Orality and Literacy – In What Ways Are Oral and Literate Cultures Similar?

In the book Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong (2002), Ong delves into the rich history of the development of literate cultures. Ong (2002) argues that “in all the wonderful worlds that writing opens, the spoken word still resides and lives” (p. 8). In my reading of this book I began to think about what sorts of characteristics of a primary oral culture still exist today in the literate culture I reside in. I was also interested to look at what types of strategies were used in oral cultures for memorization and learning and how many literate people and literate cultures still use similar strategies today.

Mnemonics and Formulas
The strategy of using formulas and mnemonic patterns in order to recall information was very popular in oral cultures. Oral cultures had to have a way to recall information as it was not recorded in writing to be able look at in the future. In many literate cultures we continue to use formulas and mnemonic patterns and in the area of education this strategy works for many students to remember certain pieces of information. Often students can demonstrate anxiety over having to memorize the order or pattern of a certain concept so using a formula or mnemonic device gives them an easier way to commit this concept to memory. The example that came to my mind was the use of mnemonic patterns when teaching classification. In the area of classification we use a mnemonic device for the proper ordering of the biological groupings used in taxonomy: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Specie. There are a great number of mnemonics out there to help students such as “King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti”. Students not only find a phrase such as this amusing and motivating, but for the most part they also have a much easier time remembering this concept by using a mnemonic device such as the one above. As Ong (2002) states “rhythm aids recall” (p. 34) and this type of mnemonic device creates a rhythm for students to work with.

Concrete Versus Abstract
Ong (2002) also speaks of another famous psychologist Alexander Luria who found in his studies that illiterate oral subjects “identified geometrical figures by assigning them the names of objects, never abstractly as circles, squares etc” (p.50). I related this back to my own teaching and teacher education where we were taught how important it is to relate the concepts we want our students to learn to real life and to previous experiences that they have encountered. In explaining to a small child what a circle is we do often relate the concept of a circle to something that is the same shape, a plate or a round table, for example. Oral cultures “identified the designs as representations of real things that they knew” (p. 50). With many concepts, teachers will try to represent these new ideas with a real life setting using real life examples. This is when students learn best as they can retain information that means something to them much better then information that seems to play no importance in their everyday life. As Ong (2002) states “why define, when a real-life setting is infinitely more satisfactory than a definition” (p. 53).

One last area that Ong (2002) touches on is the idea that “oral memory has a highly somatic component “ (p.66), where one engages the body when taking part in oral communication. Ong discuses both the use of gestures as well as the movements that occur by some people while praying. It was interesting to see that gestures were a strategy used by oral cultures. As a French teacher one of the most popular programs over the last few years has been the AIM (Accelerative Integrated Methodology) approach. In this second language teaching approach one of the main focuses is the use of gestures to teach students vocabulary and grammar concepts. Teachers who use this program have been amazed at how much, and how quickly, their students can learn a new language. The other area that Ong discusses is the movement of the body during prayer by some Jewish people. Working at a Jewish school I have seen firsthand that as many Jewish people pray, you will often see them doing a backward and forward rocking motion. In the Jewish faith it is believed that prayer should involve your entire body and not just your mind. This rocking movement is a way to move with the rhythm of the prayers and to feel closer to God at that moment. In the field of education it is also becoming more common for students to need to involve their entire body, and not just their mind, in their learning. It is becoming more and more common in classrooms to see students that need to exhibit movements in order to focus and be able to concentrate deeply on a task. It is not uncommon to see students who like to stand up while working or sit on special cushion like object or even a large exercise ball while completing tasks. This allows them to direct their need for movement in a positive way as they have to move their body to maintain balance. Since their body is constantly in movement their brain is able to focus on the task at hand.

One of the obstacles that I have had to overcome was my own personal struggle to understand what a primary oral culture was. Ong notes that “fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like” (p.31). Through looking at the similarities that still exist between a primary oral culture and a literate culture I have been able to better understand what an oral culture entails. It is fascinating to see that many of the strategies and characteristics of an oral culture still exist today in the literate culture that I am living.


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

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