Notes on Scribner and Cole, Akinnaso, Heath, Brandt, Barton and Hamilton

The Psychology of Literacy—Slyvia Scribner/Micheal Cole

Field study in Liberia for four or five years, and then more years to write.
Chapter: The Practice of Literacy

Ong and Goody Working against oral-literate divide. Olson says schooling improves literacy skills. This text considered an authority on debunking these notions.

Working in response unproved claims that literacy leads to the development of new higher cognitive skills than cannot be achieved in oral communites and that schooling leads to literacy acquistion, these two authors with the assistance of many others set out to determine how literacy practices in the Vai community affect cognitive development. Scribner and Cole defined literacy as “a set of socially organized practices which make use of a symbol system and a technology for producing and disseminating it” (236). Literacy, they claim, is more than being able to read and write; it’s the ability to apply those skills to for specific purposes in specific situations. Important to note is that Scribner and Cole claim the particular kinds of literacy practices enacted by a culture determine the specific kinds of skills associated with literacy (236). Typical literacy practices of the Vai culture are letter writing, diaries, and record keeping, all of which required multifaceted types of knowledge and skills. In order to determine how literacy affects cognitive development, Scribner and Cole set out to determine “the impact of socially organized practices in other domains on practices involving writing” (237). They also wanted to understand how social forces shape literacy development.

Social scientists have previously assumed that (print) literacy is both essential to maintaining traditional ways of life and that literacy is a major impetus for social change and modernization. However, Scribner and Cole have found that this is not the case in the Vai culture. Technological factors—properties of a writing system and the means for producing it—tend to control the proliferation or restriction (as in the Vai case) of literacy in a culture. In the Vai culture, one possible reason for the restricted dissemination of Vai literacy could be the fact that their symbol system is syllabic, which tends to make their script less efficient than say alphabetic systems. However, Scribner and Cole warn against making such an assumption without considering other factors. Another reason could be the lack of production technology such as the printing press and wide circulation of texts, which tend to spread literacy. However, again, this did not prove to be true with the Vai culture. Scribner and Cole therefore looked at social sources of restriction and found that: a.) Vai has limited exposure to trade and business since they are an agricultural group; b.) National language of Liberia traps Via script from spreading; and c.) English used in governmental and civic affairs and Arabic used in religious teachings narrow Via script’s range of operation (241).

Scribner and Cole analyzed how three literacies—English schooling, Quoran studies, and traditional Via script–affected various cognitive skills. Results demonstrated that each literacy practice sparked the development and enhancement of specific types of cognitive skills. Also, they discovered the literacy is an “unimportant factor” in producing school based learning; therefore, the cognitive effects of schooling are not dependent on one’s ability to read and write per se (255). Nonetheless, it must be noted that while Vai literacy and Arabic literacy are not subsumed by schooled learning, Vai literacy does not have same cognitive effects as “school” literacy (254).

Scribner and Cole end their findings by asserting that rather than making broad generalizations about the relationship between literacy and cognitive development, scholars need to situate cognitive skills in culturally organized practices (259). This progressive practice will allow us to account for cultural differences in literacy and cognitive ability more accurate and balanced. We must relinquish assumption that culture has power to increase intellectual cabability and instead realize that culture, and psychological skills for that matter, are situated in literacy practices (259). Thereby, we can search for relationships between literacy and cognitive development both by analysis of culture and psychological elements (259).

Deep psychological differences do not exist between literate and nonliterate communities.

They did not see significant differences in cognitive development between schooled and Vai culture, which disproves Ong and Goody’s assumptions. They say lets’ reformulate the question so we ask about practices.

Class Notes:

Restricted literacy—no mass movement to create mass literacy, small group of people know it, and not all cultural texts are printed in that language

Vgotsy—higher consciousness develops through social interaction

“Literacy and Individual Consciousness” F. Niyi Akinnaso–Autoethnography

Akinnaso begins his article with a definition of individual consciousness, which he defines as the “totality of an individual’s knowledge, thoughts, beliefs, impressions, and feelings and the ways these are represented in behavior, especially in speech and writing” (138). He emphasizes that rather than being a mental state, individual consciousness is a process involving both the “internalization and representation of social reality” (138). Although Akinnaso admits the futility in the expectation to be able to determine the relationship between literacy and individual consciousness, he joins Scribner and Cole and other members of the sociohistorical school of psychology in an attempt to understand the symbiotic relationship between cognitive and sociocultural processes (138).

Akinnaso defines literacy a bit differently than Scribner and Cole. He defines literacy as: “ways of perceiving, thinking, speaking, evaluating, and interacting that characterize a group of individuals and set them apart from others” (139). He then distinguishes between the camps (Goody, Havelock, Ong, McLuhan) who see literacy as a causal agent—sociocultural changes, altered forms of representation and forms of consciousness are a direct result of literacy; and those (Scribner, Cole, Street) who see literacy as a facilitating agent, “promoting the deployment of preexisting cognitive capacities into certain channels that are socially and ideologically sanctioned by the user-group” (139).
He also clarifies arguments made by Scribner and Cole, whom Akinnaso claims, see literacy as a facilitator of certain cognitive skills and operations rather than universal cognitive capacities, as those who believe in literacy’s causative capacity (139). He is careful to note, however, that both camps do believe literacy “alters the world we live in and the way we perceive and talk about the world”—a capacity that Akinnaso demonstrates to be true in his personal literacy narrative.

In relating his personal literacy narrative, Akinnaso describes the various encounters his father had with literacy as well as his own and then describes the consequences those encounters had on his own literacy and the relationship with his father and his native Nigerian culture. His father encountered literate activities through the three external factors—Christianity (biblical texts and church meetings), colonial administration which demanded beaurocratic literacy and adult literacy programs, economic demands of cash crop management. Yet even though Akinnaso also encountered these literate activities, he was exposed to different languages and other subjects in the various schools he intended as well as the books written in English, which he fell in love with, all of which helped develop his passion for photography and letter writing, which put him in contact with literate white males. What is particularly interesting is that his village deemed him a literate celebrity when he first communicated with “the White Man”—a position that later sparked both privilege and hardships. Therefore, in many ways his identity and sense of identity was wrapped up in and altered by his developing literacy.

Privileges came in the form of becoming first a town scribe and then political agent as well as respected teacher—events in which culture takes advantage of his cultural capital. Hardships developed as he struggled to acquire Standard Formal English, negotiate his hybrid self and status, which demanded code switching, maintain connections with cultural and familial traditions, as well as family members and friends. While highlighting these struggles, Akinnaso explains the differences between the villagers conceptions about literacy and his own. While the villagers saw literacy for its practical applications in the ability to conduct bureaucratic and civil affairs and as a tool in social mobility, Akinnaso thought these practical applications were secondary to his acquired “way of life, a way of knowing, a way of talking, and a way of doing” (154).
(Deborah Brandt would call these ways of knowing, talking, and doing a metacommunicative ability.)

Akinnaso ends with a similar conclusion as Scribner and Cole—that in order to better understand the connections between literacy and individual consciousness, we need to shift from making universal assumptions about literacy to investigating literacy practices and actual choices in specific cultures (155). Afterall, Akinnaso reminds us that nonliterates make particular choices about literacy practices they want to adopt and how they want to use them; therefore, rather than assume that those societies that we deem non-literate are nonliterate out of ignorance or lack of capacity, we must become aware that nonliterates are aware of the impact literacy can have on the social practices and social relations in their society.

Class Notes:

Villagers chose to keep Western literacy out of religious acts. This debunks all notions that all literacy is good. This ability to choose gives them agency. Literacy here is a space of resistance. Literacy as hegemonic force that meets confrontation here. They are not trying to adopt literacy as tool to use confront master here and rebel. They are simply rejected it to save their own culture. Lack of “we” signifies he may identify with Western literates than own village.

Ong and Goody only deem literacy’s connection to rationality, consciousness, abstract thinking only.

Emotion is left out of literacy events in this early work. However, we can feel emotion in these texts; emotion is haunting but can’t become visible on the page because of academic limitations and because emotion wasn’t equated with literacy at that time.

Assumption by Ong—nonliterates can’t think well—but this text disprove’s this

Literacy is defined later as a repertoire of skills—toolbag.

Richard Rodriguez—forgetting and dismissing native identity for embracement of non-Western self. Struggle to construct new identity.

Barton—Ecology of the Word—how language is shaped by cultural and economical forces

“Protean Shapes in Literacy Events: Ever-Shifting Oral and Literate Traditions” Shirley Brice Heath –from Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook

Heath writes and researches in response to Goody’s notion that societies exist along a continuum of cognitive development from an oral tradition to a literate one, with some societies having restricted literacy and others having fully developed literacy; Ong’s notion that reading and writing are alienating or disengaging both socially and cognitively; as well as the notions that literacy is an individual endeavor and there are traditional distinctions between oral and literate traditions and thus those communities labled either nonliterate or fully literate. Heath claims that in order to better understand the forms and functions of traditional orality and literacy in modern communities as well as the connections between spoken and written language, it is best to examine literacy events—“any action sequence, involving one or more persons, in which the production and/or comprehension of print plays a role” (445). She hypothesizes that more literacy events call for forms and uses of speech than reading and writing; therefore, even though many communities are literate in that they have basic skills in reading and writing, they often spend more time developing their oral communication skills, which better serve their daily needs. She aims to demonstrate that characterizations of communities as having restricted literacy or fully developed literacies is unreliable because oral and literate traditions are deeply intertwined rather than distinct events.

Heath begins by describing literacy events amongst children living in the town of Trackton and notices how children “achieve their meaning as communicators and their sense of their own worth as communicators through responses they obtain from their oral language, not in terms of response in a one-on-one siuation of reading a book with an adult” as is common in mainstream America (462). Consequently, learning is driven by particular contexts and occurs through exposure to everyday language use and literacy events rather than intentional instruction.

Heath then describes literacy events she witnessed between adults in Trackton and notes that adults in Trackton use written materials in unique ways and for unique purposes than mainstream American adults. Reading, for instance, is very much a social activiy; consequently, meaning resides not in the text, but in the consensus arrived at through communinity negotiations. Also, print texts were always translated into the oral mode, (451) as evident in front porch letter reading and Bible or Sunday school readings. Church especially reveals literacy skills among Trackton community members because the Church demanded many literacy events: reading and singing hymns, writing and delivering prayers, discussing the Bible, etc. All of these literacy events reveal that the language forms and use in Trackton reveal both oral and written traditions, rather than on or the other (456). Work in the local mills also demanded and revealed numerous literacy events, which again were enacted in the oral mode; for example, rather than fill out forms, supervisors asked questions and filled out forms for them; same with bank loans.
What these work related literacy events revealed, according to Heath, are that “Trackton residents recognize their defiency of skills,” but the skills they lack are not literacy skills but rather “knowledge about oral language uses which would enable them to obtain information about the content and uses of written documents, and to ask questions to clarify meanings” (461).

Heath encourages readers to abandon notions of the continuum between oral and literate communities and restricted literacy and fully developed literacies. Rather, Heath recommends thinking of to “two continua, the oral and the written” which overlap in their similiarities and differences at different points depending on a particular community (461). She demonstrates that Trackton community members don’t have less capacity to acquire literacy skills such as reading than mainstream Americans, but that simply because they experience and different literacy events in their daily lives, they develop different literacy skills and perform literacy differently. Like Akinnaso, Heath claims different communities choose to embrace literacy skills (usually inculcated from dominat institutions) which serve their best interests and restrict others (465). She reminds us that broad societal contexts for, demands of, and types of literacy shift over time, which is why in the post-industrial era, it is ever more essential to realize that “the nature of oral and written language and the interplay between them is ever shifting, and these changes both respond to and create shifts in the individual and societal meanings of literacy” (466). Awareness of these ever shifting contexts, forms and uses of written and oral language, and meanings of literacy will help demystify the notion that communities exist along a continuum of literacy (466).

“Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers, and Texts”—Deborah Brandt

Brandt frames the literacy debate or controversy in terms of the “strong-text” explanation of literacy, which has greatly influenced how we perceive literacy development and the cause of literacy failure (13). She characterizes the he strong-text explanation developed by Ong, Tannen, Olson and others in the following ways:
• Written language leads to social and cognitive literacies; therefore, literacy is text-driven. Text is the “centripetal power” of literacy (22).
• Little attention is given to processes of writing and reading
• Create and maintain (to some extent) oral and literate dichotomy
• Oral and Literate communities develop different linguistic, cognitive, and social/interpretive skills (see chart on 16)
• Knowledge and social life undergoes transformation with writing and writing distances oneself from communication(Goody)
• Writing transforms human consciousness (Ong)
• Writing and reading cause drastic social and cognitive disengagement and reorganization of literacy demands (18)
• Orality and literacy exist on continuum (Tannen)
• Writing turns focus to ideas and content—the message (Tannan)
• Orality equated with home and lieracy with school (Olson)
• Texts are literal; texts allow imagination of possible worlds (Olson)
• Acquistion of writing and reading skills demands seperation from social grounding (Olson)
• Literacy is a technology that “unnaturalizes and reorganizes all that is come to contact with” (23)
• Phonetic alphabet is technological breakthrough to literacy for Goody, Ong, and Olson (23)
• Written language is autonomous (live on its own, outlive author); is detachable and preservable (23) transcendent of time and setting
• Written language leads to objective knowledge and therefore attains its own status (23)
• Written language is anonymous: people relate to texts not each other; written language liberates thought so reflection, analysis, argumentation are possible. Let’s go of phenomenological demands; written language has own voice which can resist and affect change. Leads to separate force of development on its own.
• Individual literacy leads to social isoloation and social betrayal (Tuman) (25).

Brandt then describes the sociohistorical explanation of literacy which blends oral and literate traditions. Summarizes how Scriber and Cole demonstrate how school affects literacy more than writing; Heath shows literacy is communal; Street claims we shouldn’t equate literacy with democracy, secular reasoning, logic, detachment, and categorical thinking, which simply elitist (26). All work, Brandt explains, to demystify “a standard or monolithic portrayal of literacy and its effects in favor of more cultural, contextual, and political interpretations” (26) Brandt does, however, demonstrate how: Ong does explain written language is always connected to oral and that human knowledge is based in human being and not text; Goody does come to downplay oral-literate dichotomy and calls for “less stricting cognitive perspective on nature and impact of literacy” (27). Therefore, Brandt illustrates attempts to reconciliate the oral-literate dichotomy even though they still are perceived as contrastive. Others recognize cultural influences and oral “lifeworld” and othes admit characterizations of writing such as decontextualization, autonomy of meaning, and literalism as only tendencies (28). Nonetheless, after all of this work, Brandt says her main goal is not to summarize but instead say that this framework is off focus for understanding how literacy in terms of reading and writing.

Brandt claims we must recognize that context and language are unseperable; they constitute each other; and come to see context as an embodiment of language and language as an embodiment of context (29-30). “Intersubjectivty” according to Brandt, “ is at the core of interpretation and meaning in literate as well as oral exchanges (30). Writing is rhetorical then. With this perception, we can see that intersubjectivity is at the center of literacy. Literacy then is a process; a “growing metacommunicative ability—an increasing awareness of and control over the social means by which people sustain discourse, knowledge, and reality” and therefore “social involvement becomes key model for literacy and literacy growth” (32). This metacommunicative ability was evident in the Vai culture, Akinasso’s experience, and in Trackton, as each made choices of how to enact and embrace literacy.

My question: where is rhetoric in all of these conversations? Rhetoric is an embedded narrative.

Class Notes:

Street says no continuum; no linear progress narrative; instead, we need to complicate both events in particular contexts and see what is happening

“Literacy Practices” David Barton and Mary Hamilton

Without giving credit to Scribner, Cole, or Heath, but clearly drawing on them, Barton and Hamilton explain that literacy practices “offers a powerful way of conceptualizing the link between the activities of reading and writing and the social structures in which they are embedded and which they help shape” (7).

Literacy is a set of social practices, patterned by social institutions and power relationships, embedded in broader social goals and cultural practices. Practices inferred from events which are mediated in written texts.
Different literacies with different domains of life.
Some literacies more dominant, visible, and influential than others.
Historically situated.
Ever changing; new ones learned through informal learning and sense making processes (Chart 8)

Literacy events—activities where literacy has a role and texts are crucial.

Interesting that they really stress the need to move literacy away from individual location to an examination of ways in which people and groups use literacy. Also call for need to take a life history approach to literacy, which Brandt does in Literacy in American Lives.

Class Notes:

Rhetoricians quote Barton and Hamilton frequently because they are part of new literacies studies group.


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