Listening to the Literacy Events of a Blind Reader

an essay by Mark Willis (1994)

1. The Flood of Argument

Goody (1977) poses a problem that both intrigues me and stirs a lingering doubt about the nature of my own literacy. In a discussion of Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), Goody asks this of his readers: “Imagine (though it is a fanciful task) Kuhn’s book as an oral discourse” (p. 49). Listening to such an oral discourse, Goody explains, would preclude a process essential to reading written texts visually. This process involves the recursive scrutiny of text to detect, compare, and resolve inconsistent meanings. It is a literacy skill that Goody and others regard as the cornerstone of critical thinking.

Close critical reading (and notation) of the book’s first edition led scholars to identify multiple, inconsistent usages of Kuhn’s seminal concept — the paradigm. Kuhn acknowledged and amended the inconsistencies in the book’s second edition. Goody maintains that, for the listener, such discrepancies in the text and the critical thought it represents would be “swallowed up in the flow of speech… the spate of words, the flood of argument, from which it is virtually impossible for even the most acute mind to make his mental card-index of different usages and then compare them one with another” (p. 49-50).

Goody’s fanciful problem haunts me sometimes because it is not fanciful for me. Listening to a recorded version of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is precisely how I read the book. I am partially blind as the result of a degenerative retina disease. Listening to books is now my primary reading mode. Listening to novels, biographies, and other narratives is a joy, but dense, expository books such as Kuhn’s challenge my concentration. I do get lost sometimes in the flow of speech, the flood of argument. My lingering doubt is whether I can fully understand a book’s meaning by listening to it. In other words, is my nontraditional reading mode truly literacy, or only an approximation of it?

In this exploratory essay, I will use my reading of Kuhn in the oral-aural mode to illustrate the relationship between orality and literacy in my own specific context. I will examine how two current perspectives on literacy — the evolutionary and the contextual — reach different conclusions about this relationship’s impact on cognition and learning. These conclusions pose problems as well as possibilities for understanding the literacies of people who are blind and visually impaired.

2. Blind Literacies

The literacies of blind and visually impaired people are richly multi-textured. Their reading and writing practices can be as diverse and specifically individual as the range of visual acuity itself. These practices involve the perceptual modes of sight, sound, and touch to utilize a variety of literate technologies. Professionals in the special education and rehabilitation of blind people categorize their literacies into visual (or print) , braille, and auditory modes. A blind or visually impaired reader may use one or more of these modes, which can be assessed as primary or secondary modes according to individual use. Rex (1989) estimated that, among students in rehabilitation and adult programs at that time, 36 percent were auditory readers; 31 percent were braille readers; 12 percent were print readers; and 10 percent were non-readers.

Reading in the auditory mode is more accurately described as what McLuhan (1962) calls an oral-aural experience. The distinction is important because it underscores the fact that this mode involves not one but two readers. The first decodes a written text into oral utterance, and the second listens to that utterance. Today, blind readers use the oral-aural mode several ways: 1) listening to a “live” reader who is present at the time of reading; 2) listening to a recording of a live reader; and 3) listening to the voice synthesis of a computer-based written text. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, and blind readers with access to all of them choose one or another according to specific literacy needs.

My reading of Kuhn makes use of an audio cassette recording produced by Recordings for the Blind (RFB). This nonprofit organization uses teams of volunteer readers to record books which are distributed on a library-loan basis to people with print disabilities (which include visual, learning, and physical disabilities. Recordings for the Blind is the nation’s principal source of recorded textbooks for print-disabled college students. More than 70,000 recorded books are available through RFB.

The oral-aural is my primary literacy mode for reading written texts of extended length. Print is a secondary mode; I have enough remaining sight to read some texts for brief periods of time using electronic visual aids. The labels “visually impaired,” “low vision,” “partially blind,” and “legally blind” could each be applied to me, although “print disabled” is probably the best descriptor of my literacy. In addition to borrowing the recorded version of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I bought a print edition of the book when I first planned to read it. The book is far too long for me to read in its entirety or in significant part using the print mode. While listening to the recording, I refer intermittently to selected pages of the print edition to verify inaudible or mispronounced words and to note memorable passages for future quotation. When I get lost in the flood of argument, I tend to rewind the tape and listen again rather than scrutinize the printed text.

3. Literate Technologies and Their Consequences

The evolutionary perspective on orality, literacy, and cognition places the development of literacy on a continuum that progresses from oral to highly literate societies or traditions. The development of literacy along the oral/literate continuum marks a fundamental shift in human thought processes. According to Ong (1982), “Writing restructures consciousness” (p. 78). The cognitive processes for creating, transmitting, storing, and retrieving human knowledge are fundamentally different in oral and literate traditions. Those cognitive changes result inherently from the development of literacy itself. The evolutionary perspective emphasizes the development of literate technologies, from early alphabetic writing systems to script and print, and their diffusion within and across societies.

To its critics, the evolutionary perspective emphasizes the uniformity of literacy development across societies without sufficient consideration of the specific contexts of literate practices. Some critics consider it to be a Great Divide theory because it differentiates too sharply between oral and literate modes. A close reading of Goody (1968, 1977) and Ong (1982), prominent expositors of the evolutionary perspective, reveals room for questioning the uniformity of literacy development. Both authors acknowledge the ongoing presence of the oral mode in literate societies. According to Ong, writing not only emerged from orality but remains “permanently and ineluctably grounded” in it (p. 77).

The audio tape recorder has not been examined as a literate technology combining oral and written modes, although some cite the machine as a metaphor to differentiate talking from writing. Examining how visual literate technologies change cognition and learning, from the evolutionary perspective, suggests that several types of problems should occur in my oral-aural reading of Kuhn. My reading could be problematic at several levels, from decoding the written text to analyzing its meaning and incorporating that into larger learning processes.

Decoding Written Texts:

Farrell (1978) states that “writing is a highly stylized, conventionalized system for transcription, rather than a graphic ‘tape-recorder’ of oral language that operates just like an acoustic tape-recorder” (p. 346). He maintains that standard written forms (including conventions of spelling, syntax, and grammar) facilitate efficient reading, not just deciphering. Standard forms are more predictable than irregular forms; they are more easily processed, visually and cognitively, to “apprehend the meaning of the written symbols” (p. 347). To Farrell, standard graphical forms are an essential element differentiating writing from talking. He concludes that reading regularly helps basic writers to build knowledge of standard forms; as readers get used to seeing these forms, they interiorize them and thus bring them into their own writing.

Bernhardt (1986) describes how visual elements can be used to exercise rhetorical control in written texts. Visually informative writing uses visual cues to make a graphic representation of cognitive organization. From these cues, readers gain a sense of the orderly progression of the writer’s thoughts. Bernhardt notes that “the rhetoric of visual design is an evolving art” (p. 75); its goal is matching visual design elements to cognitive processing. Graphic elements such as spacing and headings produce highly visual divisions in the text, making selective, nonlinear reading possible. Information can be extracted from texts more easily, and texts can be read at varying depths for varying purposes. Bernhardt notes, however that experimental studies have yielded conflicting results about the effectiveness of visual design on overall reading comprehension.

The volunteer readers who recorded the audio version of Kuhn followed style guidelines established by Recordings for the Blind. The pronunciation of words was accurate in most cases, and many of the readers accurately pronounced citations in languages other than English. Unfamiliar words (particularly proper nouns) were spelled out orally in some cases; when to do so was a judgement call made variously by different readers. Except for direct quotations and footnotes, punctuation was not verbalized; the aural reader must infer the structure of sentences, paragraphs, and sections from oral pauses. Kuhn’s written text uses few of the visual design elements discussed by Bernhardt; in my experience, oral readers usually do not decode such elements, and the aural reader misses their organizational purpose. Because the audio tape can only be played linearly (forward and backward), selective reading is not possible. This is a significant limitation of this reading mode.

Analyzing Written Texts:

The preceding discussion of Goody’s fanciful problem describes how careful analysis of written texts is considered necessary for critical thinking. This assumption has undergirded the rationalism of Western civilization since the advent of alphabetic writing in ancient Greece. Goody and Watt (1968) maintain that the cumulative record of written texts enable skeptical, detached comparisons that are impossible in the event- and memory-bound constraints of oral discourse. Ong (1988) states, “Writing is an absolute necessity for the analytically sequential, linear organization of thought” (p. 39). McLuhan (1962) notes paradoxically that while certitude is the object of such written thought, it is achieved through a process of doubt (p. 190).

These arguments describe how meaning is derived from written texts by visually processing their linear organization. Meaning also is derived from the visual gestalt of written symbols on the page. Goody (1977) explains that the earliest uses of writing were list-making and account-keeping. Written lists used words in ways very different from the flow of speech; their visual appearance emphasized boundaries, distinctions, order. This quality of writing led to critical thinking organized in categories and divisions of classification. According to Ong, the visual appearance of words on the printed page further emphasized their distinct, “thing-like” quality (p. 99). The printed page itself encourage a sense of closure; the meaning or knowledge contained in print texts was seen as final, complete, true.

Recursive reading of an oral-aural text is possible, but it is not as efficient or precise as visual recursion. The gestalt of the printed page, however, is often lost in oral-aural reading. Few oral readers have the time and skill to fully decode the complex visual organization of lists, charts, and graphs. Oral-aural reading may present a different gestalt — the oral reader’s inflection and tone of voice. This suggests a crucial problem for further research. When an oral reader does not comprehend a text’s meaning as he or she reads it out loud, how does the aural reader derive its meaning?

Interiorizing the Text:

Writing, according to Ong (1982), is a technology that has become deeply interiorized. Because “intelligence is relentlessly reflexive,” he writes, “even the external tools that it uses to implement its workings become… part of its own reflexive process” (p. 81). Interiorizing written words as things leads to an awareness that knowledge is thing-like. The acquisition of knowledge — deriving meaning from written texts — is the labor and reward of individuals. Interiorization distinguishes outer from inner and collective from individual experiences. Interiorizing writing encourages the individual mind “to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space” (p. 132). According to McLuhan, “Print is the technology of individualism” (1962, p. 192).

Interiorization is a psychologically potent, if elusive, concept. It suggests both a cognitive process and a pedagogic rationale for significant aspects of literacy today: silent reading, rigorous assessment of individual learning, and above all, solo authorship. The psychological import of Ong’s meaning can be sensed in the advice he gives basic writers about  the challenge of imagining an audience. “This is a desperate world, a terrifying world, a lonely, unpeopled world, not at all the world of natural oral-aural exchange” (1988, p. 41).

Interiorization is the hardest concept to apply to my oral-aural reading of Kuhn. The recorded book is a thing as compact and portable as the printed book. I use a technology to read it whenever and wherever I choose, and the presence of Thomas Kuhn or the oral readers is not necessary. But I am not the solitary meaning-maker here; others’ voices intercede between Kuhn’s meaning and my comprehension of it. I do not know with certitude how the book enters my memory, how I make Kuhn’s meaning my own. I suspect that it happens as I read and re-read parts of the book over long stretches of time; physical movement and verbal recitation of key points may be part of my process. These are not the efficient literacy skills taught in schools.

4. Literacy Events and Their Contexts

Critics of the evolutionary perspective on literacy argue that it over-emphasizes literate technologies and isolates them from the specific contexts in which they are used. According to Schriver (1992), literate activities are not “bundles of discrete and neutral context-free skills” but “complexly interrelated cultural practices” grounded in specific situations (p. 195).

The contextual perspective on literacy emphasizes the context-specific character of literate activities and cognitive processes. The socially defined nature of reading and writing leads to a multiplicity of diverse literacy practices. Specific contexts include social relationships as well as literate skills and technologies. According to Cole and Nicolopoulou (1992), heterogeneity rather than uniformity characterizes the cognitive processes associated with literacy. The contextual perspective also emphasizes a continual interaction rather than a sharp dichotomy between oral and literate modes in individuals and societies.

From the contextual perspective, literacy and learning cannot be isolated from the social contexts in which they occur. Erickson (1988) writes, “Change the physical forms of the tools and symbols, or change the social forms of relations among people with whom the individual is learning the practice… and one has profoundly changed the nature of the interaction — the nature of the learning task” (210).

Literacy Events:

Heath (1982) describes an ethnographic study of literacy in the context of one community. Trackton, North Carolina is a predominantly African-American, working-class community. Literacy in Trackton might be characterized as restricted or residually oral from the evolutionary perspective. After carefully observing the interplay between oral and literate modes in specific literacy events in the community, Heath concluded that literacy in Trackton takes “protean shapes” which do not fit traditional categories in the oral/literate continuum (p. 115).

Heath defines a literacy event as “any occasion in which a piece of writing is integral to the nature of participants’ interactions and their interpretive processes” (p. 93). In studying literacy events, Heath explains that ethnographers describe:

print materials available in the environment, the individuals and activities which surround print, and ways in which people include print in their ongoing activities. A literacy event can then be viewed as any action sequence, involving one or more persons, in which the production and/or comprehension of print plays a role… There are rules for the occurrence of literacy events, just as there are for speech events… Characteristics of the structures and uses of literacy events vary from situation to situation. In addition to having an appropriate structure, a literacy event has certain interactional rules and demands particular interpretive competencies on the part of participants. Some aspects of reading and/or writing are required by at least one party, and certain types of speech events are appropriate within certain literacy events. Speech events may describe, repeat, reinforce, expand, frame, or contradict written materials, and participants must learn whether the oral or written mode takes precedence in literacy events. (p. 93)

When Heath analyzed the social contexts of literacy events in Trackton, she found more events requiring appropriate speech skills than actual occasions for extended reading or writing. Reading was a social activity, not a solitary pursuit, among Trackton adults. Oral speech was a central feature of adult reading, and the authority of knowledge in written materials was derived through oral negotiation among groups of individuals. Heath states that “written information almost never stood alone in Trackton; it was reshaped and reworked into an oral mode” (pp. 99-100). She concludes that the shapes of literacy events differ from one specific context to another; the shapes are ever-shifting, embracing a protean interplay between oral and written language.

Levels of Reading Comprehension:

According to Heath, people in Trackton use social processes for comprehending written texts that are similar to the cognitive processes of individual readers. Drawing on recent research in reading comprehension, she identifies three levels of extracting meaning from written texts: 1) attending to the text itself; 2) bringing to the text experience and knowledge related to it; and 3) interpreting beyond the text (possibly in creative or imaginative realms) to make a new synthesis of text and reader experience.

Examining a typical literacy event in a Trackton neighborhood reveals all three levels of reading comprehension, according to Heath. One neighbor decodes a written text such as a letter from a government agency by reading it aloud to others. Then members of the group share their experiences and perceptions that are related to the text. Finally, the group extends beyond common experience to negotiate meaning of the text that fits a particular individual’s situation. Heath notes that the process is slow and less than efficient, but it confirms not only the meaning of a written text but also the social relations of the group. Heath maintains that the cognitive processes used in such a literacy event, grounded as it is in the oral-aural mode, are not significantly different from those used by an individual reader in the traditional literate mode.

Heath’s levels of reading comprehension correspond in broad
terms to the problems of oral-aural literacy discussed earlier — decoding texts, analyzing meaning, and interiorization. The contextual framework of a literacy event, which fully embraces the orality that surrounds many literate activities, provides a way to understand how blind readers begin to solve such problems. In my reading of Kuhn, the oral readers decoded the written text for me. I cannot interact with them to negotiate its meaning, although this social process happens often when I listen to “live” readers. I bring to Kuhn’s text everything I have learned before about the history and processes of science. I consider this previous knowledge and experience to be a hidden literacy that helps me derive meaning from a text even when its decoding is inscrutable. Finally, I incorporate that meaning into my own knowledge; the processes for doing this are not fully or consciously known to me, but I suspect that orality and patience play important roles. The protean shapes of literacy events make oral-aural literacy a possibility for me.

5. Conclusion

The oral-aural reading mode is a primary literacy practice for many blind and visually impaired people. Rapidly evolving communication technologies using digital audio recording and voice input/output for computers will continue to expand technical capabilities for oral-aural literacy. It is surprising, then, how little attention has been given to the impact of the oral-aural mode on cognition and learning. This situation is true in the specialized literature on education and rehabilitation of blind people as well as the broader literature on education research. Equally absent in the literature, including that of composition studies, are discussions of effective pedagogy for blind college students. As the specialists on one hand seek to improve equal participation for blind people in society, and as educators on the other hand seek to accommodate greater cultural diversity in the classroom, more research on oral-aural literacy clearly is needed.

When I first learned that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was available as a recorded book, I was thrilled. A book that I had heard about for years, a book which continues to enlarge the philosophy of knowledge in and beyond the sciences, was accessible to me. Access to information (in other words, decoding the text) is the first challenge to the literacy of blind people, and lack of access is the greatest barrier limiting that literacy. Access is not enough, however. Functional capability and social efficiency are not enough. A literacy acquired, maintained, and advanced through the oral-aural mode is capable of truly protean shapes; understanding their contexts and processes is the key to achieving a literacy without limits.

Works Cited

Bernhardt, S. A. (1986). Seeing the text. College Composition and Communication 37, 66-78.

Cole, M. & Nicolopoulou, A. (1992). Literacy: Intellectual consequences. In W. Bright (Ed.), The International encyclopedia of linguistics (Vol. 2, pp. 343-346). New York: Oxford University Press.

Erickson, F. (1988). School Literacy, Reasoning, and Civility: An anthropological view. In E. R. Kintgen, B. M. Kroll, & M. Rose (Eds.), Perspectives on literacy (pp. 205-226). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Farrell, T. J. (1978). Differentiating writing from talking. College Composition and Communication, 29, 346-350.

Goody, J. (1977). The domestication of the savage mind. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Goody, J. & Watt, I. (1968). The consequences of literacy. In J. Goody (Ed.), Literacy in traditional societies (pp. 27-68). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Heath, S. B. (1982). Protean shapes in literacy events: Ever-shifting oral and literate traditions. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Spoken and written language: Exploring orality and literacy (pp. 91-117). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed., enlarged). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed., enlarged; audio tape version TR 789). Princeton, NJ: Recordings for the Blind.

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. New York: New American Library.

Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York: Methuen.

Ong, W. J. (1988). Literacy and orality in our times. In G. Tate & E. P. J. Corbett (Eds.), The Writing teacher’s sourcebook (2nd ed., pp. 37-46). New York: Oxford University Press.

Rex, E. J. (1989). Issues related to literacy of legally blind learners. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness 83, 306?07, 310?13 (Special Issue: Print…Braille…Literacy).

Schriver, K. A. (1992). Concerning cognition and context in composition. In G. Kirsch & P. A. Sullivan (Eds.), Methods and Methodology in Composition Research (pp. 190-216). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Social Research Department, American Foundation for the Blind. (1991). Recordings for the Blind survey of borrowers: Awareness, usage, satisfaction. Princeton, NJ: Recordings for the Blind.

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