Making Connections

As an instructor of adult ESL students, I found the study of orality and literacy very valuable and informative for understanding my learners’ strengths and challenges. Currently, I’m teaching students whose orality is much higher than their literacy, both in English and their first language. Their listening and speaking skills are much stronger than their reading and writing ability because they have had limited years of education, and what schooling they did have was largely oral, with little exposure to print. Many of them struggle to read basic text or write complete and correct sentences, but speak quite fluently, even eloquently, at times. It was informative to see some of this behaviour reflected in Ong’s descriptions of oral cultures.

Although I am a language instructor and avid reader, I had never contemplated the development of text and all the incremental steps involved. Therefore, I enjoyed tracing the development of literacy from papyrus scroll, codex, manuscript, to new media. On the surface, it’s hard to believe there is a connection between these seemingly disparate writing spaces, but the readings and discussions showed they were revolutionary for their time and each an important step in the development of reading and writing. Living in such a print rich environment where so much of our attention is directed toward text and visual communication, we take for granted the existence of text and images. Therefore, it was fascinating to see the journey from orality to multiliteracy, including the “secondary orality” of radio and television, to the ubiquity of electronic writing and rebirth of the visual that we are experiencing today.

Observing low literacy students using new media is both predictable and eye-opening. Of course, their struggles with paper-based print carry over to electronic media, but some have surprisingly sophisticated navigation skills and are competent at following hypermedia to find the information they need. Students who are not able to follow paper-based text and complete the required tasks are sometimes able to do so on computer using links and icons. Their comprehension may improve due to the decreasing ratio of text to visuals since the images make content more concrete and decrease the amount of text required to relay information. Also, since sites are navigated by easily recognized icons, and audio and video content is increasingly accessible, these students may need to rely less on print literacy skills. However, to maximize these benefits, students must receive training and practice in developing their multi-literacy skills. When I look back at my introductory post, I can see my definition of literacy was focused solely on reading and writing on various platforms. I now see that it is much more complex than that and must include the skills to search for, analyse, assess, manipulate, and use information effectively.

Have a great break, everybody!


About grants

Currently studying in the MET program.
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4 Responses to Making Connections

  1. Mike Singh says:

    Hey Grant,

    I share your views regarding my initial narrow vision of literacy. I also think it is interesting how there is a common theme of a perceived threat to intelligence each time a new kind of technology is introduced. Whether it is the oral vs written cultures, pen and paper vs computer, critics always see the latest technology as a way to dumb down users because things are often made easier. I think it is important to remember that technology doesn’t make us less intelligent it just makes us think differently.


    • grants says:

      Hi Mike,

      I’m glad this course has increased my understanding of the scope of literacy and the skills that learners need to develop to be fully literate today. It’s somewhat daunting, but good to have some background on the development of literacy and how to work these skills into the curriculum.
      You make an interesting point about the assumption that new technology is a threat and decreases users’ intelligence. It’s funny how new and different is assumed to be bad until we learn how to exploit the affordances of new technology and benefit from them.


  2. dchrisman says:

    I think that you have touched on a few very important points here. The comment that really resonated with me was the comment that by reducing the text to visual ratio may help improve comprehension.
    Its interesting, because similar to you when I first started this course I believed that literacy was essentially text, and reading and comprehending it. And like you I have grown to understand that there are so many more aspects to literacy. It makes me question the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test that students are required to write and pass in order to graduate high school. Although literacy is important, I feel it does not really represent the literacy of today. It is mostly text, and reading for comprehension, and as you point out, today on computer screens that is not mostly what we see. I feel that education needs to catch up with modern day ideas of literacy, although like you, this is what I thought literacy was just 3 months ago.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • grants says:

      Thanks, Danielle.
      Although I believe the increase of visuals will help my students’ comprehension, I hope Bolter is right that print will never disappear altogether. Maybe it’s my perspective as a language instructor, but I still think it’s vital that students continue to develop their print literacy in addition to analysis and comprehension of images. Hopefully, instructors can find the right mix of each to maximize comprehension and give learners the skills to choose the best information for the situation.
      It sounds like the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test is stuck in the past concept of literacy and applying the same narrow focus that I had a few months ago. I think it will take a few years for institutions, materials, and assessments to catch up to the literacy reality precipitated by today’s technology.

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