Literacy and Orality at Work

by Frank Sligo (Author)
©2021 Textbook VIII, 244 Pages
Series: Understanding Media Ecology, Volume 9


Adults' literacy is a topic of great interest to multiple audiences and scholarly fields but research into it is fragmented across disparate disciplines and hence lacks coherence. In particular, an impasse exists between cognitive science researchers and economists on the one hand, and critical theorists writing in the social practice tradition. This book acknowledges the importance of these fields, then builds on them and on other scholarly traditions by locating its discussion of literacy and orality within a media ecology framework. Based on in-depth interviews within successive literacy research projects in industry and community settings with trade apprentices, their supervisors and managers, industry training coordinators, literacy tutors, and adults of liminal (threshold) literacy, this book reveals the importance of oral-experiential ways of learning, knowing and communicating that exist in complex relationships with literate practices. The tradition of media ecology as exemplified in the writings of Walter Ong, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Michel de Certeau, Eric Havelock and a collection of contemporary scholars, provides new insights into literacy and orality. The book in exploring the everyday workplace and community environments of adults with liminal literacy demonstrates how a media ecology perspective allows adult literacy and orality to be reimagined within a deeper and more holistic way than possible within disconnected disciplinary areas.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter One Introduction: Orality and Literacy
  • Chapter Two Apprentices’ Orality and Literacy
  • Chapter Three The Literacy Tutors
  • Chapter Four Supervisors and Communities of Practice
  • Chapter Five. Liminal Literacy and Social Practice Views
  • Chapter Six Managers’ Orality and Literacy
  • Chapter Seven Literacy, Cognition, and Knowledge
  • References
  • Author Index
  • Subject Index
  • Series Index

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The author is grateful to his colleagues in the Adult Literacy and Employment research group at Massey University Wellington and Manawatū for their enthusiasm and specialist knowledge of adult literacy and orality in their disparate areas of expertise during our successive research projects, some of which are described in this book. These are Elspeth Tilley for her insights into adult literacy, social justice and critical theory, Margie Comrie for her expertise in national and local government and the news media, Niki Murray for her research into literacy learners’ psychological journeys, and Franco Vaccarino for his many years of experience in literacy learning within marginalised communities, in particular incarcerated learners; and the late Su Olsson for her scholarship and leadership in building extensive community relationships. Inspiration and strong support were also received from Sally Patrick, John Franklin, Bob Dempsey, Bronwyn Watson, Marise Murrie, Gail Harrison, Robyn Chandler, Fiona Shearer, Paul Satherley, Allyson Caseley, Deborah Neilson, Sharon Benson, Christine Morrison, Nicky McInnes, Nigel Lowe, Mark Anthony Smith, and many other colleagues within and outside the university who added breadth and depth to the research described in this book.

In the Whanganui portion of the research reported here, I am indebted to the foresight shown by the Whanganui District Library, later joined by the Whanganui Community Foundation, Literacy Aotearoa (Whanganui), and Te ←vii | viii→Puna Mātauranga O Whanganui. Under the Library’s leadership our research benefitted further from the support generously provided by the Whanganui District Council, Enterprise Whanganui, Work and Income New Zealand, the Department of Corrections, New Zealand Police, the Tertiary Education Commission, the Ministry of Education, and GoodHealth Whanganui.

Thanks are due to the New Zealand Department of Labour, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, and the New Zealand Ministry of Education for financial support of the research described here. That research could not have proceeded without the fullest possible involvement of many industry and community personnel. I am grateful for the candid and perceptive descriptions of literacy and orality provided by research participants such as trade apprentices, their supervisors and managers, industry training coordinators, and adult literacy tutors.

Earlier accounts of some of the themes explored in this volume appeared in the following journals: Communication Research and Practice, Education and Training, English Teaching: Practice and Critique, Explorations in Media Ecology, Journal of Vocational Education and Training, and Text and Talk.

Naturally all errors and omissions in this account of literacy and orality at work are the sole responsibility of the author.

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Introduction: Orality and Literacy

The starting point for this study began with our earlier research that reported on how people with liminal literacy communicate with others at work and in community in ways that are necessarily strongly oral in character, though in parallel with written forms of communication. Yet it had become clear to us that scholars’ understanding of the field of oral discourse is fragmented and to be found in diverse, unconnected bodies of scholarship that have not so far been brought together in a coherent way.

However, the ways in which people learn from and respond to print sources are also uncertain in a number of respects. In 2005 Eisenstein considered that

[e]ven at present, despite all the data being obtained from living responsive subjects; despite all the efforts being made by public opinion analysts, pollsters, or behavioral scientists; we still know very little about how access to printed materials affects human behavior (p. 6).

Since she wrote this, in the intervening years knowledge has been advancing across a variety of interested disciplines. This book traverses findings from a collection of these fields, taking into account classic studies from the past, in order to discover how literate and oral forms of communication seem to interlace and interact with one another.

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In the field of information studies, Turner (2010) proposed that, “Although research on information behavior has revealed the importance of information shared by talking, the field has failed to produce a full-fledged theory of orality” (p. 370). Such absence of a thoroughly-researched and well-accepted account of human orality seems strange, given an awareness that has developed over time that even those with a good command of literacy, when in work or everyday life contexts, may rely on oral more than textual forms of communication to obtain their most important information or improve their grasp of some issue. Then those with liminal literacy necessarily exist within a lifeworld of orality to a greater extent than others again. Turner (2012a) also referred to social constructionism principles which hold “that knowledge can emerge orally” (p. 853) in everyday work situations and she (2012b) noted that “[i]nformation behavior research repeatedly finds that people prefer to use informal information, which includes obtaining information by talking to others” (p. 878) in preference to textual sources.

An increasing awareness has been building of the enduring importance of orality in diverse contemporary settings so that currently interest is being shown in the manifestations of orality in disciplines as in information use (Taylor, 1991) documentation and library studies (Turner, 2010; Wilkinson, 2001) or digital pedagogy (Mitchell, 2012). Nevertheless, these literatures lack connections with one another to the detriment of possible advances in the subject.

As a partial explanation for why theory of orality is not well-developed, in societies whose most influential members are highly literate, and where, over time, oral discourse has gradually given way to literate, a devaluing of orality and misunderstanding of its salience have occurred (Illich & Sanders, 1988). In Ong’s (1980) observation, “[l]iterates have had trouble understanding oral cultures” (p. 202) so that a reluctance or inability to research orality by formal, systematic means gradually developed (Jones, 2012). Antley’s (2012) discussion of how Russian society during the 19th century made a transition from communal (oral) to legalistic (literate) rule includes the view that “[s]tudies on the interplay of orality and text demand new methodologies and analytical approaches” (p. 1046), which this book sets out to address.

Yet Ong (1971, 1982) did stress that orality and literacy should not be understood as binaries and gave instances of how each is complexly interwoven with the other. Ong’s (1982) research is still the best-known work undertaken in the field, and his thinking about primary and secondary orality remains influential in the field that has come to be known as media ecology (Soukup, 2007).

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Media Ecology

Media ecology explores human communication holistically, grounding the study of all forms of communication within their particular environment. Albrecht (2004, p. 6) suggests that “[m]edia ecology insists on approaching communication not as a content, a message, or a text, but as an environment comprising techniques and technologies that limit and shape human experience”. Within this field communication is seen not just or not alone as content, message, or text; but nor does media ecology dismiss communication practices and processes.

Instead, the media ecology framework as understood within the present research, sets out to make sense of literacy and orality practices with especial reference to those workplace and community contexts within which they occur. That is, the field of media ecology offers a hospitable setting for research such the present one that seeks to answer questions pertaining to human orality and literacy in multiple and diverse settings. The aim is for our study of literacy and orality to not treat either orality or literacy in isolation, but to see each as in interrelationship with and as modifying the other.

In this field, technology, broadly defined, is also important since as Albrecht (2004, p. 55) points out, media ecology includes the ways in which technology has an effect on human communication and its broader context. In this perspective, technology should not be seen just as artifacts operating in isolation:

Media ecology is an approach within communication studies that examines the consequences of technology upon the human communication environment. It is common enough to think of technologies as things in themselves that a culture chooses to develop and utilize as it wishes, but not more broadly as media that continually reconstruct and subtly reconfigure the whole cultural milieu.

Strate (2017a, p. 243) suggests, though, that media ecology’s reach is greater than solely communication studies. He observes that its “interest in topics such as technology and culture go beyond the boundaries of communication studies as a field, or even media studies as it is normally understood”. It is important to understand that media ecology is both holistic in its orientation and attentive to change, as Postman (1979, p. 31) indicates, in that the ways in which we are accustomed to communicating form a powerful milieu or environment that, like the physical context in which we live, shapes the people we are. However, should there occur “a radical shift in the structure of that environment this must be followed by changes in social organization, intellectual predispositions, and a sense of what is real and valuable”.

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Yet complicating our ability to diagnose our place within the media that enfold us is their status as being imperceptible, “invisible not because of their visual transparency but due to our own blindness to them” (Strate, 2017b, p. 245). Our blindness to them is, though, partly explicable in that our lifeworlds are subsumed within the ground of such media. Or as Meyrowitz (1985, p. 23) proposed, since we can understand a situation much better when observing it from an external perspective, “the studies on the effects of writing and print have tended to be much more detailed and scholarly than the studies of electronic media”.

Chapter Seven returns to the issue of electronic media and their environments with the aim of unpacking their relationship to cognition and communication.

An overview comes from Postman (1979, p. 186) who defines media ecology as the study of the information that surrounds us and forms our communicating environment. Writers in this tradition probe the ways in which the

technologies and techniques of communication control the form, quantity, speed, distribution, and direction of information; and how, in turn, such information configurations or biases affect people’s perceptions, values, and attitudes.

Within this frame of reference, our narrative of people’s literacy and orality considers the contexts in which they work, the technologies, broadly defined, through which their communication occurs, and the ways in which their work activities and other interactions influence the range of cognitive and communication options that are open to them.

The social practice tradition. A major source of opposition to the perspectives to be found in the media ecology field is contained in the work of adult literacy scholars writing within social practice traditions (e.g., Barton, 2005; Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; Gee, 1986, 2000; Street, 1984, 2017). The concern of these writers is that any research describing an orality-literacy “divide” may reinforce Eurocentric notions of Western superiority over non-Western cultures (Carlson, Fagan & Khanenko-Friesen, 2011) with so-called inferior oral cultures inevitably conceding to literate ones. While Ong and others in the media ecology tradition hold that literacy shapes and strengthens cognitive ability, producing more analytical thinkers, Gee and collaborators argue that literacy has little part in improving analytical abilities. They refer instead to embodied competencies and forms of expertise fostered via hands-on learning more than text-based approaches. This conflict of perspectives is explored further in Chapter Five on liminal literacy and social practice views of literacy.

McLuhan (1972) proposed a visual metaphor whereby orality and literacy may interchangeably form figure and ground in any society or situation that possesses text literacy. If literacy has not been much employed within a given context, ←4 | 5→orality (necessarily) comprises the most important form of communication while literacy will be of lesser import. As literacy becomes more predominant, the relative balance reverses so that literate practices become ascendant while orality retreats to a lesser standing.


VIII, 244
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. VIII, 244 pp., 6 tables.

Biographical notes

Frank Sligo (Author)

Frank Sligo (PhD, Massey University) is Professor of Communication at Massey University Wellington, New Zealand. His research areas of interest include adult literacy and orality, the knowledge gap hypothesis and information richness and poverty. His teaching interests are in student work-integrated learning.


Title: Literacy and Orality at Work
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