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emergent literacy
emilia ferreiro

david m. bloome
susan r. goldman

learning from multimedia sources
jennifer wiley
joshua a. hemmerich

multimedia literacy
david reinking

narrative comprehension and production
rolf a. zwaan
katinka dijkstra

vocabulary and vocabulary learning
margaret g. mckeown
isabel l. beck

writing and composition
carol n. dixon
christopher johnston


William Teale and Elizabeth Sulzby coined the term emergent literacy in 1986 from Mary Clay's dissertation title, "Emergent Reading Behavior" (1966). Their term designated new conceptions about the relationship between a growing child and literacy information from the environment and home literacy practices. The process of becoming literate starts before school intervention.

Important changes took place around 1975 to 1985 in the way researchers approached young children's attempts at reading and writing, which were influenced by previous language acquisition studies of children actively engaged in learning oral language.

In English-speaking countries, literacy acquisition was traditionally focused on acquisition of reading. Writing was considered an activity undertaken after reading. Carol Chomsky's 1971 article "Write Now, Read Later" was for this reason provocative. It is worth noting that these two opposite views (reading before writing or writing before reading) are alien to other cultural traditions. For instance, in the Spanish school tradition both activities have been traditionally considered as complementary.

Teale and Suzby maintained that "in the schools, the reading readiness program and the notion of the need to teach prerequisites for reading became fixed. Furthermore, using reading readiness programs in the kindergarten literacy curriculum became a widespread practice. The reading readiness program which became so firmly entrenched during the 1960s remains extremely prevalent in the 1980s"(p. xiii).

The concept of emergent literacy was intended to indicate a clear opposition with the then prevailing notion of "reading readiness." This new concept arises from changes in the research paradigm, mainly in developmental psycholinguistics, and not in the practical educational field.

The Original Meaning of the Concept

Several pioneering researchers (among them Clay in New Zealand, Yetta Goodman and Sulzby in the United States, and Emilia Ferreiro in Latin American countries) share several main ideas that can be summarized as follows:

  1. Before schooling, a considerable amount of literacy learning takes place, provided that children are growing in literate environments (homes where reading and writing are part of daily activies; urban environments where writing is everywherein the street, in the markets, on all kinds of food containers or toysas well as on specific objects like journals, books, and calendars).
  2. Through their encounters with print and their participation in several kinds of literacy events, children try to make sense of environmental print. Indeed, they elaborate concepts about the nature and function of these written marks.
  3. Children try to interpret environmental print. They also try to produce written marks. Their attempts constitute the early steps of reading and writing. Thus, reading and writing activities go hand in hand, contributing to literacy development as comprehension and production both contribute to oral language acquisition. The use of the term literacy in the phrase emergent literacy indicates that the acquisition of reading and writing take place simultaneously.
  4. The pioneer authors of the emergent literacy approach avoid the use of terms like pretend reading or pre-reading, pretend writing or pre-writing. Such terms, in fact, establish a frontier in the developmental process instead of a developmental continuum.
  5. From a careful observation of spontaneous writing and reading activities as well as from data obtained through some elicitation techniques, it becomes possible to infer how children conceive the writing system and the social meaning of the activities related to it.
  6. Emergent literacy is a child-centered concept that not only takes into account relevant experiences (like sharing reading books in family settings), but also takes into consideration that children are always trying to make sense of the information received in a developmental pathway that is characterized both by some milestones common to all and by individual stories.

Transformations of the Original Meaning

What is the use of the expression emergent literacy fifteen years after its first introduction into the literature? This expression competes with others such as beginning literacy, early literacy, or even preschool literacy. It is not unusual to see alternative terms used by the same authors (for instance Dorothy Strickland and Lesley Morrow). The term emergent remains restricted to English users. It is not used in Spanish nor in Italian or French, where expressions like "éveil au monde de l'écrit" ("awakening to the world of writing") convey similar ideas.

The emergent literacy approach affects preschool settings and shapes new educational practices. Instead of exercises to train basic skills as a prerequisite to reading, researchers frequently observe teachers and children engaged in real reading activities. Instead of exercises of copying letter forms, teachers encourage children to produce pieces of writing.

Independent research conducted in the linguistic and historical fields by such people as David Olson, Florian Coulmas, and Geoffrey Sampson contributed, during the closing decades of the twentieth century, to a reconsideration of writing systems. As long as alphabetical writing systems (AWS) are being conceived as visual marks for elementary units already done (i.e., the phonemes), the task of the child is reduced to the learning of a code of correspondences. But AWS are highly complex because they are the result of a long history, in which phonic considerations interfere with historical, pragmatic, and even aesthetic considerations.

However, the old pedagogical ideas are still so strong that the term emergent literacy has begun to be used as a new component of old practices. Expressions such as to teach beginning literacy, evaluation of emergent literacy skills, and even emergent literacy teachers are a commonplace in books, articles, and papers devoted to teachers, parents, and decision-makers. It is clear that emergent literacy cannot be taught, even if it can be improved or stimulated. The reduction of this concept to a set of trainable skills goes against the term's original meaning.

In the meantime, "phonological awareness" began to be considered the single strong predictor of school reading skills (reading, in that case, is evaluated in tasks of letter-sound correspondences in front of lists of words and pseudo-words). Some authors started to look for the components of emergent literacya set of skillsto allow similar assessment as phonological awareness.

When emergent literacy skills include phonological awareness it is clear that the new label is being applied to old ideas: emergent literacy originally indicated concepts built up by children through many encounters with print other than explicit teaching, whereas phonological awareness is clearly an acquisition that does not develop without explicit intervention, even if it is closely related to the acquisition of an AWS. For instance, when parents engage in shared reading, they offer the child the opportunity to learn about many relevant aspects of books but they are not explicitly teaching a particular literacy component.

This shaping of new ideas into old paradigms is present also in psychological research, such as the 1998 publication by Grover Whitehurst and Christopher Lonigan. It could seem, at first glance, entirely justified to inquire about the components of early literacy, and the weight of each one of them as predictors of school achievements in reading. However, the identification of these components and the assessment of their individual weight shows that literacy continues to be conceived mainly as reading behavior and that written language is still conceived as a coding of already given elementary units (the phonemes) into a graphic form (the letters of an alphabet). The persistent confusion between the teaching activities and learning processes (i.e., how children contribute to the task, how they transform the available information through their own assimilatory processes) is at the core of the weak results that try to discover the relevant correlations between early literacy and future school achievements.


For the time being, the best recommendation for any preschool program is to offer children many opportunities to engage in real reading and writing activities, with the grounded conviction that childrenwho are intelligent human beingsare eager to learn and will take advantage of a stimulating environment. The old view that prevented children from sharing literacy learning opportunities until they were ready to learn lessons is a discriminatory one, as not all parents all over the world are able to provide literacy experiences.

See also: Early Childhood Education; Literacy and Reading; Reading, subentry on Beginning Reading.


Chomsky, Carol. 1971. "Write Now, Read Later." Childhood Education 47:296299.

Clay, Mary. 1966. "Emergent Reading Behaviour." Ph.D. diss., University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Coulmas, Florian. 1989. The Writing Systems of the World. Oxford and Cambridge, Eng.: Blackwell.

Ferreiro, Emilia, and Teberosky, Ana. 1983. Literacy Before Schooling. Exeter, NH and London: Heinemann.

Goodman, Yeta. 1986. "Children Coming to Know Literacy." In Emergent Literacy: Writing and Reading, ed. William Teale and Elizabeth Sulzby. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Olson, David. 1994. The World on Paper. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Sampson, Geoffrey. 1985. Writing Systems. London: Hutchinson.

Snow, Catherine, and Ninio, Anat. 1986. "The Contracts of Literacy: What Children Learn from Learning to Read Books." In Emergent Literacy: Writing and Reading, ed. William Teale and Elizabeth Sulzby. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Strickland, Dorothy, and Morrow, Lesley M., eds. 1989. Emerging Literacy: Young Children Learn to Read and Write. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Strickland, Dorothy, and Morrow, Lesley M., eds. 2000. Beginning Reading and Writing. Newark, DE: International Reading Association and New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Teale, William, and Sulzby, Elizabeth, eds. 1986. Emergent Literacy: Writing and Reading. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Witehurst, Grover, and Lonigan, Christopher. 1998. "Child Development and Emergent Literacy." Child Development 69 (3):848872.

Emilia Ferreiro


A teacher asks students to find ways in which the stories "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "Chicken Little" are similar and ways they are different. A member of a book club compares last month's selection to the current month's. A book review includes some of the dialogue from the reviewed book. People leaving the movie theater after seeing Lord of the Rings comment that the book was better. The movie Pocahontas is criticized by historians for misrepresenting established historical events. In each of these examples, different texts are brought together, related to one another, or connected in some way. This juxtaposition of different texts is called intertextuality. Intertextuality occurs at many levels, in many forms, and serves a variety of functions; the foregoing examples reflect only a small subset of the possibilities.

Levels, Forms, and Functions of Intertextuality

Juxtapositions may occur at multiple levels including word or phrase, sentence or utterance, larger units of connected text such as a paragraph or stanza, and genre. Intertextuality can be created through the following means:

  • duplication (a string of words occurring in two texts such as occurs in quotation) and stylistic means (repetition of a stress, sound, or rhyme pattern across two or more texts)
  • naming and reference (as occurs in citations)
  • proximal association (as occurs among chapters in an edited book which are presumed to have some relationship to each other)
  • sequential association (an established sequence of related texts such as a reply to a letter or e-mail).

Intertextuality can be explicit or implied through a variety of literary devices (e.g., allusion, metonymy, synecdoche).

Intertextuality can be viewed as a function of social practices associated with the use of language. It is a social practice of scholars to refer to previous scholarly works through the use of quotations, citations, and bibliographies. The reading and use of book reviews, movie reviews, and similar texts can be viewed as social practices, which by definition are overt intertextual practices. Intertextuality can be created when an unexpected text occurs within a social practice. For example, if instead of receiving a report card at the end of a grading period, a student received a poem, part of the meaning of the poem would be from its placement in a particular social practice and its contrast with the genre of report card.

Locations of Intertextuality

A key question to ask about intertextuality is its location, because questions about location reveal different definitions and approaches to the analysis of intertextuality. Some scholars locate intertextuality in the text itself when explicit or implied reference is made to another text. The intertextual relationship exists whether or not it is detected by the reader and whether or not it was intended by the author of the text. From this perspective questions can be asked about how one text signals another text and what meaning is conveyed by the text through the intertextual reference.

A second location of intertextuality is in the person. As a person interacts with the target text (whether spoken, written, or electronic), the person brings to the interaction with the text previous texts and his or her experience with them. Some of these previous texts may be conversations, books, or other printed texts, narratives of personal experience, memories, and so forth. The person may use these previous texts to create meanings for the target text or to help with the process of comprehending the text. For example, previous experience in reading a mathematics text provides guidance and procedures for reading a new mathematics text. Because, for example, individuals have different background experiences and histories of encounters with conversational and written texts, the texts a particular person might bring to any interaction with a target text would vary. So too would their use of those texts. Other questions of interest pertain to understanding the cognitive processes involved in using texts from previous experiences.

Closely related to locating intertextuality in the person is locating intertextuality in the task. For example, an academic task might require a person to interact with multiple texts in order to understand some phenomenon, such as a historical event. In such a case, the task explicitly requires the use and juxtaposition of multiple texts. In some cases, multiple texts may even be provided as part of the presentation of the task. However, it may also be the case that the person addressing the task conceives of the task as involving multiple texts, whether or not it is an explicit part of the task. For example, a student given a literary text to explicate may conceive of the task as involving the juxtaposition of the target text, other texts written by the author, the teacher's lectures on the target text, and his or her previous efforts at explicating literary texts with the resultant teacher comments and grades. From this perspective, questions of interest concern the explicit and implicit intertextual demands made by the task and the interpretation of those demands. Interpretation reflects the person's representation of the task and its intertextual demands and are manifest in what and how texts are used to address the task. Questions can also be asked about the cognitive processes involved in the representation of the task and in its completion. There are interesting questions about the cognitive, affective, and social dimensions of the task, including their role in task interpretation and execution.

A fourth location of intertextuality is in the social practices of a community or social group. Over time, a social group establishes shared standards and expectations for what texts can and should be juxtaposed, and under what circumstances. That is, there are shared, abstract models for the use and juxtaposition of texts in particular types of situations. For example, in a court room, it is a shared social practice of lawyers and judges to interpret testimony and evidence in terms of previous court cases and a specific sets of legal documents (such as the U.S. Constitution). Within an academic discipline, there are specific intertextual practices and these vary from discipline to discipline. For example, in scholarly publications in the social sciences it is customary to cite previous work on the topic of interest. In writing a novel, however, authors do not cite previous novels that have addressed similar themes. In classrooms, teachers and students establish shared intertextual practices for engaging in academic work. For example, there are shared intertextual practices for completing worksheets (e.g., using the text book to answer the worksheet questions), for studying for tests, for writing an essay, and so on.

Although individuals enact intertextual practices, what they are enacting is an abstract model that has evolved over time. As such, the material environment that people encounter may be structured to facilitate certain intertextual practices and inhibit others. For example, many scholastic literature texts are organized to facilitate genre study and the comparison of texts within a particular genre. They do not foster comparison of texts across genre (e.g., poems and short stories). Textbooks often have end-of-chapter questions that refer readers to material in that chapter, but which do not ask readers to use information from previous chapters. From the perspective of intertextuality as located in social practices of communities and groups, questions can be asked about the intertextual demands of the social practices that make up an institution such as schooling and how various intertextual practices came to be associated with particular social institutions.

A fifth location of intertextuality is in the social interaction of people in an event. As people interact with each other they propose intertextual links, acknowledge the proposals, recognize the intertextual links, and give the intertextual links meaning and social consequence. That is, intertextuality is socially constructed as people act and react to each other. In classroom conversations, a teacher may propose an intertextual link between a story the class is reading, a movie being shown at a local theater, and a mural in the surrounding community. But the proposed intertextuality does not become actualized until the students acknowledge that an intertextual link has been made, recognize the story, the movie, and the mural and the potential connections among them, and give meaning and consequence to those connections. As people interact with each other, the proposed intertextual link may be negotiated and transformed such that the construction of intertextuality is a joint accomplishment shared by all involved in the event. From this perspective, questions can be asked about the interpersonal processes involved in proposing, ratifying, and giving meaning and consequence to intertextuality.

The multiple locations of intertextuality reflect, in part, different disciplinary perspectives on intertextuality, as suggested by the kinds of questions proposed for each location. Cognitive perspectives tend to locate intertextuality either in the text, in the person, or in the task; social, anthropological, and related perspectives tend to locate intertextuality in social, cultural, and historical practices; perspectives associated with sociolinguistic ethnography and symbolic interactionism tend to locate intertextuality in the social interaction of people in an event. Regardless of perspective, intertextuality is inherent to every use of language whether written or spoken, verbal, or graphic. It is ubiquitous in education, in every classroom conversation, instructional task, curriculum guide, educational policy document, and debate. What may be less obvious about intertextuality is the impact it has on delimiting texts that may be juxtaposed as well as establishing participation roles, rights, and responsibilities for interacting with texts. This aspect of intertextuality can be discussed in terms of power relations.

Intertextuality and Power Relations

Two kinds of power relations associated with intertextuality can be distinguished for heuristic purposes. The first concerns the establishment of boundaries on the set of texts that may be intertextually related in any specific instance. Through historical practice, some authority, material circumstances, or simply the limitations of a person's experience, boundaries are placed on what texts may be candidates for juxtaposition. For example, consider the set of texts that may be considered for a high school course on American literature. It is unlikely that folk songs, rap music, personal journals of ordinary people, or comic books would be considered as possible candidatesmuch less be included in the course. By establishing particular boundaries some texts and the ideas, people, places, and ideologies they represent are centralized, others are marginalized. However, these boundaries can be crossed; indeed, the Norton Anthology of African American Literature includes folk songs, rap music, and a compact disc of oral performances, and the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature includes a comic-book-like entry.

The second kind of power relations related to intertextuality concerns intertextual participation rightswho gets to make what intertextual links, when, where, how, and to what social consequence. Intertextual rights are not necessarily distributed equally or equitably. Consider a classroom example. A low-achieving student might propose an intertextual link between a novel being read in a class and a rap song. The teacher might dismiss the proposed intertextual link simply because the low-achieving student proposed it. A high-achieving student might make a similar intertextual proposal that is accepted by the teacher and other students. Precisely because intertextuality is ubiquitous in academic and social practices, severely circumscribed and differentially distributed participation rights have important consequences for individuals, the institutions within which they may operate, and the ways in which they operate within those institutions.

The Educational Significance of Intertextuality

In many ways, teachers and researchers have been using the construct of intertextuality without naming it. Teachers often ask students to relate one text to another, and researchers are often interested in how various conversations and written texts have been juxtaposed. Thus, the explicit naming of intertextual processes and attention to them can be seen as an attempt to create systematic inquiry about intertextuality and to build an understanding of its nuances and consequences.

Recognition of the ubiquitous nature of intertextuality provides educational researchers with a set of heuristics for analysis of classroom conversations, reading processes, writing processes, instructional practices, and assessment practices. Similarly, attention to intertextuality can lead to redesign of curriculum in reading, language arts, literature studies, and social studies. Emphasis can be placed on ways to create understanding and meaning through intertextuality rather than the current emphasis on understanding texts as if they stood alone. There is preliminary evidence to suggest that such an emphasis increases academic achievement, although such increases are probably related to the ways in which texts are juxtaposed rather than simply juxtaposition. Attention to intertextuality also provides ways to enhance connections between academic texts and texts outside of the classroom, including community texts, workplace texts, and family texts.

See also: Literacy, subentries on Learning from Multimedia Sources, Multimedia Literacy; Reading, subentry on Learning from Text.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. "Discourse in the Novel" (1935). In The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist and trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Beach, Richard, and Anson, Chris. 1992. "Stance and Intertextuality in Written Discourse." Linguistics and Education 4:335358.

Bloome, David, and Egan-Robertson, Ann. 1993. "The Social Construction of Intertextuality and Classroom Reading and Writing." Reading Research Quarterly 28:303333.

Chametzky, Jules; Felstiner, John; Flanzbaum, Hilene; and Hellerstein, Kathryn. 2001. Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. New York: Norton.

Gates, Henry Louis, and McKay, Nellie Y. 1997. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: Norton.

Hartman, Doulas. 1992. "Intertextuality and Reading: The Text, the Author, and the Context." Linguistics and Education 4:295312.

Kamberelis, George, and Scott, Karla. 1992. "Other People's Voices: The Co-Articulation of Texts and Subjectivities." Linguistics and Education 4:359404.

Lemke, Jay. 1992. "Intertextuality and Educational Research." Linguistics and Education 4:257268.

Rowe, Deborah. 1994. Preschoolers as Authors: Literacy Learning in the Social World of the Classroom. Cresskil, NJ: Hampton.

Short, Kathy. 1992. "Researching Intertextuality within Collaborative Classroom Learning Environments." Linguistics and Education 4:313334.

David M. Bloome

Susan R. Goldman


The predominant means of instruction has traditionally been through verbal medium, either as spoken lecture or written text. As more instructional resources of many different media types become available to students through the Internet, there is a need for educators to understand when these sources may be used effectively for instruction, as well as a need for students to develop an additional set of literacy skills in order to learn from these sources. Although there is much optimism that multimedia sources will be a great tool for instruction, research in cognitive science has demonstrated that the use of these resources does not always lead to better learning. It is important to recognize the potential cognitive implications of multimedia presentations, including text, graphics, video, audio, and virtual reality simulations. Multimedia has been incorporated into instructional materials in a variety of ways: decoration, illustration, explanatory simulation, and "situating" simulation. The first three uses may be best thought of as adjuncts to a verbal lesson, while in the final use, the entire "lesson" is embedded and conveyed by situating the learner in a virtual context.


Often multimedia is used to decorate text, with the goal of making the text more interesting for the reader. A second use for multimedia, illustration or description, can be used to help a reader visualize a place or time or object. A third use of multimedia involves the explanation or explication of concepts. Especially in complex domains, understanding often requires that learners develop a dynamic mental model of phenomena or processes. Multimedia animations, narrations, and diagrams have all been used to support the understanding of complex subject matter by illustrating or highlighting important relations, thereby attempting to convey a correct mental model directly to the student.

Improved Learning

One reason why multimedia might be expected to lead to improved learning is consistent with a constructivist approach that posits that conditions that make knowledge acquisition more self-directed and active are beneficial for student understanding. The presentation of loosely connected texts and images in hypermedia environments allow learners to navigate information with more flexibility. At the same time, in order to build coherence, students must construct their own elaborations, inferences, and explanations. Thus, there has been reason for optimism surrounding the benefits of learning from hypermedia.

Another reason one might expect benefits from illustrated text and multimedia presentation in general is that it allows for information to be represented in multiple ways (i.e., both verbal and visual). A great deal of previous research within cognitive psychology, such as that of Allan Paivio in 1986, has suggested that the more codes one has for a given memory, the more likely one is to remember that information. Multiple media may also make the learning experience more vivid or distinctive. And, given the different preferences of different learners, multimedia may allow learners to choose the code best suited to their abilities.

A related reason why multimedia, and graphics in particular, may improve learning is that some particular domains may lend themselves to visual presentation, such as when information is inherently spatial. For instance, learning about different ecologies and climate zones may benefit greatly from the presentation of a map. Further, even when the understanding of the subject matter does not require a visual representation, images can still facilitate understanding if the image provides the basis for an abstract model of the content of the text. Figures, graphs, or flow charts that may allow the reader to think about abstract concepts and relations through images support the creation of more complete mental models and as a consequence may improve comprehension of text. Also, when subject matter is as complex and dynamic as streams of data from weather satellites or space stations, then visuals and animations may be especially important. Similarly, visual or audio representations (sonitizations) of complex data can give human thinkers the ability to consider many more dimensions, and the salient relationships between those dimensions, than they might otherwise.

Finally, it should not be overlooked that instructional materials with visual or audio adjuncts are simply more interesting to readers than plain text. Such motivational issues may contribute to advantages in learning with any multimedia presentation.


With all these potential benefits of images, it is perhaps surprising that since the 1960s, the empirical results on learning from illustrated text have been less than positive. In a 1970 review of studies using illustrated texts, Spencer Jay Samuels found little support for the superiority of illustrated text over plain text. In fact, in some cases illustration leads to poorer learning than simple text presentation. Follow-up investigations suggest that one reason for the lack of a consistent positive effect of images on learning is that any learning effect depends greatly on the kind of image that is used. In a 1987 review of Joel Levin and colleagues that discriminated between decorative illustrations, and conceptually-relevant images, decorative illustrations were found to lead to the smallest improvements and sometimes negative effects in learning. Decorative illustrations are often not relevant for the concepts that are described by the text, yet they are still interesting for the reader, and will attract the reader's attention. For this reason, interesting but irrelevant illustrations can be seen as part of a larger class termed seductive details as coined by Ruth Garner and colleagues, and others. Similarly, color, sound effects, and motion are preattentive cues that necessarily attract a reader's focus. If they are not used to emphasize conceptually important information, they too can seduce the reader.

Even when images are relevant for understanding the target concept, there is a further danger that images or animations can make learners overestimate their level of comprehension. People tend to feel that a short glimpse of an image is generally sufficient for understanding. This can lead to an illusion that they understand a graphic or image, even when they have not really engaged in deeper thought about the information. Further, students are notoriously bad at comprehending complex graphics, especially data-related charts or figures, and will interpret the data in support of their own ideas.

Another danger with images and especially animations, is that they can provide so much information so easily that although the reader is able to grasp a basic idea of "how" a dynamic system works, a good understanding of "why" the system works the way it does is lacking (i.e., they are unable to recreate the system or apply their knowledge to a new instance). This effect has in fact been demonstrated in several studies. The research of Mary Hegarty and colleagues, and other research, indicated that still pictures, or still sequences of pictures, in which the reader needs to infer movement for themselves, led to better understanding of dynamic systems than animations that actually show the motions. Similarly, animations that are reproductions of real-world actions are more effective if they are "doctored" to emphasize important features of the display. And, animations that are stoppable and restartable under the learner's control may lead to better learning than real-time simulations. However, images that provide readers with the basis of a mental model, and animations that show the dynamics of a model, may be especially important for people who lack knowledge and spatial ability. Finally, even conceptually relevant adjuncts run the risk of distracting the learner, and they need to be presented in a way that does not compete with the processing of the text. A number of studies, such as the work of Wolfgang Schnotz and Harriet Grzondziel, have shown that students learn better from diagrams and animated graphics when they were presented separately from text. Alternatively, learning from multimedia has been supported by structured computer learning environments, where different media and sources are presented to students, but students are given instruction both in how to use the environment, and are given a specific learning goal.

Other multimedia adjuncts have been studied, most notably narrations and sound effects. The bottom line from these investigations is that narrations only benefit learning when they are nonredundant with text. However, narrations may be especially helpful for poorer readers, especially when they accompany diagrams, and highlight the conceptually important features. Sound effects and music in general are distracting, and as adjuncts to text, they do not contribute to better conceptual learning. They do however help simulated environments seem more authentic, and may be helpful for situated learning and anchored instruction. Realistic sound effects may be especially important in skill learning environments. Similarly, in terms of conceptual learning, animations may help only when readers cannot generate mental models on their own, although realistic video may help when learning a procedural task and also in "situating" contexts.

The Simulation of Reality

The final use of multimedia considered here is where multimedia is used, not as an adjunct to verbal instruction, but more extensively as the entire means of presentation. In these lines of application, multimedia is used to simulate reality, through video and audio streams, to produce a sense of learning "in context." This may be especially important in skill-training environments, when learning in an actual cockpit or surgical operating room would be unsafe and costly. In more academic domains, simulations can give students the feel of an authentic experience, and both situated learning and anchored learning approaches have attempted to capitalize on this advantage of multimedia presentation. Another application of multimedia simulation is the creation of artificial agents that can act as tutors or peers. The presence of an interactive human-like entity may be an especially important coaching tool, and multimedia simulation may make such tutoring experiences more effective than feedback or prompts that appear in text messages. Simulations may also be used to support distance education and collaboration, again by providing a sense of real "co-presence" to the users.

Virtual reality is the ultimate multimedia tool, combining realistic video and audio streams (i.e., three-dimensional), and sometimes even tactile experience. Here, the potential exists to convey an understanding of new concepts in ways that surpass real experience, and many have heralded virtual reality as a powerful educational tool. Most researchers refer to the multisensory-based sense of "presence" that virtual reality affords the user as the characteristic that separates it from other training approaches. Where procedural knowledge and visuo-spatial skills are concerned there seems to be support for this optimism. However, results on more academic subject matter understanding have been less convincing.

Most studies that have been performed on people's uses of virtual reality have included only self-report data that reflect the user's interpretation of her or his experience in the virtual environment, while fewer investigations include more direct measures of learning. Among the few virtual reality studies with learning measures, Chris Dede and colleagues examined in 1999 students' understanding of electromagnetic field concepts from a virtual environment called Maxwell World. Students in the virtual reality condition were better able to define concepts and demonstrate them in three-dimensional terms.

At the same time, pilot studies, such as those of Andrew Johnson and colleagues in 1999, on using virtual reality to promote understanding of astronomical physics concepts have found that the virtual reality environment can also be prone to seductive distractions. For example, to learn that the earth's shape is round, younger elementary school-age children engaged in a virtual reality game, which included traversing a spherical asteroid to gather objects. The students failed to exhibit a substantial and robust improvement in their understanding, presumably because of the distracting and nonrelevant aspects of the game.

It would seem that virtual reality would be a prime candidate to demonstrate the positive effects of multimedia sources on learning. Yet, virtual reality experiences are not easily translated into learning experiences, and the results of studies on the educational uses of virtual reality underscore the same principles as have been discussed above. Virtual reality may add value to educational contexts when real training is not possible, and where it goes beyond "realistic" experiences in ways that emphasize conceptual understanding.

As an Effective Strategy

As the nature of instructional materials changes to include more images, sounds, animations and simulations, it is important to recognize the conditions under which multimedia can be an effective learning tool, and that new literacy skills are needed to learn from those materials. Instead of being presented with a single message, multimedia learners are presented with many information sources on a topic, and those sources can represent a number of media. The sheer number of resources available through the Internet is enormous. The availability of so much information means that students have the ability to direct their own learning, by performing searches and selecting documents, evaluating sources of information, and allocating attention to images and animations, without being confined by the linear structure of a single text or lecture. Although this flexibility in the learning environment has been seen as an opportunity for more active student learning, it is clear that in order to learn from multimedia and electronic sources, students will likely need additional skills in searching, document evaluation, strategic reading, strategic understanding of graphics, and integrating information across sources, including the integration across text and graphics. A specific set of skills may also be necessary for learning in more immersive multimedia environments.

A recurrent question focuses on how multimedia helps learning. Some have suggested that positive effects due to multimedia may be simply due to the motivating effect of its novelty. Unfortunately the literature of the early twenty-first century contains few controlled studies and few tests of when multimedia helps understanding. Further research is needed to identify what conditions enable the best learning from multimedia, and what new literacy skills students will need to support that learning.

See also: Media and Learning; Literacy, subentry on Multimedia Literacy; Technology in Education.


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Dede, Chris. 1995. "The Evolution of Constructivist Learning Environments." Educational Technology 35:4652.

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Jennifer Wiley

Joshua A. Hemmerich


The term multimedia is among several terms that have been associated with literacy to emphasize that literacy extends beyond reading and writing the alphabetic code, and should include a variety of audiovisual forms of representation. Associating multimedia with literacy also highlights a belief among many scholars and educators that conceptions of literacy and how it is developed should not focus exclusively on printed materials, but should include electronic media that have moved into the mainstream of communication, especially at the end of the twentieth century. Implicit in these views is that research and practice related to literacy must be transformed to accommodate new ways of accessing, processing, and using information.

Related Concepts

Kathleen T. Tyner argued in 1998 that in the information age the concept of literacy has been simultaneously broadened and splintered into many literacies in part because "the all purpose word literacy seems hopelessly anachronistic, tainted with the nostalgic ghost of a fleeting industrial age" (p. 62). Associating the term multimedia with literacy is consistent with that trend, although it might be thought of as encompassing a diverse set of related and sometimes ill-defined terms used in scholarly, and often popular, discourse. For example, related terms highlighting media and forms that go beyond the alphabetic code include media literacy, visual literacy, technological literacies, metamedia literacies, and representational literacy. Broader terms, such as the following, might also be included in this set because they typically acknowledge the role of diverse media and new technologies in broadening conceptions of literacy: multiliteracies, information literacies, critical literacy, and even the negatively stated term cultural illiteracy. Narrower terms such as computer literacy and neologisms such as numeracy also reflect expanding views of literacy, but such terms focus on specific skills and abilities.

Past and Present Conceptions

Broadening the scope of literacy, specifically in relation to diverse media, is not entirely a phenomenon of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Interest in how new media might affect conceptions of literacy can be traced to the widespread use of electronic audiovisual media such as television and film in the first half of the twentieth century. For example, Edgar Dale, well known among a earlier generation of educators and researchers for his work related to literacy, discussed the need for critical reading, listening, and observing in contending with the new literacies implied by audiovisual media of the 1940s.

Nonetheless, beginning in the latter decades of the twentieth century, the impetus for broadening the scope of literacy has been the increasing integration of digital technologies into the mainstream of everyday communication and the inherent capability of those technologies to blend diverse modes of representation. New modes of digital communication exist not only in parallel with conventional printed forms, but they have replaced or moved to the margins conventional forms of reading and writing. For example, the obsolescence of the typewriter, the ascendance of e-mail as the preferred alternative to diverse forms of correspondence on paper, the emergence of the Internet as a prominent cultural phenomenon, and the appearance of the electronic book represent a steady yet incomplete and unpredictable progression away from conventional printed forms. Likewise, students in the early twenty-first century routinely encounter digital information employing diverse audiovisual media presented in formats that are more interactive and dynamic than printed texts, although those encounters have been more likely to occur outside the school, as revealed in a national survey sponsored by Education Week in 2001.

Nonetheless, the opportunities for seeking out and creating such texts in schools have grown steadily. For example, the availability and use of the Internet, applications for creating digital documents and presentations, and similar digital activities has increased substantially since the mid-1990s. The parallel increase of electronic texts in academia, which includes electronic versions of dissertations and the gradual recognition of electronic journals as respected outlets for rigorous scholarship, suggests a continued expansion of multimedia forms into the mainstream of literate activity at all academic levels.

A further impetus to broadening the scope of literacy in relation to multimedia is the shift from viewing literacy primarily as a set of isolated, minimal, functional skills for reading and writing in schools: Literacy is a much larger sociocultural phenomenon that has implications for personal agency and for a nationalistic competitiveness and globalization. The imperatives for literacy, the definitions of its importance in world of the early twenty-first century, and the ideas about how it might best be developed have changed rapidly in both a technological and a sociocultural sense. Multimedia literacy, and the constellation of contemporary literacies that it encompasses, implies a broad conception of educational imperatives and an understanding that digital transformations of reading and writing go far beyond the development of technological competence.

Thus, multimedia means can be thought of as an orientation of perspectives and values about a variety of literate activities across the sociocultural spectrum. For example, in law and ethics it may mean a transformation of concepts such as plagiarism, intellectual property, and copyright. In government and politics it may mean a transformation of the possibilities for shaping or controlling public opinion through the dissemination of information. In economics it may mean a transformation of commerce and how people purchase goods and services and how they manage their personal finances. In mass communication it may mean the transformation of how news organizations gather and disseminate information and who has access to it. In popular culture it may mean a transformation of the pragmatics of writing and reading texts such as determining what is acceptable and unacceptable when using e-mail. In education it may mean a transformation in what is considered a text, how texts are written and used, and ultimately perhaps the goals of education and the roles of teachers and students. Such potential transformations and how they might be accommodated in educational endeavors define the broad imperatives for considering literacy in terms of multimedia.

Theory and Research

On a theoretical plane, it is challenging to define precisely the relation between multimedia and literacy. What exactly comprises literacy has always been debatable and has increasingly been so in light of sociocultural perspectives. But, defining precisely what is meant by the term multimedia is equally challenging. That challenge is reflected in what might be considered a grammatical redundancy or, at least, an ambiguousness. Media is technically a plural form of the word medium, making multimedia somewhat redundant in a literal sense. Yet, media in popular usage has become a collective noun that originated in the field of advertising to designate agencies of mass communication. Whereas considering multimedia in relation to literacy may include an understanding and critical analysis of mass media in the collective sense, it implies much more in light of the digital forms of representation. That is, digital forms of representation often blend what might intuitively seem to be individual media into combinations heretofore not possible or feasible. Doing so, however, begs the question of where the boundaries are between media. Put another way, what precisely is a medium? Is a medium elemental in terms of a perceptual mode? That is, might audio and visual presentations be different media? Or, is a medium defined in terms of its technological materiality? That is, the writing of a conventional essay with pen, pencil, typewriter, or word processor employs the use of distinctly different media with potentially different effects. Or might a medium be defined in terms of technological capabilities? That is, a picture or video on a television and computer screen may be identical in appearance, but they are not necessarily equal in their potential opportunities for viewer interaction, and might, thus, be considered different media. Or, does identifying an individual medium require considering all these differences in some illdefined way? Addressing these and similar questions and issues may be important in translating how literacy might be seen in terms of multimedia into agenda for practice and for research. In other words, knowing what a medium is and what individual media, if any, comprise a means of communication seem fundamental to understanding literacy from the perspective of multimedia and how such literacy might be developed.

In 1979 Gavriel Salomon offered a well-developed and often-cited theory of media and learning relevant to these questions and issues, and it illustrates the type of theory that might be useful. It is useful in part because it transcends more superficial, popular definitions of media that are linked to longstanding forms of communication, and it more readily recognizes and accommodates rapid changes in the technologies of communication. In his scheme a medium can be defined, and thus analyzed and reflected upon, as a configuration of four elements: symbol systems, technologies, contents, and situations. Symbol systems and the technologies used to present them are intertwined and critical because they define the cognitive requirements for extracting information from a medium and consequently what skills become necessary for those who wish to use the medium successfully. In this view, a conventional musical score and a topographical map are different media because they require different cognitive skills for extracting information. Symbol systems and technologies also importantly set the limits of the degree to which a medium can assist those who do not have the requisite skills to extract useful information. For example, Salomon demonstrated that the technological capabilities of the film camera (now also the video camera), specifically the capability to zoom in for a close-up, could increase attention to relevant detail among learners who had difficulty doing so on their own. Contents and situations, the remaining components that define a medium, are more socially defined correlates than necessary qualities of individual media. For example, textbooks rarely have overt advertisements (contents), although they could, and breaking news events are rarely viewed in a movie theater (situations), although they indeed used to be. Thus, among its other advantages, this theoretical perspective accommodates both cognitive and sociocultural dimensions of multimedia and literacy.

There are other relevant theoretical perspectives that might define multimedia and guide research. Research and practice in relation to multimedia literacy has frequently been ad hoc and atheoretical, however. Further, within mainstream literacy research there have been relatively few published studies guided by an awareness of new technologies and media. The body of research focusing on literacy is overwhelmingly aimed at the conventional use of printed materials. However, three studies illustrate the range of possibilities for research in this area and the type of approaches that may lead to important understandings about literacy in terms of multimedia, including learning from texts, integrating multimedia into instruction, and expanding students' sociocultural awareness of textual information. For example, in 1991 Mary Hegarty and colleagues used a cognitive perspective to demonstrate how students with low mechanical ability learned more from text describing a machine when its operation was animated on a computer screen than when it was shown as a series of static pictures in a conventional printed text. Ruth Garner and Mark G. Gillingham, using case studies, documented in 1996 how literate activity as well as the roles of teachers and students changed when e-mail and Internet access were introduced into classrooms. Jamie Myers and colleagues described in 1998 how involving students in creating multimedia hypertexts about literacy and historical figures such as Pocahantas led to a critical stance toward various sources of information.

Further Thoughts

For the early twenty-first century, considering literacy in terms of multimedia relates directly to important changes and trends in conceptions of literacy beginning in the late twentieth century. This perspective makes particularly poignant the shift from printed to digital texts and the implications of that shift for reconceptualizing literacy in light of new and diverse modes of communication. Yet, incorporating multimedia into conceptions of literacy remains imprecise and has yet to provide an unambiguous guide for theory, research, and practice.

See also: Literacy, subentry on Learning from Multimedia Sources; Media and Learning; Technology in Education.


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Salomon, Gavriel. 1979. Interaction of Media, Cognition, and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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internet resource

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David Reinking


Narratives convey causally and thematically related sequences of actual or fictional events. Narratives have a hierarchical schematic structure. At the highest level, they consist of a setting, a theme, a plot, and a resolution. The components of the setting are characters, a location, and a time. Thus, the typical opening sentence of a fairy-tale, "Once upon a time in a far-away kingdom, there was a princess who" conveys the setting in a nutshell, as does the more colloquial "Last night I was at a restaurant when". The theme can consist of a goal (the princess wanted to get married) or an event and a goal (a fire broke out at the restaurant and I was trying to call 911). The plot is a causally related sequence of events, usually describing the character's attempts to achieve his or her goal. The resolution describes the achievement of the character's goal. Of course, many literary narratives omit the resolution. An example is Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot (1953), whose main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for a third character, Godot, to arrive. But Godot never arrives, thus spawning decades of literary analysis about the meaning of the play. However, most stories exhibit the stereotypical structure described above.

Aristotle in Poetics identified the plot as the major organizing structure of narratives and admonished poets to describe events only when they are relevant to the plot, just as Homer had done centuries before them. They were to refrain from giving a blow-by-blow chronological account of an episode. This Aristotle considered to be the province of historians.

Cohesion and Coherence in Narratives

In order to make sense, narratives need to be cohesive and coherent. Two successive sentences are said to be cohesive when they share information, as indicated by linguistic markers, such as pronouns or connectives. Thus, the sentence pair in (1) is cohesive because the pronoun he in the second sentence refers back to the runner mentioned in the first sentence.

(1) The runner jumped over the puddle. He did not want to get his feet wet.

On the other hand, the sentence pair in (2) is not cohesive; there is no word in the second sentence that directly refers back to the first.

(2) The runner jumped over the puddle. It is unpleasant to get your feet wet.

Yet, sentence pair (2) does seem to make sense: The second sentence provides a motivation for the action in the first sentence. Thus, the two sentences can be connected by generating a bridging inference. A sentence pair like (2) is said to be locally coherent. Now consider sentence pair (3).

(3) The runner jumped over the puddle. Airplanes seldom leave on time.

This pair is neither cohesive nor locally coherent (i.e., it is not easy to generate a bridging inference). Thus, the connection between successive sentences can be established through cohesion markers or through bridging inferences (or a combination of the two). Is this sufficient to produce a coherent text? Consider the following passage.

The runner jumped over the puddle. There were some frogs in the puddle. Frogs are often used as characters in fairy tales. Fairy tales are narratives. This entry is about narratives.

Although this "text" maintains local coherenceeach sentence can be connected with its predecessorit lacks an overall point. Thus, an important characteristic of narratives is that they have an overarching point or theme. This is called global coherence.

Empirical Approaches to the Study of Narrative

Cognitive psychologists have been able to uncover a great deal about how people understand narratives by assessing, among other things, what people recall from a story, how quickly people read certain words or sentences, or how quickly they respond to probe words. For example, it is clear that people use their expectations about the stereotypical structure of stories when understanding a story. It is also clear that people make inferences about the motives behind characters' actions and about the causes of events when these are not explicitly stated in the text in order to establish both local and global coherence. Consider the two sentence pairs below.

(5) The spy threw the report in the fire. The ashes floated up the chimney.

(6) The spy threw the report in the fire. Then he called the airline.

In sentence pair (5) the bridging inference that the report burned is needed to establish local coherence between the two sentences, but in (6) no such inference is needed because of the cohesive link between spy and he. In experiments, participants respond more quickly to the probe word burn after sentence pair (5) than after sentence pair (6), suggesting that the inference about the report burning was activated during the reading of (5) but not during the reading of (6).

There is a wealth of evidence that comprehenders do more than simply generate bridging inferences to connect sentences. What they do is construct mental representations of the situations that are described in the text, situation models, rather than just mental representations of the text itself. Consider sentence pairs (7) and (8).

(7) Mike started playing the piano. A moment later, his mother entered the room.

(8) Mike stopped playing the piano. A moment later, his mother entered the room.

Participants in experiments responded more quickly to the probe word playing after sentences such as (7) than after sentences such as (8). The reason for this is that in (7) Mike is still playing the piano after his mother has entered, whereas in (8) he is not. Thus, in (7) playing the piano is still part of the situation, but in (8) it is not. If the subjects were merely constructing representations of the texts, no difference should have been found, given that the word playing appeared in both texts.

Narrative Production as a Window into Comprehension

Writing involves cognitive operations that are the result of thinking, such as collecting information, generating ideas, turning these ideas into written text, and reviewing the text for its meaningfulness. In narratives, the thoughts, perceptions, fantasies, and memories of the writer are incorporated in a coherent narrative structure, either in oral or written language.

Knowledge of the prototypical structure of a mode of discourse is important for its construction and comprehension. A narrative about a major disaster, such as the explosion of the Challenger shuttle, will be written and processed in a different manner than a newspaper article about it. Whereas a newspaper article will focus on the facts, a narrative would include other elements, such as a plot and a narrator or a character-based perspective leading the reader through the sequence of events. The comprehension strategies of a narrative or a newspaper article about the explosion will be different as well, with a stronger focus on stylistic aspects and smaller focus on criteria of truth when using literary comprehension strategies than when using expository text comprehension strategies.

Although the boundaries between narratives and other forms of discourse are not clear-cut, narratives share certain features, such as a narrative structure that enables the reader to seek meaning and generate meaning from the narrative, and a potential to have an emotional impact on the reader or listener.

Affective and Esthetic Aspects of Narrative Comprehension and Production

Most narratives possess a dramatic quality that is created from an imbalance between narrative components, for instance different characters with opposing goals or a sequence of events leading to a tragic outcome for one of the characters. The dramatic quality as well as the style of the narrative will draw the reader into a convincing fictional world of goals, emotions, and motivations. Narrative style will stir the reader's imagination. For example, foregrounding of narrative elements, such as references to the devil in Elizabeth Bowen's The Demon Lover (1959), will aid the reader in imagining the true nature of the relationship between the main characters.

An imbalance in the sequence of events can affect the emotional response of the reader, in particular suspense, curiosity, and surprise. According to the structural affect theory, suspense is evoked by postponing the narrative's outcome, thereby creating uncertainty for the reader on the issue of what is going to happen next in the narrative. Curiosity arises when the outcome of the narrative is presented before the preceding events, whereas surprise occurs as a result of an unexpected event in the narrative, such as the sudden appearance of the pawn-broker's half-sister when Raskolnikov kills the pawnbroker in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866).

The kinds of emotions that readers experience while reading or listening to a narrative can be the result of being drawn into the fictional world of the narrative and identifying with the characters. These emotions are called "fictional emotions." Reader emotions can also be the result of analyzing and appreciating the narrative structure and techniques, called "artifact emotions" by Eduard Tan. The overall enjoyment of reading the narrative is based on both types of emotions. Narrative techniques, in particular switches in the role of narrators, can be used to make the reader go from observation to identification in different parts of the narrative or throughout the narrative.

Comparisons of Narratives in Different Cultures

Apart from being entertaining, many narratives also reflect moral values as a commentary on a society, include the preservation of events central to a culture, or aim to create an identity of a group. A culture is a shared perspective regarding ways of life and symbolic systems maintained within a social group. Narratives can help to establish an identity in a multicultural context, such as postmodernist literature, or preserve or create a group's identity within one culture, such as feminist poetry or Navajo narratives. Group identity is especially important for minority groups within a multicultural society. These groups share common interests and customs that act as a basis for constructive memory to be passed on to future generations.

The preservation of cultural elements from a group and the manner in which they are delivered can be one focus of narratives in cultural groups. Many Native American narratives preserve and transfer cultural traditions and tribal discourse through oral techniques of pause, pitch, and tempo. Another focus of narratives in cultural groups is the reflection of moral and aesthetic values within those groups. This can be the result of exclusionary mechanisms from a dominant cultural group that urges minority cultures to develop their own means of literary production and aesthetic norms with their own unique features. The incorporation of blues lyrics in African-American poetry is unique to that group, as is the inclusion of the native or modified language into poems and narratives in Chicano, Caribbean, and African-American cultures.

Narrative production and reception in one culture will strengthen and preserve the aesthetic norms and traditions within that culture. For individuals from other cultures, reading or listening to these narratives may help to translate these specific cultural elements into their own experiences and provide a better understanding of cultures and cultural issues other than their own, such as the dual personality issue in Chinese-American and Japanese-American culture. The narrative structure and the elicitation of fictional and artifact emotions will help this process. As Eileen Oliver suggests, part of the reception process may be that readers and listeners become more aware of the dynamics of cultural exchange in which assimilation, retention, and transformation of new cultural features are in constant progress.

See also: Literacy and Reading; Reading, subentries on Comprehension, Reading from Text.


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Rolf A. Zwaan

Katinka Dijkstra


How does one help students learn vocabulary? Solutions take two general directions: one focuses on learning word meanings from context through wide reading and the other on the need for direct instruction about word meanings.

What Is Known and How to Know It

The divergent recommendations of wide reading versus direct instruction derive from different assumptions about the extent of vocabulary knowledge, that is, how many words children typically know, and how readily new words are learned. For example, rapid word learning and large vocabularies would indicate a lesser role for instruction, while slower growth would indicate need for intervention.

Vocabulary size and growth. A key issue is that estimates of vocabulary size vary widely. For example, estimates of total vocabulary size for first graders have ranged from about 2,500 (Edward Dolch and Madorah E. Smith) to about 25,000 (Burleigh Shibles and Mary Katherine Smith), and for college students from 19,000 (Edwin Doran and Edwin Kirkpatrick) to 200,000 (George Hartmann).

Situations with such wide variations make it impossible to simply ask people how many words they know, so estimates must be based on testing people's word knowledge of a sample of words and extrapolating to a final figure. To construct such tests, decisions must be made about what is taken as evidence of knowledge of a word, what constitutes a single word (e.g., should individuals who know the word walk be credited with knowing the word walking? ), and how a sample of words is chosen to represent the language. All these decisions open the door to wide discrepancies in vocabulary size estimations.

Work on what constitutes a word and on techniques for constructing a language sample have helped bring estimates into greater agreement. Consequently, estimates in the early twenty-first century place vocabulary size for five-to six-year-olds at between 2,500 and 5,000 words. But although the problems of older work on vocabulary size are understood, there are (as of 2001) no recent, large-scale studies that correct these problems.

Estimates of vocabulary size at different ages are also used to estimate rates of vocabulary growth. Specific estimates of vocabulary growth, not surprisingly, vary widely, from three (Martin Joos) to twenty new words per day (George Miller). A figure of seven words per day is probably the most commonly cited.

Whatever the reality, it is certain that there are wide individual differences in both vocabulary size and growth. Studies have found profound differences among learners from different ability or socioeconomic groups, from toddlers through high school. For example, Mary Katherine Smith reported that high-knowledge third graders had vocabularies about equal to lowest-performing twelfth graders. These differences, once established, appear difficult to ameliorate. This is because children whose backgrounds provide rich verbal environments not only learn more words initially, but they also acquire understanding about language that enables them to continue to learn words more readily.

Learning from context. Most word meanings are learned from context. This is true from the earliest stages of a child's language acquisition onward, but the type of context changes. Early learning takes place through oral context, while later vocabulary learning shifts to written context. Written context lacks many of the features of oral language that support learning new word meanings, features such as intonation, body language, and shared physical surroundings. Thus, written context is a less efficient vehicle for learning. Research shows that learning from written context occurs, but in small increments. Machteld Swanborn and Kees de Glopper estimate that of one hundred unfamiliar words met in reading, between three and eight will be learned. Thus, students could substantially increase vocabulary if two conditions are met. First, students must read widely enough to encounter a substantial number of unfamiliar words. Second, students must have the skills to infer word-meaning information from the contexts they read. The problem is that many students in need of vocabulary development do not engage in wide reading, especially of the kinds of books that contain unfamiliar vocabulary, and these students are less able to derive meaningful information from context. So depending on wide reading as a source of vocabulary growth could leave some students behind.

Direct instruction. The most commonly cited problem with direct instruction to address students' vocabulary needs is that there are too many words to teach. This is certainly true if the goal is to teach all the words in a language. Consider, however, a mature vocabulary as comprising three tiers. The first tier consists of basic wordsmother, ball, go that rarely require instructional attention. The third tier contains words of low frequency that are typically limited to specific domainsisotope, peninsula, refinery. These words are appropriate for specific needs, such as introducing the word peninsula during a geography lesson. The second tier contains high frequency, general words, such as compromise, extraordinary, and typical. Because of the large role tier-two words play in a language user's repertoire, instruction directed toward these could be valuable in contributing to vocabulary growth.

What kind of instruction should be offered? The answer depends on the goal. Typically, educators want students to know words well enough to facilitate reading comprehension and to use the words in their own speech and writing. Facilitating comprehension seems a reasonable goal, given the well-established relationship between vocabulary knowledge and comprehension. Although virtually all studies that present vocabulary instruction result in students learning words, few have succeeded in improving comprehension. In analyzing this discrepancy, researchers, such as Steven Stahl and Marilyn Fairbanks, found that to influence comprehension instruction needs to: (1) present multiple exposures of words; (2) involve a breadth of information, beyond definitions; (3) engage active processing by getting students to think about and interact with words.

Effective instruction should accomplish the following:

  • Begin with information about the word's meaning, but not necessarily a formal definition.
  • Immediately prompt students to use the word.
  • Keep bringing the words back in a variety of formal and informal ways.
  • Get students to take their word learning beyond the classroom.
  • Help students use context productively.

Status of Vocabulary Issues

Although there is general consensus on effective vocabulary instruction, little of this kind of instruction is found in classrooms. Attention to vocabulary in classrooms focuses on looking up definitions and perhaps writing sentences for new words. The typical dictionary definitions, however, do not promote students' learning of new word meanings. In fact, often students do not even understand the definitions of the words they look up. Thus it is important to implement what is known about effective instruction into classrooms.

Much about the way vocabulary is learned and stored in memory is still unknown. How much learning comes from oral contexts past initial stages of acquisition? How much do early learning experiences matter and is it possible for children who lag early to catch up? What characteristics of verbal environments are most useful for word learning? For example, what are the roles of the amount of talk in a child's environment, the kinds of words used, and interactions within the environment? How is word knowledge organized? Research makes it clear that a person's vocabulary knowledge does not exist as a stored list of words, but rather as networks of relationships. This leads to the question, how do these networks of word relationships affect how readily and how well words are learned?

To help students improve their vocabulary, it will be necessary to put into practice what is already known about vocabulary learning and evaluate and refine the results.

See also: Instructional Design, subentry on Direct Instruction; Literacy and Reading; Reading, subentries on Comprehension, Content Areas; Spelling, Teaching of.


Anglin, Jeremy M. 1993. Vocabulary Development: A Morphological Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Beals, Diane E., and Tabors, Patton O. 1995. "Arboretum, Bureaucratic, and Carbohydrates: Preschoolers' Exposure to Rare Vocabulary at Home." First Language 15:5776.

Beck, Isabel L., and McKeown, Margaret G. 1983. "Learning Words Well: A Program to Enhance Vocabulary and Comprehension." The Reading Teacher 36 (7):622625.

Beck, Isabel L., and McKeown, Margaret G. 1991. "Conditions of Vocabulary Acquisition." In Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 2, ed. Rebecca Barr, Michael L. Kamil, Peter Mosenthal, and P. David Pearson. New York: Longman.

Beck, Isabel L.; McKeown, Margaret G.; and Omanson, Richard C. 1987. "The Effects and Uses of Diverse Vocabulary Instructional Techniques." In The Nature of Vocabulary Acquisition, ed. Margaret G. McKeown and Mary E. Curtis. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Biemiller, Andrew. 1999. Language and Reading Success: From Reading Research to Practice, Vol.5. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Dolch, Edward William. 1936. "How Much Word Knowledge Do Children Bring to Grade 1?" Elementary English Review 13:177183.

Doran, Edwin W. 1907. "A Study of Vocabularies." Pedagogical Seminar 14:177183.

Goerss, Betty L.; Beck, Isabel L.; and McKeown, Margaret G. 1999. "Increasing Remedial Students' Ability to Derive Word Meaning from Context." Reading Psychology 20 (2):151175.

Graves, Michael F.; Brunetti, G. J.; and Slater, Wayne H. 1982. "The Reading Vocabularies of Primary-Grade Children of Varying Geographic and Social Backgrounds." In New Inquiries in Reading Research and Instruction, ed. Jerome A. Niles and Larry A. Harris. Rochester, NY: National Reading Conference.

Hart, Betty, and Risley, Todd. 1995. Meaningful Differences. Baltimore: Brookes.

Hartmann, George W. 1946. "Further Evidence on the Unexpected Large Size of Recognition Vocabularies among College Students." Journal of Educational Psychology 37:436439.

Joos, Martin. 1964. "Language and the School Child." Harvard Educational Review 34:203210.

Kirkpatrick, Edwin Asbury. 1891. "The Number of Words in an Ordinary Vocabulary." Science 18:107108.

Landauer, Thomas, and Dumais, Susan. 1997. "A Solution to Plato's Problem: The Latent Semantic Analysis Theory of Acquisition, Induction, and Representation of Knowledge." Psychological Review 104:211240.

McKeown, Margaret G. 1985. "The Acquisition of Word Meaning from Context by Children of High and Low Ability." Reading Research Quarterly 20:482496.

McKeown, Margaret G. 1993. "Creating Effective Definitions for Young Word Learners." Reading Research Quarterly 28:1631.

Meznski, Karen. 1983. "Issues Concerning the Acquisition of Knowledge: Effects of Vocabulary Training on Reading Comprehension." Review of Educational Research 53:253279.

Miller, George A. 1985. "Dictionaries of the Mind." Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguists. Chicago: Association for Computational Linguists.

Nagy, William; Herman, Patricia; and Anderson, Richard. 1985. "Learning Words from Context." Reading Research Quarterly 20:233253.

Shibles, Burleigh H. 1959. "How Many Words Does a First-Grade Child Know?" Elementary English 31:4247.

Smith, Madorah Elizabeth. 1926. "An Investigation of the Development of the Sentence and the Extent of Vocabulary in Your Children." University of Iowa Studies in Child Welfare 5:219227.

Smith, Mary Katherine. 1941. Measurement of the Size of General English Vocabulary through the Elementary Grades and High School. Provincetown, MA: The Journal Press.

Stahl, Steven A., and Fairbanks, Marilyn M. 1986. "The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction: A Model-Based Meta-Analysis." Review of Educational Research 56:7110.

Sternberg, Robert J. 1987. "Most Vocabulary Is Learned from Context." In The Nature of Vocabulary Acquisition, ed. Margaret G. McKeown and Mary E. Curtis. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Swanborn, Machteld S. L., and De Glopper, Kees. 1999. "Incidental Word Learning While Reading: A Meta-Analysis." Review of Educational Research 69 (3):261285.

Watts, Susan. 1995. "Vocabulary Instruction during Reading Lessons in Six Classrooms." Journal of Reading Behavior 27 (3):399424.

Margaret G. McKeown

Isabel L. Beck


Skills or process? Visible in the history of writing instruction is the same controversy found in the rest of the language arts. Historically, writing instruction focused on handwriting and on correctness of the product produced through emphasis on what are sometimes referred to as the mechanics of writing (i.e., sentence structure, spelling, correct punctuation, etc.) and on rules. Students were usually asked to write to assigned topics or for purposes such as essay exams. They were seldom asked to write for an audience other than the teacher and the quality of the writing was much more likely to be judged on the basis of the correctness of its content and mechanics than on style or creative expression of ideas.

Writing Process Instruction

Gradually research began to make visible the processes of writing. With the writing project movement in the mid-to late 1970s concern for teaching the writing process emerged as a strong force. In the early stages of that movement the process was often described in a linear fashion as a series of four steps: pre-writing, writing, editing, and revision. Over time those concerned with writing instruction came to recognize and acknowledge through instruction that real writing is a much more messy reflexive and recursive process. With this understanding came the push to encourage students to write on topics of their own choosing, write for their own purposes, and perhaps most significantly, write to real audiences. As with most swings of the educational pendulum, by the late 1980s writing instruction in some schools had reached an extreme point where students might write exclusively in the genre of their choice and where attention to mechanics was seldom taught and/or required, even in pieces for publication.

During the 1990s politicians and the public at large increasingly called for rigorous academic standards and writing instruction shifted once again. In the early twenty-first century, teachers of writing or composition typically try to balance their desire to have students engage in writing in which they are personally invested, with the challenges of attention to correctness issues and to writing in a range of genres. Often these demands are tied to distinguishing between private and public writing. When the intended reader is an audience other than the author, the needs and expectations of that reader must be addressed if the writer's work is to be positively received.

With these shifts in the view of the writing process came the realization that the idea that writing is writing is not valid. That is, each discipline, indeed each piece of writing, has its own demands in terms of genre, audience, purpose, situation, and even what is viewed as correctness. This realization, coupled with the belief that engaging in writing can influence cognitive development, led to the writing across the curriculum movement, resulting in pressure on all teachers, not just English or Language Arts teachers, to be teachers of writing. After all, which teacher is better prepared to help students develop the genre of lab report writing, the chemistry teacher or the English teacher? Accompanying this movement has been increased emphasis on tying reading and writing instruction together.

Technology As Tool

Within a decade of the emergence of the writing process movement, technology began to exert a significant influence on writing instruction. Early arguments centered around whether or not classrooms (especially elementary classrooms) should have a computer, and how or even if that computer should play a role in language arts instruction. Some argued for placing computers in one centralized lab, which students would visit as a whole class once or twice a week, rather than distributing computers across classrooms. Most of the educational software available by the mid-1980s provided little more than computerized versions of skill drills or workbook sheets, occasionally accompanied by programs to teach typing or rudimentary word processing. Even under these less than ideal circumstances, students and teachers recognized the potential of technology for contributing to the writing process. When one fourth grader was asked how the computer helped her to revise she stated succinctly, "you don't have to worry about the paper ripping." What she and others recognized was the power of technology to assist writers with the physical process of encoding their messages so that more time and effort could be given to the composing process.

While educators were arguing about if or how computer technology should affect classrooms, technology was continuing to evolve at a rapid pace and the accessibility of affordable computers outside the classroom soon rendered the argument moot. Children who came to school computer literate were supported by their parents in expecting (sometimes demanding) similar access at school. The impact on the school writing curriculum was profound, with computer literacy quickly becoming a major issue for both students and teachers.

As computers have become more affordable and pervasive in society at large they affect not just formal writing instruction in K12 schools, but also instruction in other educational venues. Adult education and community college programs offer a variety of classes and programs aimed at developing computer literacy in a wide range of students and for a huge variety of uses. Colleges and university now typically expect their students to be computer literate, even in some cases providing or requiring a personal computer for each entering student.

Technology in Development of Writing and Composition Skills

These new writing technologies provide new choices and, in some cases, have led to a shifting emphasis in the development of writing abilities. Where there previously was an emphasis on traditional (paperand ink-based) products and processes, there is now an emphasis toward an evolving set of products and processes enabled by electronic technologies. Handwriting is no longer an issue. To a large extent issues of mechanics (e.g., spelling, grammar) are taken care of by employing the computer as editor.

At the same time, shifting definitions of literacy have affected technology and software use in educational settings. Moving from the early days of computer drills and grammar checkers, to expressive freewriting or "invisible" writing on computer screens, to cognitive-based heuristic programs, to social functions of networked writing, technology use in writing instruction has mirrored the important theoretical and empirical approaches to teaching writing in traditional classrooms. This emphasizes a shift from viewing writing technology as a tool for delivering instruction to a technology that engages students as socially interactive participants. A new genre of writing with its own vocabulary and conventions has been born through such technology-related venues as e-mail, chat rooms, listservs, and MOOs (Multiple User Dimensions/Object Oriented, which arose out of online game-playing in text-based virtual reality environments). Writing in hypertext, with its ability to link writing through the click of a pointing device, is one example of this powerful new interactivity for writers and readers.

Traditional writing concerns such as understanding purpose and the importance of audience awareness have a renewed emphasis in technologically rich writing environments. Some teachers have successfully used technology to show students the importance of these traditional writing concerns in a writing environment with social relevance to students' lives. For example, discussions about audience naturally follow when writing is published on the Internet, whether to a known audience, as in personal e-mail, or a potentially unknown audience, as part of a website. Likewise, purposeful writing is given new importance when writers communicate with readers via electronic mail, electronic bulletin boards, synchronous discussion, or web siteshow readers interpret meaning in these contexts may shift, and students writing electronically need to carefully consider the crucial role of purpose in their writing.

Although issues of organization and style have always been important aspects of writing and composition (though sometimes underemphasized instructionally), technology provides a myriad of new options for writers to consider. Issues that previously were the concern of copy editors, publishers, and graphic artists have become the concern of authors. Developing writing skills in technologically rich environments may include elements of visual literacy skills, such as using graphics or integrated images within a text. Word processing and publishing software give developing writers the option, or in some cases the need, to learn about document design as it relates to writing. Composing in hypertext allows the writer to insert links from one part of a document to another, or if the document is made available online, writers can link to different texts and sites available over the network. Whether a document is composed on a word processor or marked-up for World Wide Web publication, writers are presented with previously unavailable choices of font styles, sizes, colors, and other symbols, including moving or still images and graphics. Writers can vary patterns of organization manipulating texts using electronic "cut and paste" tools, and writing in hypertext offers a nearly infinite number of organizational options controlled, in part, by the reader.

Taken together, these new choices and shifting emphases represent a changing literacy landscape. In this new context, writing instruction continues to evolve as the uses and processes of writing change.

See also: Technology in Education; Writing, Teaching of.


Bazerman, Charles. 1988. Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Flower, Linda, and Hayes, John. 1981. "A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing." College Composition and Communication 32:365387.

Graves, Donald. 1980. "Research Update: A New Look at Writing Research." Language Arts 57:913919.

Gray, James. 2000. Teachers at the Center: A Memoir of the Early Years of the National Writing Project. Berkeley, CA: National Writing Project.

Hairston, Maxine. 1982. "The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing." College Composition and Communication 33:7688.

Hawisher, Gail E. 1994. "Blinding Insights: Classification Schemes and Software for Literacy Instruction." In Literacy and Computers: The Complications of Teaching and Learning with Technology, ed. Cynthia L. Selfe, and Susan Hilligoss. New York: The Modern Language Association of America.

Hawisher, Gail; LeBlanc, Paul; Moran, Charles; and Selfe Cynthia. 1996. Computers and the Teaching of Writing in American Higher Education, 1979-1994: A History. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Murray, James. 1990. A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Twentieth-Century America. Davis, CA: Hermagoras.

Nessel, Denise; Jones, Margaret; and Dixon, Carol. 1987. Thinking Through the Language Arts. New York: Macmillan.

Carol N. Dixon

Christopher Johnston

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Extent of literacy

Evaluating literacy data

The meaning of literacy figures


Whenever the term “literacy” is used, a context is always implied. If the context is archeological, anthropological, or ethnographic, literacy usually refers to the cultural fact that writing has been invented and that the society contains a class, a caste, or an occupational group whose members keep accounts or preserve religious and moral precepts in written form or use writing for some other specific purpose. So used, literacy implies also the contrasting idea of preliteracy —a cultural stage in which writing has not yet been invented. The change from preliteracy to literacy—the spread of literate societies throughout the world—probably began in ancient Sumer during the fourth millennium B.C., through a gradual transition from pictography to the use of an alphabet.

If literacy is used in a historical or modern comparative context, then the implied contrast is with illiteracy. Literacy then refers to the degree of dissemination among a society’s population of the dual skills of reading and writing. Here a “literate” society is one in which most adult members can read and write at least a simple message. In this context, England, the United States, Sweden, Den-mark, the U.S.S.R., and Japan are among the literate societies, whereas Iraq, Haiti, and Nigeria, for example, can be called illiterate—or, at least, not yet literate—societies, even though they contain many highly educated persons.

Extent of literacy

As the great variation between countries with respect to illiteracy (Table 1) has become better known, concern about its consequences has greatly increased. For some, the existence of high levels of illiteracy detracts from the dignity of man and constitutes evidence of immense numbers of personal tragedies for the illiterate adults who are thereby prevented from escaping poverty and mental isolation. To others, illiteracy is primarily an obstacle to peaceful and friendly international relations and to democratic processes within countries. Still others are aware that low levels of literacy act as brakes on the advance of countries along the paths of social and economic development and political power. These concerns have brought on a variety of efforts to gather detailed information on the extent of literacy in the world’s countries and on the conditions under which the diffusion of literacy takes place.

From a world perspective, it is evident that in 1950, the latest date for which world-wide esti-mates are available, some 53 per cent of the world’s population aged 10 and over were able to read and write a simple sentence; that is, in 1950 there were at least 800 million illiterates above the age of 10. The dissemination of literacy skills that has taken place since then is unlikely to have raised the per-

Table 1 — Illiteracy in selected census countries, by continent0
a. The reader is cautioned against insisting too closely on comparisons between countries whose literacy rates fall within the same decile range. Moreover, rates taken from international sources such as UNESCO (1957) are not always identical with rates calculated from statistical compendia, because persons whose ages are unknown may be omitted or included in the age group 10 and over.
b. Only countries with rates above 10 per cent about 1950 have been included.
c. Population aged 15 and over.
d. Population aged 6 and over.
e. Data for 252 towns only, based on a 20 per cent sample; population aged 16 and over.
f. Population aged 5 and over.
Sources: Calculated from official data (census, statistical compendia, etc.) for each country, or from international sources such as UNESCO 1957 and Demographic Yearbook 1960, pp. 434 ff.
Gold Coast (Ghana)194892.0
Portuguese Guinea195098.5
Union of South Africa194655.3
South America  
North America 21.2
Costa Rica195022.1c
Dominican Republic195056.8
El Salvador195060.9
Malaya (incl. Singapore)194756.1
Table 2 — Illiteracy in the major world regions, 1930 and 1950, and in developed and under-developed countries, 1950
a. The figures given in this table represent the weighted average obtained by combining the official and estimated rates for all the countries within the geographical division.
b. Developed countries are those with less than 50 per cent of their economically active males in agricultural pursuits, including hunting, fishing, and forestry; underdeveloped countries are those with 50 per cent or more of their economically active males in these pursuits. For a rationale of this division, see Davis (1951b, p. 8).
c. Abel and Bond (1929, p. 51) give a world average of 62 per cent for around 1920.
Sources: For 1930 Davis 1948, p. 614; for 1950 revisions have been made of Golden 1955, p. 2; for another set of 1950 estimates, see UNESCO 1957, p. 15.
 All countriesDeveloped
North Americo422 
South Americo54421751
Middle America59482253

centage to 60 or to have decreased the number of illiterates very much below 800 million, since population has grown very rapidly in this period. But, as Table 2 shows, the 1950 level represented a considerable proportionate gain over 1920 and 1930.

The literacy revolution

The world’s transformation from largely illiterate to moderately literate began in the industrial nations of western Europe; the recent gains in world literacy reflect the entrance into this transition of an ever-increasing number of countries in many areas. As Table 1 shows, the differential spread of the literacy transition in 1950 suggests that today’s countries can be arranged along a literacy scale that exhibits a definite pattern. The lowest rates exist in those areas that have completed the transition; the highest, in areas such as Ghana, Iraq, or Haiti, in which the transition has hardly begun; and between these two extremes fall all those countries, such as India, Pakistan, Bolivia, Paraguay, Mexico, and the Philippines, which are in the midst of the transformation.

The transformation from preponderantly illiterate to literate in the world’s old industrial nations, which was accomplished in about 75 to 100 years, can be documented from official information and from estimates. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, although literacy and schooling were more general than is often realized (Anderson & Bowman 1965, p. 345), at least half the adult population of England and Wales was illiterate; in 1850 the pro-portion had probably dropped to about 45 per cent. By 1910 illiteracy had been largely eliminated, with perhaps 5 per cent of the adults still illiterate and these concentrated in the older age groups; in 1914 0.8 per cent of the men and 1.0 per cent of the women signed the marriage register by mark (for all these estimates, see UNESCO 1957, pp. 177 ff.).

The decline of illiteracy in countries entering the literacy transition later can be shown by information for the U.S.S.R., Italy, and Greece. In Russia illiteracy declined very rapidly—from about 76 per cent in 1897, according to official census figures, to about 2 per cent in the early 1960s in the population aged 9 and over (United Nations, Statistical Office 1963, p. 312). In Italy and Greece the transition has been slower. In Italy, illiteracy among marriage registrants declined from 65.8 per cent in 1872 to 3.3 per cent in 1951 (UNESCO 1957, p. 169); illiteracy among persons 10 and over fell from 75 per cent, according to the 1861 census, to about 8 per cent, according to the 1961 census. In Greece illiteracy in the population aged 8 years and over declined from 60 per cent in 1907 to about 25 per cent in 1951 (UNESCO 1957, p. 90).

Because the world’s transformation from illiterate to moderately literate had its start in the West and has been completed primarily in the world’s urban-industrial countries, these nations have a disproportionate share of the world’s literate population (Table 2). In some major areas of the world, such as India, Pakistan, and Egypt, the proportion of the adult population that is illiterate is still very high. In India the illiteracy rate for the population aged 10 and over declined from 95 per cent in 1881 to about 70 per cent in 1961, according to the 1961 census (Demographic Yearbook, 1964, p. 698). Whereas the decline of illiteracy in Pakistan and Egypt has followed about the same pattern as in India, some areas, such as Haiti, Mozambique, and Ghana (Table 1) have hardly begun the transition. Even the breakdown by continents understates the concentration of the literate population, because within both Asia and Africa the literate population is mainly in a few countries or in cities. For example, in 1950 Japan—the major highly literate nation of Asia exclusive of the U.S.S.R.—had only 6 per cent to 7 per cent of Asia’s total population but at least 20 per cent of its adult literates. Future literacy gains for the world as a whole depend, then, very heavily on the degree to which the highly illiterate countries of the world become involved in this educational transformation.

Evaluating literacy data

Official literacy information can often be obtained from enumerations of total populations (census counts), though sometimes it is based on marriage registers, on tests given to military recruits, or on sample surveys. The results of these enumerations are usually made available in official sources. While minor census inaccuracies can rarely be detected, major inaccuracies in literacy enumeration are discoverable through careful evaluation or by check through independent estimates. For example, because past school enrollment rates for all countries correlate moderately highly with present literacy rates, for a specific country past enrollment rates provide one means of checking the accuracy of census results on literacy.

Definitions of literacy

Census definitions of literacy usually refer to the minimum level of literacy skills; hence they are relatively simple and clear. Yet they still differ slightly from country to country because the instructions to enumerators incorporate somewhat different conceptions of what constitutes the minimum level. In India, for example, government statisticians have instructed enumerators to count as literate only those who have the ability to read and write a simple message in any language, a definition proposed by the United Nations Population Commission. When these instructions are carried out by local school-teachers, few persons are likely to be counted as literate who do not have the minimum skills. In 1930 Finland applied perhaps the strictest minimum definition: only those persons were classified as literate who passed a rather difficult test. Those who failed were divided into two categories, the semiliterates, that is, persons who could read and write but made orthographic errors, and the illiterates, who could neither read nor write (UNESCO 1957, p. 29). By contrast, in the Hong Kong census of 1961 (as in many others) a person who said that he was able to read a language was assumed by inference also to be able to write it and was classified as literate. The acceptance of what the enumerator is told may result in inflating the percentage literate or, in some special cases, lowering this percentage (Davis 195la, p. 151).

Literacy proportions

Because of differences in definition and in enumeration procedure, no actual figure or proportion can be accepted with complete certainty for any area; however, for word-wide comparisons and analyses of literacy, we can profitably use a given proportion as an indicator of the literacy level achieved by a country. The use of literacy proportions as indicators makes it easier to take advantage of literacy proportions available from enumerations of such segments of the population as marriage registrants or recruits. For example, in the 1930s the proportions obtained by each of these enumeration procedures placed France among the highly literate nations of the world (UNESCO 1957, p. 22).

Even when we treat literacy proportions as indicators, it is still desirable to eliminate children from the calculations of rates and to compare rates for the same age groups—preferably 10 and over or 15 and over. Underdeveloped countries frequently have a large proportion of their population under 10 years and cannot manage to teach even the minimum literacy skills until about that age. However, in some cases (see Table 1) it is necessary, for lack of more detailed information, to use the rates for age groups 5 and over, 9 and over, or 15 and over as estimates for the age group 10 and over.

Obviously, illiteracy rates for the total population, as well as for persons aged 5 and over, are higher than for any of the older age groups; in India, for example, the rate for the total population in 1951 was 83.4 per cent, whereas for the population aged 10 and over it was 80.1 per cent. The rates for the age groups 10 and over and 15 and over are usually quite close; for example, in 1948 in the Philippines the illiteracy rate for each of these age groups was about the same.

For detailed comparisons between two countries, age-group differences and other variations in enumeration results—as in the number of persons returned as “literacy status unknown” or “age status unknown”—must be carefully examined. When literacy proportions are used as indicators, these variations create problems only in rare cases.

Use of estimates

Since some countries have never taken censuses and others have not taken a census for many years, an appraisal of the world’s literacy status at one time, 1950, must rely to some extent on estimates. The fact that estimates are used need not imply inaccuracy; some estimates are superior in accuracy to the average census. If, for example, the estimate is derived from reasonably accurate census returns on literacy or from valid statistical noncensus information, or from both, it may be quite reliable. For instance, on the basis of school enrollment information it was estimated that the illiteracy rate for Iraq in 1950 would be 85 per cent of the population aged 10 and over; the census returns for 1953 showed 89.1 per cent illiterate for the population aged 5 and over, or about 85 per cent for the population aged 10 and over.

China and Indonesia present perhaps the most difficult problems of estimating literacy rates. For China there are no national census figures on illiteracy available, and because of the paucity of other accurate information estimates range from 50-55 per cent illiterate for the population aged 15 and over (UNESCO 1957, pp. 16-17) to 70-75 per cent for the population aged 10 and over (Golden 1955, passim). The estimate for Indonesia also requires special comment. The census returns of 1930 gave Indonesia an illiteracy rate of 90 per cent for the population aged 10 and over; this figure is so high that it raises doubts about the official estimate of 39 per cent for the population aged 13 to 45 (United Nations 1963c, p. 15). Other estimates for Indonesia suggest an illiteracy level of 80-85 per cent for persons aged 15 and over (UNESCO 1957, p. 39) and 75-80 per cent for the population aged 10 and over (Golden 1955, passim). But despite such occasional anomalies and the general impossibility of absolute exactness, world-wide comparisons and analyses can most usefully be undertaken.

The meaning of literacy figures

The unequal distribution of literacy skills in the world stems from the fact that behind a given level of literacy lies the whole institutional structure of a society, particularly the occupational structure. Hence, the sharp contrasts in literacy levels between developed and underdeveloped countries (see Table 2) reflect the differential spread of industrialism through the world; the slighter differences among countries at about the same level of industrial development indicate other differences in the countries’ institutional structure. Transition from illiteracy to literacy for a whole country is accompanied usually by differential rates of transition within the population. Literacy skills are acquired more readily by young adults than by the aged; by those aiming for skilled occupations for themselves or their children; and by those—such as city dwellers—who have relatively easy access to the means of learning. In general, then, throughout the transition some literacy differentials within countries are predictable.

Literacy and economic development

The close connection between the prevalence of literacy skills among the adult population of a society and the nature of the society—s occupational skills has been demonstrated in several ways. In the first place, the invention of writing itself was clearly connected with other changes in human societies, such as increased occupational differentiation and the emergence of the first true cities. In general, the presence or absence of writing has been used as a criterion to distinguish between civilizations and tribal societies. Further, it should be emphasized that no country’s adult population became preponderantly literate until after the industrial revolution. Statistically, the dissemination of literacy and the changes in the occupational structure in today’s industrial nations are very closely linked; the coefficients of correlation for these time series are all above .9, where 1.0 would indicate perfect correspondence (UNESCO 1957, pp. 177 ff.; Golden 1955, p. 3). Indeed, not only is mass literacy a recent phenomenon in any society, but it is still confined to a relatively few countries. For 1950 literacy rates of the countries and territories of the world and indicators of the degree of industrial development correlated better than .8 on a scale, where 1.0 would have indicated perfect correspondence (Golden 1955, p. 3; United Nations 1961, p. 42).

The transformation from an illiterate to a literate society is triggered, so most authors suggest, by pressures exerted on governments, on special groups, and on individuals by the changing conditions accompanying industrialization. But it is not easily achieved; the transition usually has taken at least 75 years, though in some spectacular cases only about 50 years. Some societies have at times diverted large shares of their means toward the diffusion of literacy, and others, small shares; as a result, in 1950 literacy progress in some countries was advanced and in others retarded, as compared with industrial change. For example, in 1950 Brazil and Yugoslavia were about equally developed (if industrial development is measured by the pro-portion of the male labor force in nonagricultural pursuits), yet Brazil had an illiteracy rate of more than 50 per cent whereas Yugoslavia’s rate was only about 25 per cent for the population aged 10 and over. This retardation or advance, so several authors have suggested, can prove to be a handicap or an asset for a country’s future economic progress (Davis 1955; Golden 1955; Anderson & Bowman 1965). A government’s assessment of its country’s educational position requires not only a knowledge of the literacy level achieved but also an evaluation of the literacy position in relation to the level of economic development.

Hildah. Golden

[See alsoCapital, Human; Education; Rural society.]


Abel, James f.; and Bond, Norman j. 1929 Illiteracy in the Several Countries of the World. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Anderson,c.arnold; and Bowman, Maryj. (editors) 1965 Education and Economic Development. Chicago: Aldine.

Davis, Kingsley (1948) 1949 Human Society. New York: Macmillan.→ See especially pages 595-617, “World Population in Transition.”

Davis, Kingsley 1951 a The Population of India and Pakistan. Princeton Univ. Press. → See especially pages 150-161, “Education, Language and Literacy.”

Davis, Kingsley 1951 b Population and the Further Spread of Industrial Society. American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 95:8-19.

Davis, Kingsley 1955 Social and Demographic Aspects of Economic Development in India. Pages 263–315 in Simon Kuznets, W. E. Moore, and J. J. Spengler (editors), Economic Growth: Brazil, India, Japan. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Demographic Yearbook. → Issued annually by the United Nations since 1948. See especially the 1960 and 1964 volumes. Data in Table 1 extracted from Demographic Yearbook 1960, Copyright © United Nations 1961, are reproduced by permission.

Ginsburg, Nortons. (editor) 1961 Atlas of Economic Development. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Golden, Hildah. 1955 Literacy and Social Change in Underdeveloped Countries.Rural Sociology 20:1-7.

Harbison, Frederick; and Myers, Charlesa. 1964 Education, Manpower, and Economic Growth. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hawkes, Jacquetta; and Woolley, Leonard 1963 Pre-history and the Beginnings of Civilization. New York: Harper. → See especially Part 2, Chapter 6 on “Languages and Writing Systems: Education.”

Lorimer, Frank 1946 The Population of the Soviet Union: History and Prospects. Geneva: League of Nations. → See especially pages 79, 198-200.

Mcclelland, Davidc. 1966 Does Education Accelerate Economic Growth? Economic Development and Cultural Change 24, no. 3:257–278.

Russett, Bruce et al. 1964 World Handbook of Political and Social Indicators. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → See especially pages 221-226.

Sjoberg, Gideon 1960 The Preindustrial City: Past and Present. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → See especially pages 285-320.

Sullivan, Helen 1933 Literacy and Illiteracy. Volume 9, pages 511–523 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Unesco 1952 Basic Facts and Figures. Paris: Unesco.

Unesco 1953 Progress of Literacy in Various Countries. Paris: Unesco.

Unesco 1957 World Illiteracy at Mid-century: A Statistical Study. Paris: Unesco.

Unesco 1964 Economic and Social Aspects of Educational Planning. Paris: Unesco.

United Nations, Department OF Economic And Social Affairs 1961 Report on the World Social Situation, 1961. New York: United Nations.

United Nations, Department Of Economic And Social Affairs 1963a Report on the World Social Situation, 1963. New York: United Nations.

United Nations, Economic And Social Council 1963 bUnesco World Campaign for Universal Literacy. Document E/3771. Unpublished manuscript.

United Nations, Statistical Office 1963 c Compendium of Social Statistics: 1963. Statistical Papers, Series K, No. 2. New York: United Nations.

Winston, Sanford 1930 Illiteracy in the United States. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

World Congress OF Ministers Of Education ON The Eradication OF Illiteracy 1965 Statistics of Illiteracy. Paris: Unesco.

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Literacy and Reading


The terms literacy and reading, though related, are neither synonymous nor unambiguous. Typically reading is subsumed by literacy, with the latter term referring to reading, writing, and other modes of symbolic communication that are valued differently for social, economic, and political reasons often imposed by a dominant culture. Simply broadening the definition, however, does not alleviate the ambiguity. For instance, the assumption that literacy exists in the singular has been criticized by Brian Street in 1995 and others for ignoring the socially situated aspects of one's multiple literacies (print, nonprint, computer, scientific, numeric) and their accompanying literate practices.

A preference for literacies, as opposed to literacy in the singular, also signals a critique of the autonomous model of reading that has dominated Western thinking up to the present. It is a model that views reading largely from a cognitive perspectiveas a "natural" or neutral process, one supposedly devoid of ideological positioning and the power relations inherent in such positioning. Conceiving of literacies in the plural and as ideologically embedded does not require giving up on the cognitive aspects of reading. Rather, according to Street, the ideological model subsumes the autonomous model of reading in an attempt to understand how reading is encapsulated within broader sociocultural structures (schools, governments, families, media) and the power relations that sustain them. This focus on literacies and reading as social practices within various contexts is central to untangling the "realities" (the so-called knowns), unsupported assertions, and controversies that surround the practices.


Definitive paradigm shifts since the last quarter of the twentieth century have marked transitions from behaviorist to cognitivist to sociocultural models of the reading process. Although these changing conceptions have altered how researchers and practitioners think about the reading process generally (and instruction, specifically), overall the field has remained largely focused on two major topics: reading acquisition and comprehension. This is not to say that other topics have been neglected. For instance, sufficient evidence exists for linking reading directly and inextricably to writing, such as the work of Robert Tierney and Timothy Shanahan, and Ian Wilkinson and colleagues; and other evidence connects various instructional practices to students' reading engagement and motivation to learn content, such as that of John Guthrie and Allan Wigfield. In terms of sheer quantity of research findings, however, the focus remains on reading acquisition and comprehension.

Reading Acquisition Research

Reading acquisition is no longer seen as the sole responsibility of the school; nor is it viewed as a "lockstep" process that moves from oral language development (speaking and listening) to print literacy (reading and writing). Currently, learning to read is viewed as a developmental process, one that emerges gradually from the time a child is born. The role of the family is paramount in fostering a child's growth in language and in creating a literacy-rich environment. Parents, educators, researchers, and policy-makers constantly look for ways to provide all children with access to the world of print, largely because knowing how to read and knowing what to do with information gained from reading is thought to be key to a child's future well-being.

The Report of the National Reading Panel in the year 2000, a major reference for U.S. education policymakers, is an evidence-based assessment of the experimental and quasi-experimental research literature on reading. The National Reading Panel (NRP) used strict selection criteria in analyzing a comprehensive body of research that focused primarily on early reading and reading in grades three to eight, with the research being limited to studies published in peer-reviewed journals written in the English language. One of the panel's goals was to report how instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency impacts children's early reading development and achievement in school settings.

Phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness and knowledge of the alphabetic principle (commonly known as letter recognition) are said to be the best school-entry predictors of a child's success in reading during the first two years of schooling in an alphabetic language, such as English. Phonemic awareness is not an innate skill; it can and must be taught. Children are said to be phonemically aware when they are able to manipulate phonemes (the smallest sound units of a word that impact meaning) in spoken words. The NRP found that children (regardless of socioeconomic class) who received between fifteen and eighteen hours of phonemic awareness instruction, prior to being taught how to read and/or before entering the first grade, benefited greatest from such instruction.

Phonics. Unlike phonemic awareness, which refers to the blending and pulling apart of the various sounds that make up spoken words in an alphabetic language, phonics refers to the sound-symbol correspondences in that language. Phonics is a tool for decoding words; it is not a reading program. Knowledge of phonics does not ensure that one will comprehend printed texts because reading is a far more complex process than simply sounding out words.

The NRP concluded that children (regardless of socioeconomic class) who receive systematic phonics instruction in kindergarten and first grade show greater improvement in word recognition skills than do children who receive no such instruction; however, phonics instruction after first grade does not significantly contribute to gains in children's word recognition abilities. The panel also concluded that the type of systematic phonics instruction (e.g., synthetic, analytic, analogy) children receive, either individually or in small or large group settings, does not significantly affect the contribution such instruction makes to reading achievement.

Fluency. According to the NRP, phonemic awareness and knowledge of phonics are tools for helping children achieve fluency in reading. Fluent readers can decode words rapidly and accurately with good comprehension. Caution needs to be exercised, however, in interpreting these findings. Possessing well-developed word recognition skillsa condition often associated with having knowledge of phonicsdoes not necessarily translate into fluent reading. As the NRP pointed out, fluency is thought to develop when individuals have sufficient opportunities for, and practice in, reading. Typically, such practice is associated with independent or recreational reading both in and out of school. At this point, however, only correlational data exist to support the hypothesized connection between increased reading practice and improved reading achievement.

The NRP examined research on guided repeated oral reading practice as well as on methods that attempt to increase the amount of time a child engages in independent and/or recreational reading. The panel concluded that explicit guidance during oral reading has consistent and positive effects on word recognition, fluency, and comprehension. However, researchers have yet to agree on the best approach for helping children achieve reading fluency. In sum, although many have applauded the efforts of the NRP for its concise compilation of relevant research pertaining to reading in schools, others have criticized the panel for failing to address the early learning that occurs before a child goes to school, and for failing to provide information about home support for literacy development. Still others have called attention to the fact that the studies the NRP selected for analysis did not address issues related to teaching children whose first language is other than English how to read.

Comprehension Research

Research on reading comprehension has been limited largely to print-based texts and various strategies for studying and learning from those texts. The NRP concluded that seven comprehension strategies (comprehension monitoring, cooperative learning, using graphic and semantic organizers, generating questions, answering questions, using story structure, and summarizing) are effective in helping students learn from text. Although the NRP reported trends supporting conventional wisdom that vocabulary instruction leads to improved comprehension, it offered no conclusive evidence on this point due to the limited number of studies that met its strict criteria for inclusion. Nor did the NRP draw conclusions about the most effective instructional methods for teaching vocabulary.

Caution needs to be taken in interpreting the NRP's findings. The report did not include research on second language reading and reading to learn in domain-specific areas. Nor did it include studies using qualitative research designs, the absence of which severely limits what can be known about the contexts in which instruction occurred. Moreover, six of the seven comprehension strategies that were considered effective were ones that teachers would use if they believe reading comprehension consists of students working individually to extract information from printed texts. This rather narrow view of comprehension instruction risks disenfranchising students who may learn better in more socially interactive settings or whose literacies span a broader range than those typically associated with school or assessed by traditional reading measures.

Beyond strategic knowledge, readers who possess and activate relevant prior knowledge, who demonstrate an awareness of text structure, and who apply appropriate metacognitive skills to comprehending texts are more proficient learners than those who either do not possess such skills or who lack appropriate background knowledge. That is to say, constructing meaning involves using information and experiences gained previously to interpret new information in light of the old. It also entails recognizing the various reasons that authors structure their texts as they do (e.g., to inform, to persuade, to elicit appreciation for certain literary devices). Finally, comprehension calls for monitoring the demands of a particular reading task, knowing what background knowledge and strategies are relevant to the task, evaluating the inferences one makes while reading, and applying any of a number of fix-up strategies when understanding falters or breaks down completely.

Unsupported Assertions

Intuitively appealing literacy practices are often linked to improved reading achievement without adequate support in the research literature. Although a lack of empirical evidence for their use does not make such practices wrong, it does call into question the wisdom of making curricular or programmatic decisions on the basis of custom alone or anecdotal evidence at best. A good example of this phenomenon is the widespread acceptance of the idea that encouraging students to read more will translate into improved fluency and higher reading achievement. As the Report of the National Reading Panel has shown, most of the studies that met the panel's stringent criteria for qualifying as scientifically sound research failed to find a positive relation between encouraging students to read and improved reading fluency and achievement.

Another intuitively appealing practiceusing technology to improve reading instructionhas only a meager research base to date. Its overall and long-term effectiveness is simply an unknown according to the NRP. Although the panel described several trends suggesting the usefulness of computer technology for reading instruction, too little evidence presently exists to make informed recommendations. Lacking evidence as to whether or not the knowledge students gain from online instruction is superior to that gained from more traditional instruction, reading educators are likely to remain ambivalent about making drastic changes in the way instruction is delivered.

Equally unclear is the degree to which integrated literacy instruction fosters outcomes such as authentic reading tasks, better applicability of learning, deeper and more coherent understanding of subject matter, and greater efficiency in teaching and learning. Thought to be one of education's most elusive constructs, integrated literacy instruction generally involves organizing the curriculum is ways that promote students' use of language and literacy processes to learn school subjects (e.g., science, social studies, math). An extensive review of the research literature on integrated literacy instruction led James Gavelek and colleagues to remark in the year 2000 on the exceedingly low ratio of data-driven articles to general papers on the topic. Although they remained optimistic about integrative approaches, these researchers questioned whether or not the push toward such integration was a bit premature, or possibly illfounded.


A controversy exists in the United States about how to teach reading effectively and efficiently to students whose home or first language is not English, the language of mainstream education. The U.S. Census Bureau of 2000, relying on data from the 1990 census, reported that 6.3 million children, ages 5 through 17, speak a language other than English in the home; of these children, 4.1 million speak Spanish. Since 1990 the Hispanic population has increased by 57.9 percent in the United States, a demographic factor that accounts no doubt for people of Hispanic, Latino, and/or Spanish origin receiving the most attention in terms of educational program development. Programs developed primarily to facilitate English language learners' entry into English-speaking schools vary in the degree to which they provide support in the students' home language. Depending on the English language learners' needs and the availability of funding, children may be submersed in classrooms where English is the medium of instruction. This means they will not be offered any first-language literacy support; nor will they receive the three to six years of transitional bilingual education that has been shown to be effective. Although sheltered English language programs are becoming more popular in the United States, they do not offer opportunities for children to become bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural. Two-way bilingual programs, with their emphasis on instruction in both the home language (in many cases in the United States, Spanish) and English, provide such opportunities.

Elizabeth Bernhardt reported in 2000 three possible ways of looking at the relationship between first and second language learning experiences. She noted a transfer relationship where the knowledge and skills of the dominant language transfer to the learning of the second language; an interference relationship where the dominant language impedes the learning of the second language; and a dominance effect where the behaviors of the first language control those of second language literacy. Bernhardt pointed out that in the case of second language reading, it is unclear as to whether first language skills transfer or interfere with learning to read in a second language. Controversies surrounding the interference model show no sign of abating. In fact, literacy educators, such as Georgia Ernest García, who question the validity of such a model, often cite a well-known longitudinal study of Spanish-speaking children by J. David Ramírez and colleauges, which showed in 1991 that instruction that fosters bilingualism and biliteracy does not place youngsters at an academic disadvantage. In that study, children who were enrolled in a late-exit bilingual program scored higher on standardized tests of English language and reading proficiency than did their monolingual peers.

Another controversy surrounding reading instruction has its roots in what Harvey Graff has labeled in 1988 the "literacy myth." Part of the dominant world view of the Western world for over two centuries, the so-called literacy myth equates the ability to read with personal and individual worth, social order, and economic prosperity. Its tenets reach deep into the American psyche, and its implications for reading instruction regularly place teachers in the public eye. Evidence of the literacy myth's stranglehold on the teaching profession is the fact that educators in the United States often fall under attack by politicians, the media, and the general public for not serving students well enough to ensure that they join the U.S. workforce and compete favorably in the rigors of a world market place.

The problem deepens when the media and other information sources convince the general public that a literacy crisis exists. Word of such a crisis leads parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers to search for a universally effective way to teach all children to read, and just as predictably, to a proliferation of commercially prepared reading programs. School districts adopt commercially prepared programs in an attempt to solve the perceived problem. For example, programs such as Success for All, Core Knowledge, Accelerated Reader, and Saxon Phonics exist side by side (and in company with many other such programs) in the current educational market. Many of these programs are intended to help teachers concentrate more of their attention on student learning and less on lesson preparation. The developers of these programs also claim they offer continuity and consistency of instruction. Individuals who are critical of commercially prepared reading programs point to their scripted nature and to the narrow focus of their academic content. Teachers, in particular, sense a loss of autonomy and professionalism when local or state mandates force them to rely on one particular kind of commercial reading program. They know that in the field of literacy instruction the concept of "one-size-fits-all" does not apply to the children they teach. Nor does this type of instruction take into account the multiple literacies children living in the twenty-first century already possess or need to develop.

See also: Literacy, subentries on Emergent Literacy, Learning from Multimedia Sources, Multimedia Literacy, Narrative Comprehension and Production; Literacy and Culture; Reading.


Alexander, Patricia A., and Jetton, Tamara L. 2000. "Learning from Text: A Multidimensional and Developmental Perspective." In Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 3, ed. Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Barton, David; Hamilton, Mary; and Ivanic, Roz, eds. 2000. Situated Literacies. New York: Routledge.

Bernhardt, Elizabeth. 2000. "Second-Language Reading as a Case Study of Reading Scholarship in the 20th Century." In Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 3, ed. Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Core Knowledge Foundation. 2001. Core Knowledge Sequence, K8. New York: Doubleday.

Gaffney, Janet S., and Anderson, Richard C. 2000. "Trends in Reading Research in the United States: Changing Intellectual Currents over Three Decades." In Handbook of Reading Re-search, Vol. 3, ed. Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

GarcÍa, Georgia Ernest. 2000. "Bilingual Children's Reading." In Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 3, ed. Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gavelek, James R.; Raphael, Taffy E.; Biondo, Sandra M.; and Wang, Danhua. 2000. "Integrated Literacy Instruction." In Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 3, ed. Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gee, James P. 1996. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, 2nd edition. London: Taylor and Francis.

Graff, Harvey J. 1988. "The Legacies of Literacy." In Perspectives on Literacy, ed. Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Guthrie, John T., and Wigfield, Allan. 2000. "Engagement and Motivation in Reading." Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 3, ed. Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Institute for Academic Excellence. 2000. Getting Started with Accelerated Reading and Reading Renaissance. Madison, WI: Institute for Academic Excellence.

RamÍrez, J. David; Yuen, Sandra D.; and Ramey, Dena R. 1991. Executive Summary: Final Report: Longitudinal Study of Structured English Immersion Strategy, Early-Exit and Late-Exit Transitional Bilingual Education Programs for Language Minority Children. San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.

Report of the National Reading Panel. 2000. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Simmons, Lorna. 2001. Saxon Phonics K2 Classroom Kit. Norman, OK: Saxon.

Slavin, Robert E. 2001. One Million Children: Success for All. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Snow, Catherine E.; Burns, M. Susan; and Griffin, Peg, eds. 1998. Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Street, Brian V. 1995. Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography, and Education. New York: Longman.

Tierney, Robert J., and Shanahan, Timothy. 1991. "Research on the Reading-Writing Relationship: Interactions, Transactions, and Outcomes." In Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 2, ed. P. David Pearson, Rebecca Barr, Michael L. Kamil, and Peter B. Mosenthal. New York: Longman.

Wilkinson, Ian; Freebody, Peter; and Elkins, John. 2000. "Reading Research in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand." In Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 3, ed. Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

internet resource

U.S. Census Bureau. 2000. "Language Use." <>.

Donna E. Alvermann

M. Kristiina Montero

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Literacy and Reading


LITERACY AND READING. In the Renaissance, Europe experienced the beginnings of a profound transformation from restricted to mass literacy. In 1500 very few people could read and write, but by 1800 a majority of adults in northwestern Europe were literate. This entry outlines the special nature of early modern literacy; it charts the changing social and geographical distribution of literacy in early modern Europe; and it offers explanations and an assessment of the importance of this complex development.


Early modern literacy was made up of several skills, which are best seen as bands in a spectrum of communication rather than discrete categories. Reading of print or writing was possible at two levels. Some people could decipher texts, read them aloud, and memorize them in a mechanical or ritual wayalthough their personal understanding may have been questionable. We should not exaggerate the understanding and facility of those who possessed this intermediate or semiliteracy. Those with better education and a deeper immersion in printed and written culture could comprehend the text with greater precision, reading and thinking silently to themselves. They could understand new texts as well as familiar ones. However, "reading" was not restricted to written or printed words alone. People could gather information and ideas from looking: interpreting pictures and prints in broadsheets and "chapbooks" (pamphlets) or watching and participating in plays and processions. Gesture remained a subtle and important form of nonverbal communication.

If they wanted to transmit their own thoughts other than through speech, people had to learn to write, or rather composean advanced skill that required considerable training and practice and that effectively marked "full" literacy for most people. The other, more common, level of writing was in fact copying: writing without necessarily understanding. It was at this stage that people learned to sign their names on documents, and this ability is commonly used as an indicator that someone could read and understand printed and written texts in the vernacular, the language of everyday life. In other words, he or she was well along the road to "full" literacy. A small minority of men and a handful of women could also copy or compose in Latin, the international language of learning throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the early modern period, or in another pan-European language like French. Even those who had none of these skills were not culturally isolated, for they could listenhear a priest's sermons or a friend reading aloud, participate actively or passively in discussions with their peers. The way to understand literacy in early modern Europe is to assess the access that people had to the different bands in the spectrum and the ways they used them.

The ability to read and write was a function of access to schooling, demand for basic learning, and prevailing social and cultural attitudes to literacy. Commercial, religious, administrative, and intellectual "revolutions" of the fifteenth century onward enhanced the supply of education and fueled a growing demand for instruction. The chances of being educated and of acquiring literacy depended on a wide variety of factors in historic Europe. Wealth, sex, inheritance laws, projected job opportunities, employment for children, even the language a person spoke in everyday lifeall played their part. Thus literacy grew because of "push" and "pull" factors. For example, there was the push of religiously inspired educational campaigns (Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic). There was the pull of personal religious needs and economic incentives such as a desire for social or geographical mobility. Book production also grew dramatically. Perhaps 150 to 200 million copies were turned out during the sixteenth century, and 1,500 million copies were printed in the eighteenth century. This outpouring fed on and was nourished by growing literacy. More schools were provided and more were demanded. Schools were important to learning, but nowhere were they compulsory and, because of costs, many children received only a very brief and basic education. In Sweden, mass reading ability was achieved almost entirely by learning at home.


The Swedish literacy campaign that began in the late seventeenth century was designed to consolidate the Lutheran Reformation there, and many of the advances in reading and writing stemmed from the religious battles of the early modern period. It is commonly asserted that Protestantism is the "religion of the Book." Indeed, Protestant countries tended to be more literate than Catholic, and where the faiths coexisted, as in France, Ireland, and the Low Countries, Calvinists tended to be more accomplished than Catholics. However, on closer inspection the picture is less clear-cut. Dynamic Counter-Reformation Catholicism could produce results comparable with the Lutheran heartland. Just 40 percent of accused adults examined by Spanish inquisitions knew the Ten Commandments well in the 1560s and 1570s, compared with 80 percent by the 1590s, while the proportions felt to be crassly ignorant fell from 50 percent to under 10 percent. Importantly, this was pure memorization rather than reading. Indeed, the distinction between the faiths was often more subtle than crude literacy ratesbut no less important. Qualitative differences in the uses and importance of literacy distinguished Protestants from Catholics. Reading Scriptures was central to the Reformed faith. Religious books were probably read more frequently among Protestants, and the very status of reading was special. Protestants tended to own more books on a wider variety of religious topics than their Catholic neighbors and to use them differently. Protestants accepted the overwhelming authority of what they knew or thought was in a religious book.

As well as successes in inculcating religious knowledge in ("Christianizing") their peoples, Catholic countries could boast some excellent educational facilities. At the elementary level there were, for example, Italian Schools of Christian Doctrine, which from the mid-sixteenth century taught religion and basic reading and writing to urban children. At the postelementary level there were the famous schools of the Jesuits and other religious orders. Nor should we ignore the contribution of second- and third-generation Reformations, Protestant and Catholic alike. In Denmark and Prussia it was not the Lutheran Reformation of the sixteenth century that brought about widespread literacy, but the early-eighteenth-century campaign waged by the Pietists with the help of the new "absolutist" rulers. In France female religious orders provided the impetus behind the rapid advance in women's literacy after c. 1740.


Outcomes (the social and geographical distribution of literacy) are relatively easy to demonstrate using the universal, standard, and direct measure of ability to sign one's name in full on a document such as a court deposition, a contract, or a marriage certificate. Male achievements were superior to female, those of the rich to those of the poor; urban dwellers were almost invariably better able to write than were peasants. In the east, south, and far north of Europe, the ability to write was less than in the heartland of the continent, but reading may have been as widespread (maybe more so) in Scandinavia. For all the apparent simplicity of these patterns, they become more complex and nuanced on closer investigationand more so still when we move away from the quantitative measures to a qualitative analysis of meanings and uses.

Around 1500 even basic literacy was restricted to less than 10 percent of men. Judged by the rather advanced skill of signing, the most pronounced early expansion occurred among the middling and upper classes, among men, and in towns. In northern England the illiteracy of the gentry fell from about 30 percent in 1530 to almost nil in 1600, but that of day laborers stayed well above 90 percent throughout the period. Male achievements were almost always superior to female. For example, one bridegroom in three could not sign Amsterdam's marriage register in 1630, compared with twothirds of brides. Until the eighteenth century the rate of improvement for men generally exceeded that for women. The literacy of townspeople also grew more quickly than that of rural dwellers. By the mid-eighteenth century London and Paris had literacy levels not achieved nationally until the late nineteenth century. In eastern Europe almost the only literate people were townspeople.


Change was halting and irregular. Different groups reached "ceilings" or "plateaus" at different times, from which it might take decades to move. For men at least, Castile in the sixteenth century was on a par with France and England until the second quarter of the seventeenth century. Between c. 1620 and c. 1740 it failed to develop at the same rate. The literacy of Castilian women crept up only marginally from 1500 to 1740. The second half of the eighteenth century was better for women everywhere in western Europe. Female literacy grew much more rapidly than male in northern France in the two generations before the Revolution. In parts of northwestern Germany girls began to receive instruction in arithmetic for the first time. However, the current of change ebbed as well as flowed. For centuries the leaders in raising literacy, some early industrial towns of Britain and the southern Low Countries in the late eighteenth century saw falling levels as population growth swamped the social infrastructure and child employment created a disincentive for education.

The extent of divisions between social groups varied over both space and time. In the sixteenth century, when literacy was limited, virtually all those who could read and write came from the landlord, mercantile, or professional classes. Beneath them lay a yawning chasm of illiteracy. This stark differentiation was tempered over time as more members of the middling and lower ordersartisans and farmers, for examplepicked up the skills of the book and the pen. In England, lowland Scotland, the Netherlands, northern Germany, and northeastern France, an expansion of literacy for the middling ranks had occurred by the end of the seventeenth century. Southern Italy and Poland (and, to an even greater extent, Russia) had very limited literacy deep into the nineteenth century.


Much research into literacy has focused on the ability to write. However, there are many reasons to believe that reading was a more widespread skill. Children of the lower social classes, who made up 50 to 90 percent of European people, generally received no more than three to four years of education, meaning they learned only to read. For adults, reading had more religious and recreational value than writing, which was by no means essential to everyday life. Indeed, it may be that in countries like Italy and France two or three women could read for every one who could write during the eighteenth century. The campaign to promote religious literacy in Scandinavia produced remarkable results. As late as the mid-seventeenth century a third of adults were able to pass the church's tests of reading, but a century later more than four out of five men and women could read.

Tacitly or overtly, studies showing apparently extensive reading suggest that the breadth of cultural access was much broader than the figures for signing imply. Yet reading might actually mean memorization, and without practice, the reading skills of many ordinary people ill equipped them for exploring the new literature of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. As late as 1750 critical reading ability in the German lands was confined to just 10 percent of the population, a figure that applies equally well to the rest of northwestern Europe. Print and writing may therefore have had a limited impact on ordinary people who were ostensibly "readers." Nevertheless, we must be alert to the possibility that reading was more widespread than writing, especially among poorer men and among women as a whole. After all, women of the haute bourgeoisie or the landed classes (and especially unmarried ones, it seems) read periodicals and novels. They used circulating libraries, joined reading societies, attended the theater and concerts, collected prints, and bought paintings. Women seem to have been a crucial component of the anticipated audience for Enlightenment literature.

Yet such women were not typical. The existence of social forms, which provided visual, spoken, and sung communication (such as the French veillée or evening gathering and the German Spinnstube or spinning circle) and which were dominated by ordinary women, suggests that their cultural lives continued to be cast in an oral/aural and visual framework. Males were educated to participate in the public sphere, women in the private or domestic one. This usually meant that girls gained religious knowledge, learned to read, and were given practical instruction in gendered skills like "housewifery." In the Mediterranean lands where gender roles were most firmly delineated, it was long held to be unnecessary to train girls in more than the rudiments of religious morality. In the deep south of Italy and in parts of eastern Europe such as Hungary, reading and writing were uncommon for either sex. The people of these regions actively preferred oral forms.


The spread of literacy across western Europe made communication easier. What people did with their ability to communicate using letters depended on what tongue(s) they knew. Until the second half of the seventeenth century, the majority of printed books were in Latin. Those with Latin (perhaps 1 or 2 per cent of the population) were part of a pan-European culture in the age of the Renaissance, but theirs was a circle from which were excluded the illiterati the medieval term for those unable to speak, read, and write Latin. Latin remained important as a core subject in postelementary education throughout the early modern period. During the eighteenth century, speaking, reading, and writing French came to replace Latin for cultural and intellectual purposesat least for the elites of Catholic and perhaps Orthodox Europe. French became the new Latin. Throughout the early modern period Church Slavonic was the language of learning and literacy in Russia, but it was alien to everyday speech and was taught to a tiny number.

Indeed Latin versus vernacular was only one of many linguistic oppositions in early modern Europe. The vernacular was increasingly used in education, print, government, and administrationbut which vernacular? For even within small countries many tongues could be spoken, with important implications for literacy. Seven out of ten of the inhabitants of Wales knew no English and could speak only Welsh in 1800. France was a linguistic Tower of Babel. In 1790 French (langue d'oïl ) was the dominant language in just fifteen of eighty-nine départements; six million French could not understand French at all; a further six million could understand it but spoke it only imperfectly; thirty patois were spoken, plus foreign languages like Flemish or German or Basque; only three million could speak French "properly." The linguistic map of Europe resembles that of literacy: in areas where the language of everyday life was not that of education, contact with outside authority, or printed literature, literacy tended to remain low.

For all the obstacles, dead ends, and inconsistencies in the development of reading and writing, literacy certainly expanded between 1500 and 1800. What, in conclusion, can be said about its uses? Reading tastes changed, notably from the practical to the recreational. New value was placed on originality and novelty in writing. The real growth area in reading material was not the staple texts, which people perused closely, but the more varied, ephemeral, and entertaining fare that was becoming available. Readers ranged more extensively among literary forms, where previously they had focused on a few texts. Between 1700 and 1789 there were published 1,200 French-language periodicals of at least one year's duration. History and travel books became more popular. While literacy was, by all measures, on the rise in the eighteenth century, it may be that for reasons of cost and availability, or because of limited education, not everyone could enjoy its products. The fully literate indulged themselves in its novelties; the semiliterate remained within their traditional mental world. In his autobiography, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832) recounted childhood memories of enjoying a chapbook literature of magic, chivalry, and saints, which had changed little for centuries. Europe was well on the way to mass basic literacy by 1800, but there were still pronounced divisions in access to and uses of literacy's products.


Houston, Robert A. Literacy in Early Modern Europe: Culture and Education, 15001800. 2nd ed. London, 2001. Unrivaled geographical coverage in a comprehensive and readable overview. Contains an extensive bibliography of further reading.

R. A. Houston

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Skill. During the colonial period reading and writing were usually taught separately, with reading being first in order of instruction as it was considered essential for studying the Bible and religious literature. Writing, on the other hand, was regarded more as an art or as a technical skill for certain occupations such as bookkeeping and commerce. It was also more expensive: paper was scarce; writing texts were costly; and students had to purchase quills and powder ink. For many people, especially girls and boys from poor families, writing was not necessary for their future employment. Some females from wealthier families learned to write, but for most, writing was not deemed as useful as sewing. However, the inability of most colonists to write was not as much of an impediment

then as it would be today. Their society depended more on oral than written communication; information circulated by word of mouth, public readings, sermons, and oral performances.


Prior to the mid eighteenth century, childrens reading consisted primarily of the Bible and religious material The Bible remained the first book from which children learned to read, but gradually secular books became more common. The most prevalent of the secular books and almost as popular as the Bible were almanacs, printed in the colonies since the early seventeenth century. Children as well as adults enjoyed reading them for stories, weather forecasts, verses, events, advice, maxims, useful information, and, of course, the calendar. The most famous of these was Benjamin Franklins Poor Richards Almanack (first published in 1732). Childrens books used by Americans were primarily English in origin. Even though by 1760 all colonies had printing presses, Americans continued to rely on England for almost all books bought for American children. Perhaps the greatest influence on childrens literature was a London publisher by the name of John Newbery, who started publishing childrens books in the 1740s. On 15 November 1750 he advertised some of these books, most of them educational, in the Pennsylvania Gazette. One was titled A Museum for Young Gentlemen and Ladies or A private tutor for little Masters and Misses (1750), which counseled children on how to behave properly. The Pretty Book for Children (1750) was a guide to the English language. In 1752 Newbery published a magazine for children, the Lilliputian Magazine, and filled it with stories, verses, and other entertaining miscellanea. Newbery died in 1767, but his firm continued to print childrens recreational books, which by then were considered acceptable but not yet commonly ownedmost children advanced from reading the Bible and religious verses to reading more-adult literature. Childrens books became more universal in the nineteenth century, when they became more affordable.

Aside from Newbery and the almanacs, other types of reading matter available to children were songs and hymns, riddles, verses and nursery rhymes, religious literature, storybooks such as Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Arabian Nights, and schoolbooks. A common theme found in many of these works was that of self-improvementdiligence, frugality, and industry led to virtue, wealth, and success. This was the lesson to be learned from the popular storybook Goody Two-Shoes: The Means by which she acquired her Learning and Wisdom, and in consequence thereof her Estate (1765). Goody Two-Shoes was Margery Meanwell, an orphan who was once delighted to receive two shoes to replace her one shoe. From her humble beginnings she taught herself to read, started teaching, married a wealthy man, and became a Lady and a philanthropist.

Schoolbooks were available to a privileged few. Those used before the Revolution were generally from England, but after 1783 many were written by Americans. One commonly used English text was Thomas Dilworths A New Guide to the English Tongue, a spelling book first printed in 1740 and used until the 1780s. It was replaced in popularity by Noah Websters spelling book, A Grammatical Institute, of the English Language (1783), though this was not the first speller written by an American. In 1779 Anthony Benezet put his years of teaching experience into several publications, one of which was The Pennsylvania Spelling Book.

Source: Gillian Avery, Behold the Child: American Children and Their Books, 1621-1922 (Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

Measuring Literacy. One way scholars measure literacy is by examining legal documents for the percentage of signatures versus marks. If someone could not write, he or she made a mark, sometimes with an X but more often with initials. This did not mean the person was unable to read since reading was taught before writing, as it was considered a more essential skill. But a person who signed his or her name could probably read as well, and though he or she might not have been able to write much, he or she at least knew how to write something. General literacy rates for mid-eighteenth-century America are hard to estimate since they varied widely according to place, socioeconomic status, gender, race, religion, and occupation. Port towns had a higher number of literates than rural areas, and professional and wealthy people were more literate than poor people. And only in New England did the law require that all children learn to read. This, combined with the prevalence of town schools, made New England the most literate population of any area in the colonies. Studies show that 80 percent of New England males were literate by 1760, with the highest percentage in Boston and densely populated rural areas. Only about 65 percent of females in Boston and about 30 to 40 percent in rural areas were literate, largely because education opportunities were fewer for girls. The increase in literacy in the Middle and Southern colonies was slower than in New England but varied by

area and ethnic culture. In North Carolina only about 33 percent of women could sign their names before the Revolution. By this time at least 80 percent of men in all the colonies could sign their names.

Reading. The first book used to teach reading was usually the hornbook, followed in succession by the primer, Psalter, Testament, and finally the Bible. In the eighteenth century most literate Americans put religious literature at the top of their reading preferences, but increasingly secular material became more popular, especially as the Revolutionary War got closer and political issues became more newsworthy. People read not only for religious enhancement but also for entertainment, information about public issues, and knowledge about a wide variety of subjects. Newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets, and books began circulating to broader areas. The number of American-published books and pamphlets doubled between the 1740s and 1760s and increased by a third in the 1770s, at which time about 640 a year were printed in thirty-six places. The number of all imprints (excluding weekly newspapers) published by American presses jumped dramatically from 1,582 titles between 1704 and 1723 to 11,098 for the years 1764 to 1783, or one-half of all imprints produced in the colonial period. Almanacs, essential for their calendars, became almost as prevalent as the Bible in the homes of colonial Americans. Their production, which in the 1740s was about five editions a year, expanded to twenty a year in the 1770s. One of the most popular was Franklins Poor Richards Almanack, which sold 141,257 copies between 1752 and 1765.

Newspapers. Another indication that literacy was on the rise in colonial America at the middle of the eighteenth century was the increase in the number of newspapers after 1750. John Campbells Boston News-Letter had an initial circulation of 250 copies when it was started in 1704, and it was the only newspaper in the colonies until 1719. In 1740 colonial newspapers numbered 12; by 1765 there were 25; in 1776, 39 newspapers were published in all colonies except Delaware; and by 1783 the total had jumped to 58. Two-thirds of the papers were printed in five cities: Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, Newport, and New York, with New England taking the lead in the number of newspapers in operation. Though the average weekly circulation was about 600 papers, the larger papers had as many as 2,000 or 3,000 subscribers and during the war as many as 8,000. However, the readership was much broader than the number of subscriptions, especially considering the fact that a popular pastime was to gather at taverns and coffeehouses to read the latest news.

Summary. Reading and writing were taught separately, often by different instructors: women usually taught reading, and men taught writing. Reading was learned first, as it was necessary for religious education, but many children did not stay in school long enough to learn writing skills. Writing was a useful tool for employment and therefore taught mainly to boys, but exceptions to this pattern did exist. German sects and Quakers taught reading and writing to both sexes, as did plantation tutors. Throughout the early colonial period books were imported from England, but by the middle of the eighteenth century every colony had a printing press for

the production of newspapers, small books, textbooks, and almanacs. But even with the growth of printing in America, distribution networks were not well developed and were usually confined to areas near the presses. Private book ownership for most people meant possession of a Bible and perhaps an almanac and a few smaller books.


Catherine Hobbs, ed., Nineteenth-Century Women Learn to Write (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995);

Huey B. Long, Continuing Education of Adults in Colonial America (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Publications in Continuing Education, 1976);

Averil Evans McClelland, The Education of Women in the United States: A Guide to Theory, Teaching, and Research (New York: Garland, 1992);

E. Jennifer Monaghan, Literacy Instruction and Gender in Colonial New England, in Reading in America: Literature and Social History, edited by Cathy N. Davidson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), pp. 53-80.

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Precise knowledge about levels of literacy in different times and different places is notoriously difficult to ascertain, for two major reasons. First, it is not always clear what should count as "literacy": what level of ability at reading or writing should we designate as literate? The concept of functional literacy has been developed to deal with this semantic problem: the term functional literacy was originally coined by the U.S. Army during World War II, and denoted an ability to understand military operations and to be able to read at a fifth-grade level. Subsequently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has defined functional literacy in terms of an individual possessing the requisite reading and writing skills to be able to take part in the activities that are a normal part of that individual's social milieu.

However these definitional problems may be resolved, it is clearly problematic to specify the degree of literacy of a particular period, place, or population. The second problem is that our evidence for the historical distribution of levels of literacy is limited, based in the main on marriage registers and other legal documents. In using this evidence to generate best guesses about literacy levels, we pay special attention to the ability of bride, groom, and witnesses to sign marriage registers, and other individuals to sign other legal documents. Such evidence may lead to an overestimation of literacy levels; individuals may be able to sign but have little else in the way of literacy skills. Conversely, the same evidence may lead to an underestimation of literacy skills; writing requires a productive proficiency that reading does not, and therefore those who cannot sign may be able to read, and yet would be in danger of being classified as illiterate. With these warnings in place, what can we say about the historical character of literacy in the West?

Before the Protestant Reformation, education was very closely controlled by the Catholic Church, and was limited to elite groupsmen in holy orders. Further, literacy in Latin rather than in vernacular languages was the goal of these elites. However, by the middle of the sixteenth century, while many schools and teachers still maintained links to organized religion, a number of new schools arose due to the efforts of private individuals, parishes, guilds, and the like. This secularization of education meant that literacy was less and less the preserve of elite social groups; the deliberate spread of (first Latin, and then vernacular) literacy throughout the social body played an important role in the maintenance of religious orthodoxy, both Catholic and Protestant, but it also came to be seen as a political tool for state building, for the maintenance of morality, and for equipping the population with valuable skills. Desiderius Erasmus (c. 14691536) and Martin Luther (14831546) were especially important in drawing attention to such political and governmental possibilities. James Bowen, in A History of Western Education, estimates early sixteenth-century literacy rates in England to have been less than 1 percent; yet by the reign of Elizabeth I (15581603) he suggests it was getting close to 50 percent. The Reformation, then, was a major spur to education and to literacy, but we must be aware that while the starting point for this education was religious knowledge

and morality, it also aimed at other sorts of useful knowledge.

However, the situation was not the same across all of Europe, and Protestant countries generally had better literacy rates than Catholic ones. In France, for example, a government-inspired study of historical rates of literacy published in 1880 showed that for the 16861690 period, 75 percent of the population could not sign their names. As Carlo M. Cipolla shows in Literacy and Development in the West, literacy rates for Catholic Europe as a whole were roughly in line with these statistics from France. Protestant Europe fared much better, with literacy rates of maybe 35 to 45 percent. In addition, Cipolla makes it clear that within these statistics we can see great variation by class and geography: the urban bourgeoisie had literacy rates of at least 90 percent, as compared pared to a rate of 10 percent for rural peasants. Furthermore, literacy rates differed between the sexes: a 1880 government study in France shows that between 1686 and 1690 the female literacy rate (based on ability to sign) was just 14 percent, while the male rate was 36 percent.

In England, the growth in the number of schools and in the literacy rateduring and after the Reformationwent hand in hand with the growth of the book trade. Richard Altick has shown that in the Elizabethan period, despite deliberate attempts to limit quantities, school texts (grammars, primers, and so forth) were allowed a print run of up to twelve thousand copies per year. Popular enthusiasm for reading and writing coexisted with official suspicion that such skills, if they became too widespread, would lead to social discontent and disorder. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the charity school movement in England and Scotland (especially associated with the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) concentrated on trying to increase literacy levels among the poor. The aim of these schools was to ensure that literacy skills were sufficient for Bible study, but they also aimed to inculcate in the poor acceptance of their low status in life. These schools were also important actors in the process of nation building, explicitly teaching only in English and striving to eliminate the Gaelic language from Scotland.

From the Reformation until the nineteenth century, popular education and literacy education were virtually synonymous. While the elite had the opportunity to gain other skills and knowledge, schooling for the masses mostly concerned itself with learning to read. Moreover, reading meant reading the Bible. What was at stake was the desire for the general population to become what Ian Hunter has termed socially trained and spiritually guided. Learning to read was a step on the way to the production of a new type of person who was morally developed but also economically productive, and it was primarily through the reading of religious and moral texts that this was achieved.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the state slowly assumed more and more control of the schools, in a period which culminated in the introduction of compulsory education in most of the Western nations (for example, in the United States between 1852 [Massachusetts] and 1918 [Mississippi], in Prussia in 1868, in England in 1870, and in France in 1882). In England, the 1861 Newcastle Report had stopped short of recommending compulsory education, but noted that about 2.5 million children were receiving some schooling, and that literacy rates were 67 percent for men and 51 percent for women. The Newcastle Report was typical of the era: even as the arguments over the rights and wrongs of compulsory education in the context of a liberal state were taking place, state intervention into these matters was increasing, at the very least in terms of collecting statistics and adjudicating on issues and problems.

In the United States in the nineteenth century, the common schools pioneered the notion of a free, compulsory, and secular education. Fundamental to this endeavor was the attempt to guarantee an educated populace who could partake in political, social, and economic life. Schooling and civics, then, grew together. Education in literacy was still the core concern in the common schools and in the public schools which succeeded them, but by now schooling was concerning itself with other subjects, including history, geography, arithmetic, and bookkeeping. Horace Mann (17961859) was a crucial figure in the shift toward this compulsory public schooling system in the United States. Mann traveled widely, especially through Europe, and tried to implement the best features of overseas systems in the nascent Massachusetts system. Mann served as secretary of the first ever state board of education, established in Massachusetts in 1837, and lived to see that state implement the first compulsory education system in the United States. While it took some time for compulsory education to be fully implemented for both boys and girls and for all sectors of society, the early years of the twentieth century saw literacy rates in many Western countries approach 100 percent.

See also: Compulsory School Attendance; Education, Europe; Education, United States.


Altick, Richard. 1957. The English Common Reader. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Bowen, James. 1981. A History of Western Education. 3 vols. London: Methuen.

Cipolla, Carlo M. 1969. Literacy and Development in the West. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.

Hunter, Ian. 1994. Rethinking the School: Subjectivity, Bureaucracy, Criticism. London: Allen and Unwin.

Vincent, David. 1989. Literacy and Popular Culture: England 17501914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Gavin Kendall

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LITERACY The ability to read and write in at least one language. This ability developed in West Asia in the third millennium BC, when the Sumerians developed a system of symbols to record spoken language. They were followed by the Syro-Palestinians who, between 2000 and 1000 BC, introduced a consonantal script using a small number of signs, the precursor of the alphabet. During the same period, increasingly complex commercial, administrative, and religious structures and growing urbanization led to the invention of WRITING systems in such other regions as Egypt, India, and China. In ancient cultures, literacy was rare and specialized, and therefore a token of considerable learning. In more recent centuries, however, the term has often been interpreted minimally: as at least the READING and writing of one's name, anyone unable to do so being classed as illiterate. In the 20c, however, the ability to read and write has been delimited in many ways and literacy is often used interchangeably with FUNCTIONAL LITERACY: the production and understanding of simple oral or written statements reflecting the social, economic, and educational conditions of a particular region. Yet the threshold of literacy is indeterminate, making exact measurements difficult or culturally variable. In 1965, at a world congress of ministers of EDUCATION. UNESCO adopted the view that ‘rather than an end in itself, literacy should be regarded as a way of preparing man for a social, civic and economic role that goes far beyond the limits of rudimentary literacy training consisting merely in the teaching of reading and writing’ (‘Literacy, Gateway to Fulfillment’, special issue of UNESCO Courier, June 1980).

Literacy in English

The earliest written English was the concern of a small minority of men, first in the runic alphabet, whose letters were carved on objects for both practical and ornamental purposes, then in the Roman alphabet introduced in Britain by Christian missionaries at the end of the 6c. Education remained for many centuries a province largely of the Roman Catholic Church and the need for reading and writing was not greatly extended until the introduction of movable type and inexpensive paper in the late 15c. This helped standardize written versions of English, expand the uses of literacy, and give reading and writing greater circulation among the populace. Determining who is literate and for what purposes has always been difficult. The collection of statistics tends to be confounded by the under-representation of people marginalized from the economic and political centres of a culture: for example, in censuses, by incomplete records, and by variable standards of what should be measured. Data such as signatures or court and ecclesiastical testimony have been used to estimate the degree of literacy in particular locales at particular times, but tend to depend on self-reports and minimal evidence; they give no account of such skills as comprehension of printed matter. Moreover, reading and writing have had different constituencies and uses during different periods. Thus, in the 17c Protestant communities of early New England, where male literacy was well above 60% by 1700, it was considered important to help women acquire reading skills for religious purposes but not writing because its ‘commercial uses lay beyond women's traditional sphere of activity’ ( Geraldine J. Clifford, ‘Buch und Lesen: Historical Perspectives on Literacy and Schooling’, Review of Educational Research 54, 1984).

Ideology and literacy

Deliberately taught rather than acquired like speech, literacy has traditionally been seen as a commodity delivered through political, educational, and religious bureaucracies. Reading, writing, and counting at sophisticated levels continued to be reserved first for the clergy and then for the sons of the aristocracy and of wealthy merchants; the term literacy in its 15–18c usages was regularly associated with a classical education and with priestly or civic élites. The literacy needs of most people, however, have tended to be functional: the production of reports, accounts, journals, and letters, and in recent times the completion of forms. Institutional arrangements for instruction in literacy according to the British and American models have, until the 20c, generally been aimed at achieving low to moderate levels of literacy for large numbers of people and higher levels for smaller privileged groups. Educational developments in 18c Scotland, linked with Presbyterianism, were typical: while the literacy rate for adult males jumped from 33% in 1675 to 90% in 1800, the increase was due to emphasis on reading, memorization, and recall of familiar material; neither writing nor the application of knowledge was demanded.

Literacy, knowledge, and problem-solving

The association of literacy with the acquisition of theoretical knowledge and the development of problem-solving abilities was by and large a product of the Industrial Revolution and, prior to the 20c, was generally confined to centres of education in cities. Country schools, whose pupils were needed to work the land and whose instructors were not always professionally certified, generally offered training in basic skills rather than fluency in written language. Both in town and country, however, children were drilled first on letter names and sounds, then on syllables and words. During the 19c, many reform-minded educators stressed the need for comprehension of reading materials, asserting that encountering words in context would lead students to a more rapid acquisition of meaning and a more appropriate use of emphasis and inflection. However, since lack of high-level literacy was regarded as neither degrading nor detrimental to economic or social advancement, 19c levels of literacy remained low while numbers of people described as literate grew.

During the 20c, attitudes to literacy have changed. School-based definitions of literacy and standards relating to year groups have been adopted in most English-speaking countries, as competency testing has replaced functional determinants. Paradoxically, because of heightened expectations and increased technological demands, many people who have exceeded traditional literacy criteria are now considered semiliterate or functionally illiterate. In addition, legislators, educators, and public activists throughout the English-speaking world have sought to broaden the social and personal dimensions of literacy through mandatory training in such things as historical literacy (awareness of the main outlines of history, especially as regards one's own country), cultural literacy (a knowledge of classical texts and great writers of one's own culture), mathematical literacy (also called numeracy), symbolic literacy (an appreciation of the value and use of symbols of various kinds), media literacy (familiarity with and a capacity to understand and to some extent evaluate the different media and what they provide), and computer literacy (familiarity with and ability to use a computer, without necessarily being able to write programs).


Literacy requirements, which often relate to and depend on such highly specific contexts as occupational need, continue to vary among social and economic groups, with low levels concentrated among the poor, the undereducated, and members of minority populations. Given the lack of contemporary agreement concerning its definitions and uses, literacy is best conceived as a continuum whose dissemination involves various kinds of behaviour at higher and lower levels, including reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking, counting, coping with the demands of the state, of employment, and of social life. See ILLITERACY, SPELLING.

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literacy, the ability to read and write, is the measure usually taken as a key indicator of a country's economic and social advancement. Efforts by historians to pinpoint the exact level of literacy in Britain at any time have proved notoriously difficult, with estimates requiring further qualification by regional, gender, class, and rural/urban divisions, and by what level of literacy is meant. Estimates for mid-17th-cent. basic literacy, for example, range from 10 to 30 per cent of the population, with differences such as 15–20 per cent in the rural north, against 40–60 per cent in southern urban centres. The gender division is illustrated by one set of figures comparing 1841 and 1870, when a rise in male literacy of 67 per cent to 80 per cent was matched by a female rise from 51 per cent to 73 per cent.

The main early spurs to ‘useful literacy’ were religious or, later, economic, bringing strong associations with the protestant work ethic and the rise of industrial capitalism, whereby individuals sought literacy for their self-advancement, and capital (and eventually the state) encouraged it to create an educated literate work-force. These needs of the British capitalist nation state made education one of the first areas where the move from laissez-faire to intervention became evident. Through providing government assistance to voluntary institutions from the 1830s–1860s, and then intervening directly from 1870 with a series of Education Acts, the state mopped up most of the last traces of illiteracy.

While the agencies of the state made this undoubted contribution to the rise in literacy through education (serving also, according to the left, to extend a fair degree of ‘social control’), the role of working-class self-help should not be ignored. For every paternalistic Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, there was a working-class equivalent Society for the Diffusion of Really Useful Knowledge, challenging the reformist ideologies of the mechanics' institutes, adult schools, working men's colleges, people's palaces, and religious, scientific, and philosophical societies, with a contrasting co-operative, trade union, chartist, socialist (and latterly Marxist) ideology.

Consequently, some historians have estimated that of the 1840 population—before compulsory state schooling—most adults had some form of education (allowing for class and regional variations), with 75 per cent able to do some reading and 60 per cent some writing. Through the 20th cent., the expansion of the audio-visual media led to demands for education to concentrate on visual literacy as much as its traditional task of ensuring written literacy.

Douglas J. Allen

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Literacy Test


LITERACY TEST refers to the government practice of testing the literacy of potential citizens at the federal level, and potential voters at the state level. The federal government first employed literacy tests as part of the immigration process in 1917. Southern state legislatures employed literacy tests as part of the voter registration process as early as the late nineteenth century.

As used by the states, the literacy test gained infamy as a means for denying the franchise to African Americans. Adopted by a number of southern states, the literacy test was applied in a patently unfair manner, as it was used to disfranchise many literate southern blacks while allowing many illiterate southern whites to vote. The literacy test, combined with other discriminatory requirements, effectively disfranchised the vast majority of African Americans in the South from the 1890s until the 1960s. Southern states abandoned the literacy test only when forced to by federal legislation in the 1960s. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act provided that literacy tests used as a qualification for voting in federal elections be administered wholly in writing and only to persons who had not completed six years of formal education. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of literacy tests in all states or political subdivisions in which less than 50 percent of the votingage residents were registered as of 1 November 1964, or had voted in the 1964 presidential election. In a series of cases, the Supreme Court upheld the legislation and restricted the use of literacy tests for non-English-speaking citizens. Since the passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, black registration in the South has increased dramatically.

DennisIppolito/a. g.

See alsoCivil Rights Act of 1964 ; Primary, White ; Suffrage: Exclusion from the Suffrage ; White Citizens Councils .

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lit·er·a·cy / ˈlitərəsē; ˈlitrə-/ • n. the ability to read and write. ∎  competence or knowledge in a specified area: wine literacy can't be taught in three hours.

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literacy •radiancy •immediacy, intermediacy •expediency • idiocy • saliency •resiliency • leniency •incipiency, recipiency •recreancy • pruriency • deviancy •subserviency • transiency • pliancy •buoyancy, flamboyancy •fluency, truancy •constituency • abbacy • embassy •celibacy • absorbency •incumbency, recumbency •ascendancy, intendancy, interdependency, pendency, resplendency, superintendency, tendency, transcendency •candidacy •presidency, residency •despondency • redundancy • infancy •sycophancy • argosy • legacy •profligacy • surrogacy •extravagancy • plangency • agency •regency •astringency, contingency, stringency •intransigency • exigency • cogency •pungency •convergency, emergency, insurgency, urgency •vacancy • piquancy • fricassee •mendicancy • efficacy • prolificacy •insignificancy • delicacy • intricacy •advocacy • fallacy • galaxy •jealousy, prelacy •repellency • valency • Wallasey •articulacy • corpulency • inviolacy •excellency • equivalency • pharmacy •supremacy • clemency • Christmassy •illegitimacy, legitimacy •intimacy • ultimacy • primacy •dormancy • diplomacy • contumacy •stagnancy •lieutenancy, subtenancy, tenancy •pregnancy •benignancy, malignancy •effeminacy • prominency •obstinacy • pertinency • lunacy •immanency •impermanency, permanency •rampancy • papacy • flippancy •occupancy •archiepiscopacy, episcopacy •transparency • leprosy • inerrancy •flagrancy, fragrancy, vagrancy •conspiracy • idiosyncrasy •minstrelsy • magistracy • piracy •vibrancy •adhocracy, aristocracy, autocracy, bureaucracy, democracy, gerontocracy, gynaecocracy (US gynecocracy), hierocracy, hypocrisy, meritocracy, mobocracy, monocracy, plutocracy, technocracy, theocracy •accuracy • obduracy • currency •curacy, pleurisy •confederacy • numeracy •degeneracy • itinerancy • inveteracy •illiteracy, literacy •innocency • trenchancy • deficiency •fantasy, phantasy •intestacy • ecstasy • expectancy •latency • chieftaincy • intermittency •consistency, insistency, persistency •instancy • militancy • impenitency •precipitancy • competency •hesitancy • apostasy • constancy •accountancy • adjutancy •consultancy, exultancy •impotency • discourtesy •inadvertency • privacy •irrelevancy, relevancy •solvency • frequency • delinquency •adequacy • poignancy

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