Literacy Practices and Literacy Myths

Part of the Springer Series in Language and Communication book series (SSLAN, volume 23)


During the early 1980s there appeared in the United States, a number of collections of academic papers that claimed to represent the relationship between literacy and orality as a “continuum” rather than, as in much of the previous literature, as a “divide” (cf. Coulmas & Ehlich, 1983; Frawley, 1982; Olson, Hildyard & Torrance, 1985; Nystrand, 1982; Tannen, 1982b; Wagner, 1983; Whiteman, 1981). It appeared that the differences between literate and oral channels of communication had been overstated in the past and that scholars were now more concerned with overlap, mix and diverse functions in context. I shall examine some of these new representations, and argue that the supposed shift from divide to continuum is more rhetorical than real: that, in fact, many of the writers in this field continue to represent literacy as sufficiently different from orality in its social and cognitive consequences, that their findings scarcely differ from the classic concept of the “great divide” (cf. Goody, 1977). I shall argue that the implicit persistence of claims that the practitioners themselves would often explicitly reject can be explained with reference to the methodological and theoretical assumptions that underlie their work: in particular a narrow definition of social context, related to the split in linguistics between pragmatics and semantics; the reification of literacy in itself at the expense of recognition of its location in structures of power and ideology, also related to general linguistic assumptions about the “neutrality” of their object of study; and the restriction of “meaning” within traditional linguistics to the level of syntax.


Discourse Analysis Oral Language Literacy Practice Literacy Event Ethnographic Method 
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