2.1.2 Literacy and ways of reasoning

One of Olson’s aims in rejecting the firm distinction between the two modes, spoken and written, is to argue that once literacy is part of a cultural tradition, uses of spoken language within that tradition involve what he refers to as ‘a literate form of thinking’ (see his article for more). Literacy gives rise to a particular way of thinking, ‘scientific’ thinking, which is not then bound to the written mode. A key aspect of this scientific thinking is ‘how language, in particular meaning, is conceptualised’. Briefly, Olson argues that becoming literate facilitates an explicit reflection on reasoning and the role of language in reasoning.

Olson’s argument for the influence of literacy acquisition on the development of thinking includes a discussion about how the kind of dialogue he calls ‘exploratory talk’ may be ‘internalised’ as an individual way of reasoning. In both cases it is being argued that children’s involvement with ways of using language can lead to the adoption of reasoned procedures for analysing and solving problems. There is an important difference, however. The argument made by some sociocultural researchers is that it is through involvement in certain types of dialogue (which will mainly be spoken interactions) that children become aware of how language can be used to ‘model’ problems and solve them. Olson, on the other hand, is arguing that it is through becoming aware of the nature of language as an object – something which can be observed and scrutinised – that reasoning is developed. We might therefore call the first a ‘dialogic’ theory of the development of reasoning (as it depends on involvement in joint reasoning activity), while the second is a ‘monologic’ argument (in that it depends on individual acquisition of literacy skills).

Whilst arguing that the historical development of literacy influences ways of thinking, Olson does not seem to be making a claim for any universal effects of literacy. In the first section of the reading, Olson refers to cross-cultural research on literacy by Scribner and Cole which is generally taken to challenge the hypothesis that becoming literate in itself has specific cognitive effects. Scribner and Cole carried out extensive research with a community in Liberia and their uses of three literacies: Vai, English and Arabic (Scribner and Cole, 1981). Olson seems to accept Scribner and Cole’s finding that different literacies involve different kinds of thinking and reasoning and therefore that there can be no universal claim about the impact of ‘literacy’ on cognition.

But Olson draws on their work to reach a different conclusion: that only some literacies can facilitate ‘scientific thinking’. More specifically, Olson seems to be arguing that only English-medium literacy, or certainly ‘Western Literacy’, facilitates this thinking. While the view that it is important to talk of ‘literacies’ rather than a single ‘literacy’ has become important in literacy research, and is discussed in the next part of this section, the idea that certain types of reasoning are made possible only by particular kinds of literacy, is highly controversial.

2.1.1 Oral and literate modes

2.2 Perspective 2: Literacy as social practice