The Balance Between Ways of Communicating

Biakolo argues convincingly in his paper “On the Theoretical Foundations of Orality and Literacy,” (1999), that Ong (1982), and others were less than fair in using Plato as their measuring stick for those in a literate Greek culture. He does this by pointing out that there would be many others who would have lacked either exposure or ability compared to Plato. He cautions against the generality and comparative quality of many studies; this generalization can be avoided if we consider cultural values and also individual differences, as he recommends. Specifically, Biakolo’s work becomes applicable when you look at the classroom or individual level.  As our education system advances, we are seeing a push into personalized learning, which is being facilitated through our ever-expanding technological developments (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2013). As technology develops, the authority and value placed on print has become dispersed between alternative ways of communicating. These alternatives are allowing individuals to express themselves in a variety of modes, which allow the average individual to communicate in the way they require. Instead of accepting one way of communicating without including others, we must move towards an understanding of communication and learning on a continuum between orality and where we are today with modern technology.

If popular belief is that written language is more valuable than orality, something that Biakolo (1999), identifies as a common trait in his findings on the theoretical research behind orality and literacy, then our education systems will be influenced by these beliefs. In turn the education system will place significant time and value in written output. This becomes particularly apparent when these values are instutionalized in our school systems. In our western culture schools frequently require students to write to demonstrate their understanding of concepts. If we look at the whole education system, the top certification is a Doctorate which requires an incredible ability to use the written word. By requiring this written ability of students, we alienate a group of individuals based on a societal viewpoint. These individuals may be more competent than others in their ability to understand concepts but because of studies like those identified in Biakolo’s (1999) work, literate ways of communicating information are justified as more developed or scientific. Chandler (1994), also points out that investigating oral and literate cultures as opposites poses problems such as placing value on literate cultures or having false beliefs about oral cultures. Another misconception that can be dangerous, is that as we move from an oral to literate society we completely remove the values of orality in favour of written equivalents.

There are many individuals who are more able to learn and share information based on oral transmission. Most educators would agree that different students learn different ways and yet, because of the societal value on literacy, we see those who learn this way as being somehow deficient. Often these students are given special education plans, and provided with alternative work. Instead a focus on personalized learning with a balanced value system for oral and literate and post-literate abilities would allow all students to demonstrate and acquire knowledge.

There is something to be said for retaining alternative forms of containing and expressing information and knowledge. Currently, we are seeing a generation with a shortened attention span (Postman, 1992), and an ability to move beyond written text and express themselves in a variety of formats. While this new way of knowing and introducing information should be part of formalized education, it should not replace all forms of expression. An individual who has oral, written and computer competencies will most certainly be more able to be successful than one who is only competent in one area of communication or learning.

Biakolo (1999), mentions Chafe’s (in Biakolo, 1999), work on “‘idea units’” (p.55), and the notion that writing, because of its speed relative to thought processing, allows the writer to better formulate their thoughts and concepts. Adversely, speaking is considered a more impulsive act, with less time for the speaker to reflect and organize their ideas. In this period of transition, the question might be whether individuals who type or record their images to share information are perhaps less able to reflect because of the instant quality of their content sharing. The problem with overarching theories such as the Chafe’s theory about “idea units” are that they focus on individuals who are like Plato, with a strong ability in the area of literacy and only relate to one culture’s method of transmission. In some oral cultures, there is often more thought and time given in responding. Individuals in these cultures will take their time to organize their thoughts into logical and complex order, much like an eloquent writer. Not only does this occur in these cultures, taking time before a response is also a desired trait. Someone who speaks too quickly, without thought, is given less credence than someone who measures their words. Additionally, those who find writing difficult may only offer a simplistic answer to a question, because the act of writing is challenging, something which Chandler (1994), touches on in his article.

There are necessary transitions that the whole society must make when incorporating a new technology, but individuals who are illiterate can survive in a literate culture by adapting some of their skills and oral cultures may include some aspects of written values. In the same way, as we transition into a new technology and way of interaction and communication, it is possible and perhaps even imperative for us to retain values of the previous communication that we participated in as a society. As Postman says we must, “negotiate with technology” (1992, “Judgement of Thamus”) and not accept it without thought for what we also might lose, or who we might alienate.

This paper by Biakolo (1999), questions whether investigating oral vs. literate cultures is possible. With the advent of pervasive technology and our rapidly changing communication style, it is important for us to investigate the continuum of development from an oral to literate to post-literate society as this investigation will allow us to design learning environments which are most effective for students without assigning values to the way in which they learn or represent content. By removing the value that we place on certain modes of communication we can begin to see what our society as a whole, not just those who exhibit specific traits of communication, is possible of doing and creating.


Biakolo, E. A. (1999). On the theoretical foundations of orality and literacy. Research in African Literatures, 30(2), 42-65. Retrieved from

British Columbia Ministry of Education (2013). Personalized learning: interactive discussion guide. Retrieved from

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

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

Postman (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Retrieved from

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