“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).