2.1.1 Oral and literate modes

In the study of language development and education, there has often been an assumption that the process of becoming literate in a mother tongue is essentially different from, and distinct from, the process of learning to speak it. In some ways, this is self-evidently true. All children, except those with specific sensory or cognitive disabilities, will learn to speak without apparently having any tuition. In contrast, many people do not become proficient writers and readers. The two kinds of language use also clearly involve different perceptual skills. There is in addition the matter of the different ages at which speech and literacy normally develop.

Until quite recently, as Olson implies, it was also commonly asserted by researchers that the two modes of speech and writing were different in their nature. Speech is usually spontaneous and its sound fades rapidly, while writing is commonly planned and may be drafted; and as a product it may persist for centuries, and can be read and re-read many times. It was also argued that the two modes are commonly associated with different kinds of communicative function. For these various reasons, it was concluded that the different modes necessarily require the use of rather different compositional and comprehension skills.

Again, there is certainly some truth in these claims. But in recent times the general validity of this bi-modal view of speech and writing as very distinct language modes has been questioned. Olson briefly mentions some reasons why this is so, and others can be found. For example, some kinds of oral performance can be ‘drafted’ and practised, as in for instance traditions of storytelling and in political speeches. Speech can also be recorded, so it need not fade rapidly, and can be replayed for multiple hearings. Moreover, with the advent of information technology new ways of using language are emerging which make it difficult to continue to argue that the two modes are completely distinct in nature, or in the skills they require for their use. Consider, for example, the use of email, conferencing and other similar kinds of computer-based communication. All involve ‘writing’, yet in their spontaneity and interactivity they often share more characteristics with spoken conversation than with formal letter writing. We will be looking at those kinds of language use, and at multimodal communication, in section 4.

2.1 Perspective 1: Literacy as cognitive skill

2.1.2 Literacy and ways of reasoning