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Although the psychological study of reading and the psychology of language are well established domains of research and theory, the psychology of writing systems and their uses, literacy, are relatively recent additions to the cognitive sciences. The central goal of the psychology of writing systems is to bring these two, hitherto independent, ﬁelds of study into conjunction, allowing both to be seen in a new light.
Writing systems have been neglected in psychology for two reasons. First, twentieth century linguistics has focused almost exclusively on speech, consigning writing merely to a way of recording. The study of writing was left to specialist domains such as epigraphy and classical studies. Nonetheless, important studies of writing were produced, that by Gelb (1963) providing the foundation for more recent work. Second, only the alphabetic writing system was the object of psychological studies of reading, leaving the impression that other writing systems were primitive and scarcely worth careful study.
In the period since the 1960s, the two ﬁelds, the psychology of reading and the psychology of language, have begun to converge to produce several lines of new research and theory. These relations make up the major sections of this article.
1. Relation Between Speech And Writing
Making marks which can serve mnemonic and communicative purposes is as old as human culture itself. Writing systems are a subset of such marks which, typically, represent aspects of linguistic form. Sampson (1987) provided an abstract classiﬁcation of types of writing system. Some systems, semasiographic systems, represent meanings without any direct link to spoken form. Historical examples include the so-called ‘picture writing’ of American Indians, more modern ones include systems of highway signs and mathematical symbols. Some writers (Coulmas 1989, Harris 1995) consider such nonspeech sign systems as full writing systems, claiming that what makes a writing system is its adequacy in conveying information visually rather than its purported links to speech.
Logographic scripts are linguistically based but the spoken elements represented are meaningful units, primarily words and morphemes. A clear example of such a script is Chinese in which morphemes which sound identical are often represented by entirely dissimilar graphic characters, although some theorists (de Francis 1989) insist that any full writing system is phonologically based, at least to some extent.
Syllabaries are scripts which represent spoken patterns by signs for syllables. Thus ka, ke, ki, ko would be written with the same graphic sign. Arabic and Hebrew are modern examples.
Finally, alphabets employ a separate mark to represent the consonant and vowel segments of a syllable, roughly, the phonemes of the language. These categories of writing systems are generic types; no living writing system is based exclusively on one type of sign. Thus in English script, signs represent both phonemes by means of letters and words by means of spaces between letter groups. Japanese writing uses Chinese logographs (Kanji) to represent the stems of content words and a completely different syllabic script (Kana) to represent grammatical morphemes and inﬂections (Taylor and Taylor 1995).
In one sense, the history of scripts reﬂects the discovery of increasingly subtle aspects of speech, going from meanings to analytical constituents of speech. Yet contrary to the evolutionary view (Gelb 1963), many researchers (Gaur 1987, Sampson 1987, Olson 1994, Harris 1995) have argued that these so-called progressive changes merely reﬂect the impact of borrowing a script invented for one language to represent a completely different language. The consequence of such borrowing was the discovery of previously ignored properties of speech, word signs, syllable signs, and phoneme signs.
2. Writing Systems And Reading
As different types of writing systems bear distinctively different relations to speech, learning to read and write them call upon different cognitive activities. Semasiographic systems found in Ancient Mesoamerica, namely the Mixtec and Aztec systems used until the conquest for record keeping, depended highly on rich factual knowledge; one had to know what the inscription was about before one could read it. Further, it depended heavily upon interpretation as the inscriptions allowed variable readings. Indeed, there is no categorical difference between the writing and drawing. Nineteenth-century Canadian Blackfoot Indians, for example, depicted ‘the year that horses got drowned’ by means of a circle (representing a lake) and four stick-drawings of horses superimposed on the circle. Such a chronicle records an important cultural event but not the linguistic form of its description. That is why it allows such variable readings.
All other so-called full writing systems map on to or represent spoken forms and learning to read each of them requires a somewhat different orientation to the script. Scribner and Cole (1981) found that their Vai subjects in Liberia in learning to read a syllabic script became adept at analyzing their speech into syllabic units but failed to analyze their speech into words. Others have found that the ability to manipulate phonemes was tied to learning to read an alphabet. Read et al. (1986) found that Chinese readers of traditional character scripts could not detect phonemic segments whereas those who could read Pinyin, an alphabetic script representing the same language, could do so.
Ample empirical evidence exists to show that it is acquaintance with an alphabetic script that is critical to the acquisition of awareness of the phonological properties of the language (Morais et al. 1979, Vernon and Ferreiro 1999). Concepts of words as lexical entities, similarly, have been shown to be tied to concepts of words as written entities (Olson 1994). Concepts of sentences, needed for the mastery of punctuation, are acquired at even more advanced levels of literacy. Conceptual development in children is, in part, the consequence of the acquisition of these systems for representing language (Vygotsky 1986).
Much confusion about the cognitive and social implications of writing and reading arises from a failure to recognize that modes of reading and interpretation do not inevitably arise from simply learning to identify words and letters. The history of writing is largely a history of inventing devices, such as punctuation and text structures, as well as rules for interpretation that have taken sometimes millennia to develop. A dictionary itemizing all the words of a language is a recent, literate invention. The very idea of ﬁxity of a text is not inevitably attributed to writing and printing but to a specialized set of conventions for interpreting texts and institutional structures for preserving them (Johns 1998). However, once procedures had been developed for the systematic interpretation of Scriptural texts, it was found that such procedures were also suitable for the interpretation of the ‘book of nature.’ Scientiﬁc epistemology, it has been argued, is a form of applied hermeneutics (Olson 1994).
3. Theories Of Reading Alphabetic Scripts
Assumptions about the relation between script and language have given rise to considerable, well-publicized, differences of opinion and differences in reading theory. One group emphasized the recognition of meaning of written expressions in ways analogous to the recognition of meaning in oral forms. That is, written language is seen as an alternative to spoken language each with their peculiar and distinctive perceptual and cognitive processes but with a common goal of meaning construction, hence the label Whole Language.
The other group, credit for which is often given to Alvin Liberman and Isabel Liberman of the Haskins Group at Yale University, is that reading is essentially a metalinguistic activity in which readers must ﬁnd mappings from the written form to aspects of their implicit knowledge of speech (Olson 1994, Adams et al. 1998). Evidence on the importance of word and phoneme segmentation, two forms of metalinguistic knowledge, to learning to read and write tends to favor the metalinguistic theory of reading (Stanovich 1986, Lundberg et al. 1988), that is, the theory that reading is not a matter of mapping signs to meanings but rather a matter of mapping visual signs to aspects of oral speech and hence on to meaning. It is this metalinguistic theory of reading that helps to explain not only why learning to read brings aspects of speech into consciousness but also why reading and writing may contribute to a new and distinctive mode of thought in certain social and institutional contexts.
4. Writing Systems And Thinking
Nineteenth-century theorists took the view that writing and literacy had the general effect of making thought more logical and formal. The recognition of the fact that there are many types of writing systems and that even those different types may be read in very different ways (Saenger 1997) has made such general claims problematic, as has the dispute as to the meaning of literacy, some identifying it with the basic skills of reading and writing (Scribner and Cole 1981) and others with the evolved products of particular literate cultural traditions (Goody 1968, Olson 1994). Although there is wide agreement on the ‘psychic unity of mankind’ (‘They are just like you and me,’ as Jack Goody once put it), and there is wide agreement that all languages are in principle capable of expressing all nuances of meaning, nonetheless patterns of thought vary widely from culture to culture and context to context, so much so that it is not uncommon to despair of ﬁnding interesting cognitive differences attributable to writing or to a written tradition. Mathematics, the epitome of a written tradition, is sometimes seen as basically equivalent to practical computations, so-called street math.
On the other hand, cultural historians have asserted the cultural and psychological implications of writing and literacy, arguing, for example, that the medium of representation is the most important aspect of the message (McLuhan 1962), that writing separated the knower from the known (Ong 1992), that scriptal changes caused the origins of modern silent reading (Saenger 1997), and that writing allowed the formulation of modern conceptions of logic and mathematics (Goody 1968).
The metarepresentational theory of reading gives new credence to these more radical views. Writing and reading a linguistically based script, on this view, are an exercise not only in meaning, but also in consciousness and discourse about language, that is, about units of sound, units of meaning, words and structural units, sentences. Literacy on this view is seen as instrumental to discourse about word meaning, sentence meaning, and to other aspects of form which may be mentioned rather than used in discourse. This metarepresentational shift invites talk not only about particular words and sentences independently of their use, but also about other metarepresentational properties, such as truth, logical form, and aesthetic goodness. Furthermore, it allows mathematics to be clearly distinguished from ‘street math,’ the former being concerned with number rather than quantity. In the former, a number is expressed in the singular: ﬁ e is more than four. In the latter, quantity is expressed as plural: I have seven apples, ﬁ e are red. Only the former is metarepresentational, that is, mentioned rather than used, and consequently an object of thought in its own right.
Furthermore, writing is instrumental to thinking in general as a form of metalinguistic knowledge, that is, knowledge ‘about’ the lexical, grammatical, and logical properties of the language.Vocabulary knowledge, for example, is both greatly extended by reading (Anglin 1993), and reﬂective knowledge about words, as required for judgments of synonymy, for example, serves as a major aspect of measured intelligence in a literate society (Stanovich 1986). Formal reasoning tasks which require judgments of validity rather than truth or agreement, too, appear to be related to literacy, especially the specialized literacy of schooling (Ong 1992).
In order to account for such effects ranging from phonological awareness to awareness of sentence meaning (as opposed to what a speaker means by the sentence), Olson (in press) has proposed that writing be seen as quoted speech, and that reading and writing be viewed as learning to deal with quoted utterances rather than with ordinary direct utterances. This associates writing with a special feature of language known as reﬂexivity and as roughly equivalent to the use–mention distinction and language–metalinguistic distinction. Thus, in writing and reading one is not merely using an expression but quoting and thereby mentioning a linguistic form. The special interpretation called for in such a context depends upon the special properties of the form, its ‘linguistic meaning’ or ‘sense,’ rather than its referential meaning as well as allowing for judgments of similarity of meaning and judgments of logical entailments. Some writers such as Havelock (1982) and Ong (1992) argue that ‘all elaborate, linear, so-called ‘logical’ explanation depends on writing’ (Ong 1992 p. 312). Admittedly, not every culture and/or every reader exploits these distinctions as they rely heavily on particular institutional arrangements such as schools, professions, and academic disciplines. However, no reader reading a word- and sentence-segmented alphabetic text can fail to acquire the special metalinguistic concepts of sound, word, and sentence. The remainder comes with more specialized study, normally in schools.
5. Writing As Normative Practice
Writing does not merely transcribe speech but presents speech in terms of an idealized model. When learning to write, one is taught not to transcribe speech but rather to edit the speech by removing false starts, correcting errors, and adding needed qualiﬁers to make the transcription more complete, correct, and formal than the more spontaneous oral utterance. Writing in a literate culture is a normative practice, which is to say it involves the correct, authorized forms of words, sentences, and texts. Admonitions to ‘speak grammatically’ are in fact admonitions to speak as one would write. Although linguists abhor so-called prescriptive grammars, claiming that all utterances of a native speaker are grammatical, schools are regularly charged with teaching ‘proper English.’ In this way, writing comes to serve as a model for speaking.
Reading texts and composing them provide a special forum for coordinating the content of a domain with the syntactic and rhetorical demands of the written models available. van Dijk and Kintsch (1983) showed how readers coordinate linguistic form with conceptual structure in interpreting texts and Scardamalia and Bereiter (1986) showed how in writing, students coordinated their ideas with available discourse forms.
6. Writing And Knowledge
Although all of the peoples of the world know a great deal about nature, themselves, and the social world, writing systems in the modern world have largely preempted such local knowledge, overwriting it with institutional forms of knowledge based on textual archives and specialized interpretive practices. Have- lock (1982) suggested that writing was responsible for divorcing the knower from the known, allowing the latter to accumulate and become the subject of research and revision when the social conditions were suitable. Contemporary forms of knowledge are without exception text based, with access to these forms limited to those willing to undergo years of specialized training in the formulation and interpretation of the principle documents of the tradition. Stock (1983) called such traditions ‘textual communities’ and Smith (1990), a sociologist, characterizes the organization of power in contemporary society in terms of objectivized forms of text-based knowledge: ‘The primary mode of action and decision in … business, government, the professions … are textual. The realities to which action and decision are oriented are virtual realities vested in texts and accomplished in the distinctive practices of reading and writing’ (Smith1990 pp. 61–2). Psychologists have only begun to explore the implications of living and working in such text-based environments.
7. Literacy And Social Development
Because literacy plays such a prominent role in modern societies, it is often assumed that the route to social development is through teaching people to read and write, a view supported by UNESCO. Research and practice have shown that in order to bring about cultural and social transformation, literacy must be seen as an activity embedded in social and cultural practice. Literacy, bureaucratic institutional structures with explicit procedures and accountability, and democratic participation are mutually reinforcing. Rather than being seen simply as a goal, literacy has come to be seen as a means to fuller participation in the institutions of the society, whether in law, science, or literature (Street 1984), as well as a means for their transformation.
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