the relationship between orality and literacy

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.


The relationship between orality and literacy has been much researched in the past forty years. One problematic area has been the definition of 'orality' as meaning non-literacy, which is now not considered acceptable especially when this is combined with a judgemental attitude towards non-literacy as being inferior. Children in multilingual environments are seen to be more literate, as they have greater a variety of discourse practices. However the educational system in the UK is not set up to encompass multilinguality, instead it is geared towards immigrant children becoming monolingual in English as with native English children. Boys in particular are seen to be disadvantaged in the education system as their literacies may be different to those acceptable within the school. This limited nature of the education system disempowers those who do not adhere to the standard literacy or discourse practice that is acceptable within the school. Thus those students who cannot or will not comply with the standard discourse are more likely to fail in the system that has not been set up for them.

Ong (1982) refers to 'primary oral cultures' as being cultures where there is no written form of their language, and who do not write. He argues that within these cultures, thought and expression is startlingly different to that in literate cultures where the written language has more of an effect on our ways of communicating than we might imagine. Ong discusses the literary nature of orality, and suggests the use of the term 'chirographic' for writing culture instead of literate. He also suggests that oral cultures and chirographic cultures should be studied in synchrony, and the print and electronic cultures should also be studied as the impact these technologies have had on literacy is massive.

People tend to see aspects of human nature in terms of dichotomy rather than a spectrum, and as such the orality/literacy dichotomy has been equated to the primitive illiterate savage versus the civilised literate person (Gee, 1984; Pattanayak, 1991). However, more recently literacy has been seen rather than simply the acts of reading and writing but as a set of discourse practices which are related to social and cultural groups, and individual identities. These discourse practices can be oral or written, and are tied so closely with the beliefs and values of particular groups that a change of discourse practice is a change of identity (Gee, 1984). When the English teacher teaches English grammar, the identity of the learner is changed, thus the failure of non-mainstream children in schools may be linked to a resistance to this identity obliteration.

To talk of orality as inferior to literacy "has a disabling effect on 800 million illiterates of the world who are thereby branded as second-class citizens." (Pattanayak, 1991, p.105) Pattanayak argues that illiteracy is grouped with poverty, malnutrition and a lack of health care and education. In fact oral cultures with traditions of memorizing, reciting and accumulating texts, metalanguage for interpreting texts and mechanisms for educating the next generation and passing the texts on are as cultured as any literate civilization. It is only really relevant to talk of illiteracy as a negative in terms of a person who is illiterate within a literate culture, and is therefore disabled or disempowered by being illiterate.

Orality is defined as non-literacy (Gee, 1984), however it can also be seen as being pre-literacy, in other words the language of children before they learn to read and write. Studies have found that reading increases the vocabulary of the child, this is referred to as the Input Hypothesis (Krashen, 1989). When children are learning to become literate, there is a relationship between their early years and later achievement (Juel, 1988). This is seen as a confidence issue: that experience of failure at a young age will deter a child from further attempts. Not only do poor readers in early years become poor readers as young adults and adults, but poor readers also become poor writers (Juel, 1988). Thus there is a relationship among aspects of literacy.

Bus, van IJzendoorn and Pellegrini (1995) performed a meta-analysis on empirical studies of parent-preschooler reading, that is when parents read books to their children. They found that reading to children is related to outcome measures such as language growth, emergent literacy, and reading achievement, and can account for 8% of the variance. They found that the effect is not dependent on the socio-economic status of families, and it becomes smaller as children begin to read on their own. Thus orality in terms of reading aloud to children is found to have a direct effect on emerging literacy. This study also demonstrates the importance of the home environment to the child's attainment levels in school.

The Relationship Between Home, Community and School

Bilingual children, who grow up in a household where one parent speaks one language and the other parent speaks another language, or where there are other family members speaking a native language different to the household, are observed to mix their languages or 'code switch' (Meisel, 2006; 2004). Often these children will learn double the vocabulary of monolingual children as they will speak a sentence or phrase in one language and then repeat it in another language, depending on whom they are speaking to. The discourse practices of the parents will determine the acceptability of this code switching and will affect the child's language use in the home and outside of the home (Lanza, 2004). For example, in immigrant families, there may be a practice of using the native language at home and the adopted language outside of the home. Whichever strategy the parent uses, the child will begin to imitate. Parents' choices as to which language to favour may impact the development of the child's bilingualism (Juan-Garau & Pérez-Vidal, 2001).

There is also the influence of the peer group. Children who are monolingual will adopt different discourse practices with their peer group to those that they use when addressing a teacher, and different again to those used at home. Bilingual and multilingual children have the added level of using different languages. Children who code switch will use the language of the addressee, so that they speak to the mother in her native language and the father in his native language, and to a stranger they adopt whichever language presents as the addressee's own language (Grosjean, 2001). This switching can be likened to the monolingual child's development where they will use the discourse appropriate to the occasion, or as a rebellion refuse to use it.

Some parents, teachers and politicians consider deviating from the norm of monolingual development as a risk to the child's development, that it may confuse the child linguistically, emotionally and even morally (Meisel, 2006; 2004). Thus one language may be suppressed or exposure to it reduced until the child is believed to be old enough to understand. Meisel argues that where some children do experience delays in acquisition and confusion, not all do, and delays occur only in some contexts. In the main, the bilingual child is at an advantage regarding their linguistic input rather than a disadvantage. The reality is that there is more input, which encourages growth.

The number of books in the home has been found to be a powerful indicator of educational, social and economic status of the family (Woessmann & Peterson, 2007). There is a direct correlation between the number of books at home and higher scores on educational attainment tests, as replicated over a number of different countries. This has a variety of implications, for example that poorer families may not be able to afford books or may be living in such close accommodation as to not have the storage space, immigrant families may have arrived into the UK with few possessions. These findings have had a number of repercussions such as encouraging library use and policies of giving books to poorer families.

Class has in the past been seen to have an impact on educational performance, with lower class being associated with lower socio-economic status and 'language deficits' (Rosen, 1972). The question of why so many lower class children fail in the school system (or are failed by it) has been asked by sociologists since the 1960's and before this it was just accepted that they did. Class is less of an issue now in the UK where there is greater mobility, nevertheless, socio-economic status is still seen to have an effect. Family background, attitudes towards education, parents' own education and other outside of school influences have been found to have a great affect on the pupil's achievement, much greater than any small affects achieved by differences in the school system (Coleman, 1975; 1994).

Bernstein (1971) studied relationships between class, language, and educability. He is attributed as connecting linguistic deficits with educational failure, however Atkinson (1985) argues that this is a misinterpretation of his research conclusions and the result of the theory being simplified and adopted wholesale by educators and educationalists who have not studied the original. "[T]he terms 'restricted' and 'elaborated' codes have entered the folklore of classroom teachers." (Rosen, 1972, p.97).

A close reading of Bernstein suggests that his theories are descriptive rather than judgemental, for example: "It is proposed that the two distinct forms of language-use arise because the organization of the two social strata is such that different emphases are placed on language potential. Once the emphasis or stress is placed, then the resulting forms of language-use progressively orient the speakers to distinct and different types of relationships to objects and persons, irrespective of the level of measured intelligence." (Bernstein, 1971, p.61) Clearly, Bernstein argues here that the language use is 'different' and 'distinct' rather than being inferior/superior and that language use is not linked to intelligence. The argument suggests that schools are set up for a particular type of language user, and will fail those who do not comply with this language use. This can be seen in non-English speaking children, in children of lower social groups and also in boys, which issue will be addressed further below.

Multilingualism in Schools

Stubbs (1995) argued that there was no language planning in England and Wales, and that any policies regarding language in education were sneaking in through the back door either by muddled planning or a conspiracy. Due to the lack of language planning in the UK and its notoriously monolingual attitude compared to other nations, the term 'language planning' has little meaning above plans to teach immigrants how to speak English or choosing which foreign language to teach at secondary level (Stubbs, 1995). Recommendations to teach immigrant children alongside native British children instead of in remedial language classes were the result of worries over racial divisions rather than concern over the language itself. Other than the Welsh language in Wales, little provision is made in schools for support of languages other than English, even though around 5% of pupils are bilingual (Stubbs, 1995).

In English medium Welsh schools the policy is to teach Welsh from a young age and English and Welsh have equal priority within the school. There are also Welsh medium schools in Wales so that if parental preference dictates there is a place for any child to be educated through the medium of Welsh. Many non-Welsh speaking parents send their children to Welsh medium schools due to their good reputation. Stubbs (1995) discusses the differences between this policy of promoting Welsh in Wales as being a 'top-down' process compared to how other languages are treated in England where these languages are present due to immigration. The differences in the profile and management of non-English languages are dependent on their history. The promotion of the Welsh language is seen as being a manifestation of national pride and identity. Yet these arguments are not made for non-English languages in England.

Few non-European languages are taught formally in school, the choice of one foreign language at secondary school tending to be restricted to French, German or Spanish. In Welsh medium schools, a foreign language is often taught, as well as Welsh and English, and other subjects such as geography, history and mathematics are taught through Welsh. French taught through the medium of Welsh is offered at university level in Welsh universities. The profile of the Welsh language in school and university has been rising since the 1960's but has risen dramatically since the inception of the Welsh Assembly in 1998. A Welsh medium school which teaches another language on the curriculum could be classed as the only type of officially multilingual school in the UK.

How Gender Impacts on Literacy

Girls read more widely outside of school than boys and tend to write outside of school as well, where boys do not (Millard, 1997). Boys report that they write because they must, for school work, and that they find writing boring (Goodwin, 2005). In terms of the reading content of choice, the preferences for boys are significantly different. Millard cites a 1976 study where it was found that boys prefer comics, newspapers, annuals and collections of stories where girls' preferences are towards fiction and more in line with the material presented in school. Boys are often drawn to IT and comics, and as such they may not be withdrawing from literature, but rather from schoolwork (Marsh & Hallet, 1999). Thus, boys "experienced a dissonance between the literacy they practised skilfully at home and that demanded from them by teachers." (Millard, 1997, p.13)

It is now widely accepted following much research that girls perform better in school in all subjects except for mathematics. Most of these subjects being reliant on reading and writing skills would indicate that it is in this area that boys demonstrate less ability. These differences have become a part of common parlance not only for educators but parents and the children themselves, and they have led to changes in policy. "Boys do not do as well as girls in English in schools. There are contrasts in performance and in attitudes towards the subject" (OFSTED, 1993, p.2)

There are many theories on why this difference should be so pronounced, especially considering that they have only been noticed since girls and boys have been educated equally and in the past boys tended to perform better than girls due to opportunity. Some theorists argue that it is a biological difference, referring to the fact that boys are developmentally immature compared to girls from birth. Some theories point to the fact that there is immense peer pressure on boys to see school work as being not 'cool' (Grainger, 2005) and in particular in group work situations that working with girls is to be avoided. "Boys act as if the very fact of working with girls will demean them." (Millard, 1997, p.9) It is likely to be a combination of biology and environment as with many psycho-social affects.

There are various methods proposed for drawing boys into literacy within the school context such as discussing and creating film, television and music lyrics (Grainger, 2005). However, this requires a diversion from the traditional academic route of 'the three Rs' (reading, writing and arithmetic) so beloved by the media and politicians. Examining how boys play creatively may give clues as to their discourse practices, such as a study by Dyson (1997) who found that young children use superhero stories in their own writing and role play. Through these stories, children learn the story arc and the genre of the heroic battle between good and evil. These stories are often the subject of graphic novels, which are more appealing to boys. They also often reinforce gender and race stereotypes, so that they may be utilised within the classroom to further discussion on social awareness. Children writing the hero story can learn the power of creation, that they can cast themselves as the hero and win the battle. Thus boys can be drawn into creative literacy in this fashion.


This essay has attempted to draw conclusions from the literature regarding literacy development within school and the relationship between orality and literacy. It has examined the different theories, relating to the influence of the outside-of-school environment and the differences between the genders. Multilingualism in schools has been discussed, and it is concluded that multilingual children are more literate by having a greater variety of discourse strategies available to them. Literacy can be seen as a set of discourse practices which can be oral or written, and thus a child who does not write could be seen, rather than illiterate, as 'differently literate' (Millard, 1997).