored, engraved, or impressed on a surface; an inscription.

When first reading these definitions, they seem to convey what is typically thought of when defining the term writing.  However, with more reflection, it becomes clear that each is in some way limited, either in its description of what writing may have been for a society thousands of years ago, how writing is currently being done, or how we may write in the future.

Thousands of years ago, humans were using various methods to satisfy their “fundamental need to store information in order to communicate, whether to themselves or to others, at a distance in time or space”(Ong, 1982, p.11). To achieve this storage of information, some of the oldest and most common methods used were knot records, notches and tallies. Knot records, in particular those used by the Inca of Peru, were complex and elaborate methods of recording transactions and payments. These systems of adding and removing strings, allowed for categorical variety and a high level of complexity while recording numbers and prompting memory. Pictography was also widely used many thousands of years ago as a way of conveying even larger varieties of information and more complicated messages. All of these methods were used to transmit and communicate ideas and information to others beyond the immediate present.

These, and many others, have been used for years to aid memory, store information and convey human thought and/or speech over distances, thus contributing towards the “repertoire of resources that would eventually yield complete writing.” (Fischer, 2001). The three definitions of writing previously mentioned do not encompass these methods, however, I believe that we must not view these developments as ‘limited’ writing, but as a usable form of writing and communication for the society in which they were developed.

Gaur eloquently puts it as this:

If all writing is information storage, then all writing is of equal value. Each society stores the information essential to its survival, the information which enables it to function effectively. There is in fact no essential difference between prehistoric rock paintings, memory aids (mnemonic devices),winter counts, tallies, knotted cords, pictographic, syllabic and consonantal scripts, or the alphabet. There are no primitive scripts, no forerunners of writing, no transitional scripts as such (terms frequently used in books dealing with the history of writing), but only societies at a particular level of economic and social development using certain forms of information storage. If a form of information storage fulfills its purpose as far as a particular society is concerned, then it is (for this particular society) ‘proper’ writing. (Gaur, 1992, p. 14)

Fischer’s (2001) criteria of “complete writing” is that its purpose is communication, it consists of artificial graphic marks on a durable surface, and it uses marks that relate to articulate speech in order to achieve communication. His definition does not include those so-called ‘primitive’ methods, although he does state that, “writing is and will always be so many different things to so many different peoples in so many different ages.” (Fischer, 2001, p.12)

The way we store and communicate information has developed, progressed and drastically changed over the years. For hundreds of years writing was as typically defined: the forming of written characters on a durable surface. However, we are now living in a digital and technological age, where more and more writing is done on the computer, and in many cases stored on the Internet. It is evident that we must rethink our traditional definitions of writing, in particular that it must produce marks on a durable surface. Wiki pages are now a main means of retrieving and storing information. Anyone, from anywhere in the world, can contribute, edit and access the information stored on these Internet pages. Since this community page allows such open access, we are effectively choosing as a society what we feel is the important knowledge to store and share.

The way a society currently communicates and stores information, be it on rock, on paper or in a computer, is a reflection of what has been created and what is available at that present time. As technology, and the availability of technology, changes, so will the method of writing. Chandler (1994) lists various characteristics and features of the written word, including (but not limited to) the following: visual, external, fixed, ordered, objective, quantifying, abstract, detached, individual. These terms help to describe a more flexible definition of writing.

In conclusion, a more encompassing definition of writing could be: “The communication and storage of information for the purpose of access, by oneself or others, immediately or at a later time, in a form that is useful and purposeful for the current society”.


Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the ear and eye: “Great Divide” Theories,   Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved 25 September, 2009 from:

Fischer, Steven Roger. (2001). A history of writing. London: Reaktion Books.

Gaur, Albertine. (1992). A history of writing (revised edition). London: Cross River Press.

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

Writing. (1989). Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved on September 25, 2009 from:

* Image by Sidhartha retrieved from


September 30, 2009   1 Comment

First Commentary: Orality and Literacy in Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

September 29, 2009   2 Comments