Cultural-Historical Basis of Literacy Practices in TshiVenda-Speaking South Africa's Primary Classrooms

By Muthivhi, Azwihangwisi Edward | Outlines : Critical Practice Studies, September 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Cultural-Historical Basis of Literacy Practices in TshiVenda-Speaking South Africa's Primary Classrooms


Muthivhi, Azwihangwisi Edward, Outlines : Critical Practice Studies


Introduction

The notion of literacy as a cultural practice can be traced in developmental psychology research framework, to the ground-breaking work of Scribner and Cole (1981) who; using the Vygotskian theoretical framework as basis for analysis of literacy practices among Vai people of Liberia, have found that literacy practices were tied up to the cultural practices of society. Unlike in western literacy tradition, Cole and Scribner found that literacy practices among Vai communities were not aimed at providing new knowledge and new ways of thinking about everyday-life problems but rather limited familiar topics, background knowledge and the writers' circumstances (Scribner & Cole, 1981, p. 238).

In this study, Scribner and Cole argue that literacy among the Vai had a unique function; fundamentally different from that associated with formal schooling, and therefore had different consequences on psychological development and functioning. For example, Vai literacy engaged individuals with familiar topics without introducing new ways of looking at things. The reason for this, according to Scribner and Cole (1981) was because of the peculiar orthography of Vai script and its specific uses within Vai social organization.

Following Havelock's (1976, 1978) position, Scribner and Cole (1981) argue that the orthography of a writing system has a major impact on its uses and possible cognitive consequences because:

None-alphabetic systems permit only limited exploitation because they are "inefficient". Their inefficiency comes about because of the way they represent the spoken language. While an alphabet represents minimal sound units, a syllabary maps larger, incompletely analyzed linguistic units. As a consequence, a single character in a syllabary may have several alternative phonetic interpretations. Without a representational system that approximates a one-to-one mapping between sounds and graphic units, the reader must rely on contextual information to disambiguate the message (Scribner & Cole, 1981, p. 239).

Therefore, Scribner and Cole found that the peculiar way in which sound units are graphically represented within Vai literacy places constraints on possible ways in which Vai script may be employed. For example, the reader finds it difficult to grasp the meaning of sentences at the same time that he or she has to figure out the semantic units in the text. The same difficulty is encountered by the writer, who likewise is to choose the representation of a sound packet (syllable) that best fits a given piece of speech; constraining the variety and novelty of written messages. The consequence of learning to read and write in this language on cognitive development and functioning, argued Scribner and Cole (1981), is fundamentally different from that which should be expected of an alphabetic script. However, as the authors note, the constraints that Vai literacy places on reading and writing is not necessarily, and only limited to its syllabic organization as no orthographic system preserves all the features of spoken language. Further, the Japanese syllabary system may be considered efficient because of the regularity of the sound-symbol correspondences (Scribner & Cole, 1981).

The social constraints, to do with the lack of development of Vai literacy into an integral part of the wider societal activities, according to Scribner and Cole (1981), further exacerbated the situation. That is, increasingly complex socially organised economic and intellectual activities evolve among the Vai in total separation from their traditional literacy practices and result in the lack of application of the script to a variety of situations and new social practices. Meanwhile, the lack of possibilities for expanding the Vai script into unfamiliar social situations further constrains the content of Vai letters to familiar topics that draw from the recipient's background knowledge and the writer's circumstance and hence, restrict the potential for exploring what is new and unfamiliar (Cole, 1996; Scribner & Cole, 1981). …

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