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Running Head: SPECTRUM LITERACY
Spectrum Literacy: Class and the Oral/ Literate Culture Spectrum in the Classroom Ted Curran National University
The modern industrialized world is made possible by the power of the written word to preserve important information exactly, irrespective of context, speaker, or thematic constraints. Consequently, the ability of literate people to work with the written word to be able to decode ideas from decontextualized writing rather than from contextbound spoken communication is an indispensable survival skill in the industrialized world. People who are socialized in cultures where all communication is spoken, called oral cultures, do not naturally develop the skills and mental predisposition necessary to ably make meaning from the written word, which often lacks context cues oral speakers depend upon. Researchers have documented a similar difference in contextbound vs. contextindependent speech in lowerclass vs. middleclass speakers, even in predominately literate, industrialized western nations. In this paper, I will argue that these two disparate bodies of research are actually commenting on the same phenomenon. The differences in classbased language behaviors closely mirror the differences between oral and literate cultures. We will see that the extent to which children are raised in a literate speech community produces changes in their brains which confers greater advantages when learning context independent, literate language. Children who are raised in a speech community in which most information is exchanged aurally/orally become dependent on context cues to supply meaning to their communication, complicating the use of decontextualized, literate language. By uniting
these two previously unreconciled bodies of work, we will discover a new way forward to bringing literacy to diverse learners in the modern classroom.
Orality versus Literacy
“While the spoken word can travel faster, you can't take it home in your hand. Only the written word can be absorbed wholly at the convenience of the reader.” ~Kingman Brewster
For the first 190,000 years of the existence of Homo Sapiens, our species has passed down its collected knowledge without the benefit of the written word. All knowledge which has survived from our species’ earliest thoughts was passed down through the generations in the form of songs, poems, and stories. It has only been in the last 5000 years that the word was made paper, and replaced the spoken word as the means by which we preserve our collective wisdom. Even to this day, oral cultures continue to make their words flesh, not paper, and hold them in the position of “glory and truth” that literate societies save for the printed page. Of the 3000 known languages, only 78 of them possess a literature, showing the extent to which human societies have been able to thrive by encoding their words in the flesh (Edmondson, 1971 cited in Ong, 1988, p.
7). The means by which oral cultures record their histories differs greatly from the norm in literate societies. Oral cultures, without the use of the written word, must engage in different activities to record their histories than those in literate cultures consequently, their ability to memorize vast amounts of data is greatly enhanced (Chaika, 1994, p. 204). Oral cultures encode their important information in songs, poems, and stories because the features of those art forms facilitate memory. Literary techniques such as rhyme, rhythm, imagery, metaphor, and metonymy help speakers remember specific data. “If one encodes thoughts in rhyming words, so long as one retrieves one member of the rhyming pair, the other is likely to come. If one encodes using a strong repeated beat… then one need only recall the beat or the tune to start remembering” (Chaika, 1994, p. 206). The ability to encode important events into a rhythm or rhyme that would ensure its immortality was highly prized in the preliterate world, as bards and poets were commonly patronized by kings and nobles who wanted their stories to live on. This power over words verges on the ability to grant immortality, so powerful is the spoken word in an oral culture. In oral cultures, the spoken word is imbued with the great power of the ideas it carries, a power considered tantamount to magic. Ong (1988) states “the fact that oral peoples commonly and in all likelihood universally consider words to have magical potency is clearly tied, at least unconsciously, with their sense of the word as something necessarily spoken, sounded, and hence
powerdriven” (Ong, 1988, p. 32). In oral cultures, the word is not separate from its speaker, so it is considered part of the speaker’s personal power, much in the same way their physical prowess would be. Whereas literate peoples capture words in tiny 12 point containers laid flat against a thin piece of paper, oral language users only experience the word with the immediacy and power that a scream, cry, whisper, song, or laugh can carry. Oral people regard the ability to name things as a magical ability, a way to have power over the thing and the ability to understand it. Ellis (2004) points to the biblical concepts of God creating the universe with a single word “Logos” and Adam naming all of the creatures in creation “in some sense to finish or confirm the act of creation” (p. 1). In both examples, speaking a word was an action unto itself, with direct consequences which could be felt and experienced. This connection between the spoken word and magical powers is echoed down through the literature of generations. Medieval alchemist Cornelius Agrippa (cited in Ellis, 2004) states “Words...[carry] with them not only the conception of the mind, but also the virtue of the speaker with a certain efficacy unto the hearers, and this oftentimes with so great a power, that oftentimes they change not only the hearers, but also other bodies, and things that have no life” (p. 1). In Agrippa’s day, words were thought to have the power to actually change physical reality, not just to have a transformative effect upon the emotions or mind. Oral cultures’ interest in the immediacy of words is part of a larger interest in the physical world the “here and now”. Chaika (1994) cites Ong (1982) in saying that “oral cultures foster ‘a
celebration of physical behavior’ and that they are far more violent than literate cultures are” (p. 205). Chaika questions the claim that oral cultures are more violent [considering that our literate culture has killed at least 68,009 Iraqi civilians since 2003, her point is well taken (Dardagan, 2007)], but the research does support that physical, daytoday violence as a means of self expression declines as literacy rises, as shown in Gillis (1994). One need only look at Homeric Greece or the Bible to see the emphasis on feats of strength, acts of war, or physical passion in these newlyliterate societies. Chaika extends this physicality to an increased tendency to engage in combative verbal behavior (p. 203) well. This focus on the physical and immediate is natural for a culture in which all knowledge is received in the moment. Chaika (1994) claims that there are fundamental differences between the minds of literate and oral people. She cites Ong’s (1982) assertion that “literacy restructures consciousness” (p. 206) because it emphasizes the visual rather than the auditory, the abstract rather than the contextualized, the impersonal rather than the personal, and the individual rather than the collective (p. 206). People from literate societies are taught to abstract themes from what they read, while oral peoples abstract themes from what they see and hear. Chaika (1994) cites Scinto (1986) in saying that “literacy is marked by decontextualization. That is, one learns to handle language apart from the physical context one finds oneself in. This is a sharp difference from most oral communication which depends on the social and physical context of utterance for its meaning and force” (p. 207). Jardine (2000) attributes this disconnect between the message and
the context to the development of an alphabet. The alphabet, unlike a word or even a pictographic drawing of a referent, is an inherently meaningless symbol with no innate connection to that which it refers. This disconnection allows readers and writers a level of abstraction impossible in the oral mindset, a freedom to contemplate ideas of which one has no direct, personal knowledge. The word itself went from being a fleeting momentary event to a thing that could be put down on paper, stored, and reused with no loss in meaning. In short, the written word serves to remove an idea from its natural surroundings and hermetically seal it in a sterile vacuum for future consumption by strangers. Ong (1977, cited in Ong, 1988) puts it a slightly different way: to literates, words are “things ‘out there’ on a flat surface. Such ‘things’ are not so readily associated with magic, for they are not actions, but are in a radical sense dead, though subject to dynamic resurrection” (p. 33). The transition from people to paper as the vessels of cultural wealth also has ramifications for social relationships, as we will see. When words are located “out there” as opposed to being located in the minds and mouths of individual speakers, one does not necessarily need to interact with others in their speech community to gain knowledge. They can receive equally valid information from an author they have never met, or even someone who has long since died. In fact, literate learning becomes a solitary, silent activity rather than a communal, festive, celebratory one (Jardine, 2000). The transition from orality to literacy in 19th century France brought about an eightfold increase in suicide and a precipitous drop in homicide, prompting Gillis (2005) to claim that literacy “may
have been the causal agent in transforming expressions of passion from an explosion of violence against others to an implosion of violence against the self” (p. 1). The image that surfaces is one of a growing indifference to one’s speech networks and, consequently, greater quiet alienation and suffering. This perception is reinforced by Bonvillain’s (2003) description of middleclass culture as “weak social networks, characterized by greater geographic mobility, looser kinship ties, and relationships with a wider range of people” (p. 144). At very least, it appears that high literacy comes at a cost to one’s social bonds. As compared by Chaika, Ong, Gough, Gillis, and others, literacy sounds cold and dead while orality is alive and powerful. Far be it for literacy to suffer by comparison; its ability to preserve meaning in a portable, reproducible form has enabled ideas to grow and spread in ways oral histories simply cannot. Literacy allows readers to contemplate ideas which are divorced from their everyday experience (Chaika, 1994, p. 206), a “magical power” which has made law, medicine, science, and commerce possible. In a 1972 lecture, Ong (1972) illustrates the great power of written language aptly: An oral culture is one where man is constantly losing intellectual contact with his past…. Events far distant in time beyond the reach of living memory are enshrouded by legend in which they are virtually lost. Primitive oral man has actually a history reaching back tens of thousands of years and more, but of almost all of this past he knows nothing…. Strangely
enough, it is only with the development of literacy that the oral historical past is recovered once more. (p. 3) As Ong illustrates above, the ability of the written word to be standardized in a way which allows readers in a different time and place to share meaning with long dead speakers is a major reason for its preeminence as a repository of our intellectual wealth. As western society grew to encode more and more of its important information on paper, literacy became an increasingly important ability. Facility with the written word is a crucial survival skill in the modern world, and “those who are illiterate are severely handicapped” (Chaika, 1994, p. 204). Those who attain a high degree of literacy have much brighter life prospects than those who do not. The mission of the modern teacher is to provide as high a degree of literacy to as many students as possible so they can share in the social rewards literacy confers. As one considers heightened importance in literate society of spatial/linguistic/logical competence over the kinesthetic/rhythmic/musical/interpersonal skills favored in oral cultures, one is reminded of that classic of educational theory: Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory. Gardner (1983) states that all people possess seven different types of intelligence to one degree or another. The extent to which they develop these intelligences affects their level of proficiency in each. His theory was a reaction against previous ideas about intelligence which
disproportionately favored the habits of mind required by a literate society, namely “spatial ability, verbal ability, memory, and processing speed” (Mackintosh, 1999, p. 1). The practice of intelligence testing began with the StanfordBinet test as an attempt to identify students requiring special education (Becker, 2003). In other words, someone who receives a high score on the StanfordBinet possesses skillswhich would make him or her successful in a literate society’s school system. Chaika (1994) notes this when she observes that the persistent underperformance of lower class black students on IQ tests is because they are forced to take the tests in written rather than oral form. “Blacks are socialized into showing off their intellectual skills in oral displays and competition, not by sitting and marking answers with a pencil” (p. 405). This underscores the extent to which literate societies (and by extension, their educational systems) favor a specific skill set: one which supports working with the written word rather than the spoken one. To review, words in an oral culture are defined by their physicality, immediacy, impermanence, and inseparability from context. Each word is an event, fleeting in time, bound to and dependent on its context to communicate the full meaning. The primary features of written words are their permanence, impersonality, and separation from the original speaker, context, and impact (while still preserving the original meaning exactly). The difference between these orientations has extreme political ramifications for speakers and learners who possess differing skill sets from those of the dominant culture they live within. Interestingly, these distinctions do
not necessarily need to occur at the level of culture. I will show that all speakers within a given literate culture (such as the present day United States) fall on a spectrum between orality and literate cultures. The Orality/ Literacy Spectrum and Social Class
Although previous researchers have focused on either literate or oral cultures, the research suggests that all people fall somewhere on a continuum between orality and literacy (Chaika, 1994, p. 208). If “literacy restructures consciousness” as Ong (1988) claims, then the extent to which one’s mind has been restructured reflects that person’s level of literacy vs. orality. Those who grow up within a highly literate speech network will naturally embrace the literate mindset previously described. Those who are raised in speech networks with lower levels of literacy will more closely resemble the description of oral cultures. I argue that the same characteristics of communication Bonvillain (2003) associates with higher and lower socioeconomic class in industrialized societies closely mirrors the behaviors that Ong (1988) describes as orality and literacy in civilizations. Bonvillain’s (2003) assertion that “most speakers use upperclass and lowerclass features, but it is the frequency of usage that identifies speakers” (p. 143) closely echoes Chaika’s comments about the variability of literacy across a spectrum. This is not surprising when one considers that the studies Bonvillain (2003) cites use level of education as an indicator of social class, and by definition, the highly educated take in a large part of their knowledge from the written word. Conversely, the less well educated take in more of
their knowledge through listening and speaking, much like members of preliterate or nonliterate civilizations. Let us look now at some examples of how socioeconomic differences in communication fit our previously stated definitions of orality and literacy. The ability of the written word to be exactly reproduced and decontextualized facilitates upperclass speakers’ conformity to standardized forms of speech. Bonvillain (2003) cites Trudgill’s (1977) study of class styles among speakers in Norwich, England, which found that “higher class speakers use less nonstandard forms, meaning, of course, that they use more standard pronunciations” (p. 150). These highly educated people were acculturated to learn language from the written word, and consequently, are more often exposed to standard forms of speech than those who learn language through interactions within their speech communities. Lower class speakers in the study more often used nonstandard, “stigmatized” forms of English which identified them as lower status social actors. Bonvillain (2003) quotes Milroy & Milroy (1992) on the subject, saying “the persistence over centuries of stigmatized linguistic forms and lowstatus vernaculars in the face of powerful national policies of diffusing and imposing standard languages is remarkable” (p. 144). Remarkable as it may be that speakers illogically persist in using language which identifies them as the underprivileged underclass, it becomes less surprising when one realizes that their nonstandard language production is the direct result of an oral rather than a literate orientation. Lowerclass speakers learn language through interactions
with other undereducated people within their speech communities rather than from standardized texts and people who have mastered those texts as highly educated people do. Research shows that classbased language usage, like degree of literacy vs. orality, creates fundamental differences in speakers’ mental makeup. Recall that Ong (1988) states that “literacy restructures consciousness” by making speakers “capable of more abstraction and distancing. Thinking becomes less bound to a specific or personal context” (Chaika, 1994, p. 206). Bonvillain (2003) cites Bernstein (1971) that “classbased styles of speaking lead to differences in styles of thinking and how one experiences the world” (p. 157). More specifically, Bernstein claims that lowerclass speakers use a “restricted” code of speech which is dependent on context and restricts them to topics of shared knowledge with their listeners. In contrast, middleclass subjects used what Bernstein calls an “elaborated” code which features nouns, adjectives, and verbs with specific referents, allowing speakers to divorce their messages from context and address more “universalistic” topics than the lowerclass group. These people can “think about meanings and relationships separate from their immediate context, potentially permitting them to ‘enter into a reflexive relationship to the social order’” (Bonvillain, 2003, p. 158). This level of abstraction (and the mindset which supports it) is highly prized in literate cultures as it allows learners to abstract themes from written works of which they may have no direct personal knowledge. This linguistic disparity, perpetuated not only by the institutional barriers which
separate the social classes, is also perpetuated by the very social networks of the individual speakers. Not surprisingly, students who enter school from a primarily lowerclass, oral speech culture struggle greatly with the demands of the education system’s literate orientation. Chaika (1994) states that “those from cultures which focus on interaction rather than depersonalized knowledge have difficulty making a transition to what schools teach” (p. 208). She cites the work of Michaels and Collins (1984) which showed that White (middleclass, literate) children used a much more direct, topiccentered style during Show and Tell than AfricanAmerican (lower class, oral) children, who used an “associating” style which used seemingly unrelated anecdotes to tell the story. On further reflection, the researchers discovered that there was indeed a thematic coherence to the narrative, but it was not stated as explicitly as the themes in the White students’ stories. This meandering orientation is compatible with an orientation which values spoken communication for its own sake, not simply as a means of “getting to the point” as literates like to do. Chaika (1994) reinforces this by saying “if the focus is on the social interaction itself, oral strategies are more likely. If it is on content, then literate ones are” (p. 208). Unfortunately, our education system is designed to help students to attain a high degree of literacy, a task which is much easier for some students than others. Despite the challenges, the mission of the modern teacher is to educate every student, regardless of their relative level of orality or literacy. How then can we overcome these cultural
differences which so powerfully favor one group over another? Chaika herself (1994) throws up her hands at the problem of helping orals become literates (and the scarcity of literature on the subject) when she says In a world relying increasingly on the skills taught in school, it is frustrating not to know how to teach children who haven’t been socialized into getting literacy skills…. However, we are just beginning to understand what a child needs to become literate, and we are far from knowing what to do for those who don’t come from literate homes [emphasis mine] (p. 404). It is exactly at this crossroads where the juxtaposition of the bodies of work dealing with orality/literacy and low/middleclass speech begins to bear great rewards. Chaika (1994) progresses directly from despair at the literacy/orality disparity to describe the large body of promising work relating to classbased and language use. By examining this research with the knowledge that we are really talking about an oral vs. literate orientation, we can come to the problem with a deeper and more informed understanding of the factors at work. Let us consider how this new understanding will help us in the classroom. Spectrum Literacy and the Classroom Teacher
People who possess a high degree of literacy are able to effectively translate the spoken dialect they hear around them into a written form, and
to decode the written speech of others into a form they can understand. Often there is a high degree of correspondence between standardized English and the language production of middle-class speakers because they come from a highly literate speech culture (Trudgill, 1971 cited in Bonvillain, 2003, p. 150). However Chaika (1994) claims that all teachers. in speaking some form of regional dialect, actually all speak a “non-standard” form of English (p. 405). Still, they typically think that their own dialect conforms to “Standard English” while lower-class forms are thought to be “full of mistakes” (p. 405). This belief probably comes from the fact that they themselves are a product of a speech culture which, though regional, is also highly literate and shows a high degree of standardized usage. Nonetheless, it creates a perception in teachers that their middle-class usage is “right” and the lower-class usage is “wrong”, alienating students without getting them any closer to literacy. A better orientation is to accept the assumption that all languages are dialects, and that certain dialects are better for certain functions than others (Chaika, 1994, p. 266). Students respond well to a process in which they actively compare their own dialect, even non-standard, stigmatized dialects, to standardized English. Teachers in this model become conversant in the non-standard dialect and help students see differences between their dialect and the standardized dialect. Rather than constantly correcting non-standard usage [(which has no effect anyway, according to (Chaika, 1994, p. 405)], teachers help students to reconcile their non-standard usage with the dialect being used in a given
text. This idea flies in the face of the traditional belief that teachers should never act with anything but the greatest disdain for non-standard dialects lest they appear to “endorse” these dialects over literate speech. According to Chaika, however, all good readers go through a process of learning to relate the printed word to the spoken words they already use. That this learning curve is greater in oral learners simply underscores the necessity of helping them see the connections between oral and literate uses of language. The fact that this approach achieves its goal without creating undue interpersonal friction between teacher and student is extremely important, as we will see next. Like members of the oral and literate speech communities we have already examined, “children and adults speak like those with whom they identify” (Chaika, 1994, p. 407). This effect is responsible for the persistence of lower-class speakers in using stigmatized dialects and for the continued academic advantages conferred on middle-class speakers by their literate speech communities. The converse is true, in which children will refuse to speak like those they do not identify with. This causes great problems for a literate teacher trying to give literacy to an oral student without engaging in behaviors which help promote bonding and identification. Demonstrating acceptance of a student’s non-standard dialect by learning to speak it oneself is a way of promoting this identification. Other ways can be illuminated by the bonding activities evident in oral cultures.
We have seen that an oral culture is one which values interaction and communal activity to a greater degree than solitary literate culture. Information is passed down through repeated storytelling, rhyming, singing, and performance which aids retention while promoting interpersonal bonding. This appears to be one way to create a literate culture around activities which favor oral learners. Chaika (1994 ) recommends having students act out natural situations in which actors are expected to use literate, standardized language, replicating the ways middle-class adults speak (p. 407). She cites Heath (1983) who had students report ethnographically on the ways different people use language for different purposes (p. 407). Other ways students can practice literate speech in oral forms are to put on plays, write and produce TV shows, and instruct classes. Chaika (1994) cites one of her own studies (1978) in which she had inner-city high school students with significant literacy challenges write a school newspaper, correcting one another orally in ways appropriate to their speech networks. All of these methods emphasize the spoken, interactive, performance aspects of oral speech cultures towards the task of developing proficiency in literate language. In these scenarios, the teacher’s role is not one of a gatekeeper of “right” and “wrong” language usage, but as a facilitator towards the goal of producing literate speech. This orientation aids in the student-teacher identification necessary to make the classroom its own literate speech community. The previous recommendations are the result of viewing differences in class-based language production in terms of the degree to which its actors
internalize a literate mindset from their speech community of origin. Understanding the problem in this way makes the intimidating problem of class disparity in educational prospects more manageable and illuminates the way that diverse learners can access the literate language so necessary for survival in an industrialized nation.
Resources Bonvillain, N. (2003). Language, culture, and communication: The meaning of messages. Prentice Hall: New Jersey. Brown, D. (2004). Language, magic, and power. Retrieved August 4, 2007 from http://www.thecore.nus.edu.sg/cpace/theory/baudrillard/magic/langmag-
pow.html . Chaika, E. (1994). Language: The social mirror. Boston: Heinle & Heinle. Gillis, A.R. (1994). Literacy and the civilization of violence in 19th-century France. Sociological Forum, 9:3, pp. 371-401. Retrieved August 4, 2007 from www.springerlink.com/index/UQ6214RTHQ541646.pdf . Dardagan, H. et al. (2007). Iraq Body Count. Retrieved Aug 4, 2007 from http://www.iraqbodycount.org . Mackintosh, N. (1999). IQ and human intelligence. American Journal of Human Genetics; 65(5): pp. 1476–1477. Retrieved Aug 2, 2007 from http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1288305 . Ong, W. J. (1988). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York: Routledge. Retrieved July 30, 2007 from http://books.google.com/books?id=v21lePvZZ6YC Ong, W. J. (1972). The end of the age of literacy. Retrieved August 1, 2007 from http://libraries.slu.edu/sc/ong/digital/texts/lectures/lecture7.pdf.
Bonvillain, N. (2003). Language, culture, and communication: The meaning of messages. Prentice Hall: New Jersey. Brown, D. (2004). Language, magic, and power. Retrieved February 9, 2008 from http://www.thecore.nus.edu.sg/cpace/theory/baudrillard/magic/langmagpow.html . Chaika, E. (1994). Language: The social mirror. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Gillis, A.R. (1994). Literacy and the civilization of violence in 19thcentury France. Sociological Forum, 9:3, pp. 371401. Retrieved February 9, 2008 from www.springerlink.com/index/UQ6214RTHQ541646.pdf . Dardagan, H. et al. (2007). Iraq Body Count. Retrieved Feb 9, 2008 from http://www.iraqbodycount.org . Mackintosh, N. (1999). IQ and human intelligence. American Journal of Human Genetics; 65(5): pp. 1476–1477. Retrieved Feb 9, 2008 from http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1288305 . Ong, W. J. (1988). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York: Routledge. Retrieved July 30, 2007 from http://books.google.com/books?id=v21lePvZZ6YC Ong, W. J. (1972). The end of the age of literacy. Retrieved August 1, 2007 from http://libraries.slu.edu/sc/ong/digital/texts/lectures/lecture7.pdf.
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