Orality and Literacy – Commentary #1

Orality and Literacy

Walter Ong’s book Orality and Literacy takes an in-depth look at the differences between oral and literate cultures. As a former kindergarten teacher, I chose to compare Ong’s examples of oral cultures with the pre-literate culture of my kindergarten students and found many of his claims to ring true in the early primary classroom. Language and thought processes in the early days of kindergarten (before the students are reading) are similar to what Ong found in oral cultures. Similarities between young children and primarily oral cultures include that language is rhythmic, additive, redundant and situational.


Throughout the kindergarten year students are exposed to all sorts of programs. Jolly Phonics is used to help develop letter sounds which will later lead to decoding text. Each lesson is designed with a rhythmic, repetitive story and song to help the children remember the sound associated with the letter. The patterns in the stories and songs solidify the sounds for recall in the child’s memory. “ In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence.”(Ong, 2002, p.34) These mnemonic patterns are used so often in the K classroom and are a daily part of learning. Like a traditional oral culture, pre-literate children benefit from similar strategies to retain information.


Have you ever listened to a young child tell a story? They continually use the word ‘and’ while trying to get their point across. Their stories are additive and lengthy – they have not learned to condense yet. As evident in Genesis 1: 1-5 oral cultures use an additive method of speaking. That specific passage includes 9 ‘and’s’! It is a natural way to connect thoughts when speaking and feels normal for both pre-literate children and people living in and oral culture. Young children do not have the ability to make compound sentences yet.


“The mind must move ahead more slowly, keeping close to the focus of attention much of what it has already dealt with. Redundancy, repetition of the just-said, keeps both speaker and hearer surely on the track.” (Ong,2002,pp-39-40) Children’s stories are often redundant – I have never taken the time to think about why. Reading through the above quote in Chapter 3 of Ong’s book made me question why young children’s stories tend to be redundant and if I could make a connection here between orality and pre-literacy. Children make sense of what is around them and use the tools they have available to be successful. It makes sense that they would use repetition to get their story out and to make sure the listener knows what they are talking about. This is a strong connection between pre-literate and illiterate cultures.

Situational rather than Abstract

“Oral cultures tend to use concepts in situational, operational frames of reference that are minimally abstract in the sense that they remain close to the living human lifeworld.”(Ong, 2002,p.49) Like people living in a primarily oral culture, young children use concrete thinking. They look around them to create meaning of what they are learning and use their own experience to make sense of what is happening. Of course they remain close to the living human lifeworld as it is all that they know. If abstract thinking comes from chrinographic and typographic, children in these environments will be able to make the switch when they become literate.


One must be aware that there are also large differences between oral culture and pre-literate children. Although they may be unable to make sense of it, my kindergarten students are surrounded by text, technology and symbols. They are also part of a literate culture and can look to their teacher, family members and others to help them. The purpose of my post was to see if there were similarities between the two within the context of understanding the vast differences.

Ong’s book has caused me to critically look at language development of young children and think about their oral language in comparison to strictly oral cultures. As mentioned above, pre-literate children do display many of the characteristics of oral cultures including their tendency to use rhythmic patterns, use additive language, be redundant and use situational thought. They learn to become literate from their oral roots. Children make sense of information by looking for visuals, and listening to the spoken word. We are all born into an oral culture and display these characteristics in early childhood.

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

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4 Responses to Orality and Literacy – Commentary #1

  1. vschrader says:

    Some of the best stories I’ve ever heard are the additive stories of preschoolers. With every addition, excitement and energy intensifies.

    Looking through Ong’s lens at primary oral cultures has certainly resonated in my experience with young pre-literate children, but as you point out, it is likely that the similarities flow more easily from primary oral culture to children than vice versa. I suspect there in a danger in the comparison that we might erroneously look to children to learn about oral cultures.

    A joy to read.

    • abaillie says:

      Hi Vicki,

      Thanks for your comment. I do think there is danger in the comparison of oral cultures and pre-literate cultures. I was interested in trying to gain a deeper understanding of Ong’s claims about oral cultures and try to make them relevant at the school level. I too enjoy children’s additive stories!

  2. lesliedawes says:

    I enjoyed reading your commentary. There does seem to be some similarities between oral cultures and young children. It is interesting, as well as humourous at times listening to children retell a story or an event.

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