The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

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

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

How has the Technology of Writing Changed the Act of Teaching?

17th Century Parish Registry Letters
Graphic taken with permission from

In my opinion…

Teaching today, is highly dependent upon technologies such as writing. As members of a literate culture, writing has been the focal point of most all of our learning. From the time we are born we have been encouraged to learn how to write. Whether it’s from our earlier years when we learned to write the alphabet, build words and create sentences or during adolescence when we were expected to take notes and write comprehensive papers, writing has always been and will probably always be a focal point in our lives.

It is hard for us to imagine what the written word has done for learning because as literate people, we haven’t experienced anything else. We have no other point of reference other than what we have read or heard about. “… to try to construct a logic of writing without investigation in depth of the orality out of which writing is permanently and ineluctably grounded is to limit one’s understanding…” (Ong, p. 76) Before we can discuss how writing has changed how we teach, it would seem logical to consider first how teaching was performed prior to the introduction of the written word.

Language existed long before writing which meant that verbal communication was the medium through which all cultural knowledge was passed on to the next generation. As language and culture continued to evolve so did the need for better modes of communication. Early forms of writing date back to the days of pictographs when people scratched drawings on stone walls depicting important events within the lives of their people. It allowed for the transfer of more complex information, ideas and concepts using visual clues. (Kilmon) From pictographs came ideographs or graphic symbols such as those used by the Egyptians (hieroglyphs), the Sumerians (cuneiform) and the Chinese (Chinese characters). Writing is an extension of these and other systems where agreed upon simple shapes were used to create a codified system of standard symbols. These systems continued to evolve throughout ancient history. The Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Christians either modified existing systems of simply created their own. These systems were not widely understood and were only used and by relatively few people. More often than not, it was the clergy who played an important role in the development and maintenance of these systems during this time. It took the invention of the printing press and the printed word before literacy began to have any mass appeal. (History of Handwriting)

The development of writing shifted the focus of learning orally to learning visually which, in turn, taught us how to interiorize it thus changing the nature of how we learn. “Writing… is not a mere appendage to speech. Because it moves speech from the oral-aural to a new sensory world, that of vision, it transforms speech and thought as well.” (Ong, p. 84) Speaking and writing are two different processes. Speech is universal. Everybody acquires it. Writing is not speech written down. Writing requires systematic instruction followed by practice. Not everyone learns to read and write. (Literacy Skills: Speaking vs. Writing) “Clearly, there are fundamental differences between the medium of writing and the medium of speech which constitute ‘constraints’ on the ways in which they may be used.” (Chandler) It has taken a considerable amount of time for writing to superseded speech as the primary tool for learning. The transition, while it may have been awkward for some, has succeeded in altering the way in which we now learn.

Learning in today’s literate culture relies more on text and writing and less on the spoken word. We devote more time teaching students to how to read and write and we expect them use these newly acquired literacy skills to think and to reason intellectually. As teachers, we tend to measure success with either a letter grade or a number grade. “If it makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently then they did.” (Postman, p.13) For teachers, marking or grading is synonymous with learning. Our indoctrination into the literate culture is so complete that it is difficult if not impossible to separate the two. Our dependence on the written word is so complete that it has taken us head on into a new era known as the information age.

The onslaught of the digital age has raised many new issues within education and with existing teaching models in particular. The field of Information technology has grown so rapidly that it’s impossible to keep up with the pace. Technical gadgetry continues to astound even the most computer savvy individual, and while these technologies may have heightened our awareness of the digital world we now live in, it may have also dulled our sensitivity to the dominance it has had on our literate world. “… embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.” (Postman, P13) Technology, in this case the computer and the internet, which has given us instant access to knowledge in the public domain, has challenged the way we view teaching and learning much the same way that writing did so long, long ago.

In conclusion, while I may not necessarily agree with Ong’s statements about the dichotomy of oral and literate cultures, I do believe that there is some merit to his separation of the two cultures. If nothing else, it has helped to explain how previous learning practices may have been altered and current teaching practices will be shaped. I have similar doubts about Postman, about his technopoly taxonomy and his position on computer technologies. However, it does get us to think about how these technologies can alter our conception of learning. It seems apparent that, for the most part, we are in unchartered waters. As teaching practitioners, we have no other choice but to take all of this into consideration as we go about constructing teaching strategies designed to promote practical learning and abstract thinking.


Chandler, D. (2000). Biases of the Ear and Eye. Great Divide Theories. Retrieved on September 25, 2009 from:

History of Handwriting. The Development of Handwriting and the Modern Alphabet. Retrieved on September 24, 2009 from

Kilmon, Jack (1997) The Scriptorium: The History of Writing. Retrieved on September 25, 2009 from

Ong, Walter J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. London, England: Routledge / Taylor & Francis Group

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

Todd, Joanne (2001) Examples of Letters of the 17th Center Found in Parish Registers. Retrieved on September 17th, 2009 from

University of Westminster: Learning Skills Site. Literacy Skills: Speaking vs. Writing. Retrieved on September 23, 2009 from:

October 2, 2009   1 Comment