Who are the Vai? The Vai are a small population in Liberia. In the area which they live there are not many government agencies or missionary schools. Although they might seem isolated from Liberian society they play a large role in the commercial life of the country.

What is the Vai Project?Scribner and Cole conducted five years of research on the Vai people (a small Liberian population). The book The Psychology of Literacy details their research methods and their findings. Their hopes with the project were that they would be able to have a better understanding of how different social situations affect or change human thought.

The Vai Writing System: The Vai writing system is of their own invention that they use for commercial and personal affairs. The Vai script is not taught in school, but instead at home. The Vai people were chosen for the Scribner and Cole study because of the script that they believed would help them separate schooling from literacy.

Images of the Vai Script

Tasks that were used in the Vai Project: There were five areas that Scribner and Cole wished to test with various tasks. The five areas are:

1) Abstraction (in which they were looking for 3 things; a) ability to single out a particular attribute shared by a set b) ability to shift flexibility from one attribute to another and c) ability to give a verbal label to a class and explain that label.

Sorting table
An example of one of the abstract tasks they used.

2) Taxonomic Categorization where they included objects familiar to people through everyday experience in two categories 1) constrained classification (numerical out of 6 choices and verbal explanation) and 2) Free sorting task.

Example: They spread 15 objects on the table. The 15 objects were from three Vai categories: food, farm implements and kitchen utensils. Two of the 15 objects were chosen and then the informant was asked to choose one of the remaining objects that belonged to the group and explain why the three belonged grouped together.

Example 2: 24 common objects were placed on the table and the subject was asked to sort them into categories. Again they were from groups such as food, clothing, tools and utensils.

3) Memory in the memory tasks the subjects were asked to recall the 24 objects that were used in the free classification exercise after they explained their reasoning for the free classifications. With this task they were hoping to see if writing decreased memorization skills.

4) Logic with these tasks Scribner and Cole were hoping to see if literacy increased logical thinking. They asked the subjects questions like the ones below:

Logic Problems

5) Language Objectivity Scribner and Cole were interested in whether or not non-literate adults would agree that names of things or ideas were arbitrary.

Example: Suppose that everyone in the world got together and decided that from now on we will call the sun the moon and the moon will be called the sun. All we are going to do is change the names. Could we do that if we wanted to? Now, when you go to bed at night what will you call the thing that you see in the sky? What will the sky look like when you go to bed if this is so?

The Vai Project Findings:

“School effects  are fairly consistent; effects of nonschooled literacies are spotty and appear on only a few performance measures. Of the many classes of nonliteracy experiences examined, urban living and its converse- involvement in the traditional sector- prove to be the only factors affecting what people said and did in the experimental situations. The most impressive finding is the formal schooling with instruction in English increased ability to provide a verbal explanation of the principles involved in performing the various tasks. Justifications given by schooled individuals were more task-oriented and informative than those given by others… schooling affects verbal explanations over and above any influences it may exert on successful execution of the task”  (Scribner and Cole 130-131).

A study of the Vai has found that “Vai script literacy does not fulfill the expectations of those social scientists who consider literacy a prime mover in social change. It has not set off a dramatic modernizing sequence; it has not been accompanied by rapid developments in technology, art, and science; it has not led to the growth of new intellectual disciplines.” 

Instead Scribner and Cole found that literacy should be approached as a set of socially organized practices which make use of a symbol system and a technology for producing and disseminating it. 

Literacy is not simply knowing how to read and write a particular script but applying this knowledge for specific purposes in specific contexts of use. 

A greater correlation was found between cognitive change and education through current practice. Sweeping generalizations about literacy and cognitive change were precluded.  

It can be surmised the equipping children with a “written language” will not have the cognitive effects that were previously thought to occur by mere acquisition. A correlation was found between cognitive differences in “literary skills” and practice of said learning.

Interestingly neither literacy or urbanism seem to be entirely subsumed under the other. 


The Implications of the Vai Project Findings: To be discussed in class.


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