views updated May 11 2018


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


views updated Jun 08 2018


R. A. Houston

At the end of the fifteenth century in Europe literacy of any kind was rare. Among the laity, the ability to read, write, and count was restricted to a small minority of wealthy, town-dwelling men. As late as 1800 no European country could claim that half its population could read and write. In most regions complete, if basic, literacy was still confined to town-dwelling men of middling status or above. Around 1900, however, many parts of Europe had achieved mass literacy. Perhaps 85–90 percent of adults were deemed to be literate in Britain, France, Germany, and much of Scandinavia. That success created an enormous cultural gulf in Europe, for in huge tracts of the east and south even the rudiments of reading and writing were denied to a majority of the population. Figure 1 and the map below show this development in different ways.

By the start of the twenty-first century literacy was regarded as a birthright, while illiteracy was seen as a personal shame and a national disgrace. This chapter looks at the timing, location, and social distribution of this change from restricted to mass literacy. It also explores more qualitative dimensions such as the reasons for and uses of literacy. Throughout, the acquisition and exercise of literacy in its different forms is understood in its social context, for the spread of literacy across space and time was determined by a complex interaction of factors such as wealth and social status, residence, cultural assumptions about gender roles, language, and religion.

Literacy is made up of several communication skills, which are best seen as bands in a spectrum 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 way—although 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 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 compose—an advanced skill that required considerable training and practice, and which 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 could also copy or compose in Latin, the international language of learning throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period, or in another (later) pan-European language like French. Even those who had none of these skills were not culturally isolated for they could listen—hear a priest's sermons or a friend reading aloud, participate actively or passively in discussions with their peers. Associated with literacy is numeracy, which again covers a spectrum of skills from simple counting of objects to sophisticated accounting and complex mathematical calculations.

Since 1500, both reading and writing have increased in significance, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes independently; sometimes at the expense of oral and visual forms of communication, sometimes in tandem with them. The way to understand literacy in historic Europe is to assess the changing access which people had to the different bands in the spectrum and the ways they used them.


It was as late as 1995 that the first generally accepted comparison of international adult literacy attainments was published by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The European countries included were Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland. Based on rigorous, direct, and standardized observations and tests, the study distinguished prose, document, and quantitative literacy, dividing each category into five levels of attainment. Social historians can touch on prose literacy (reports on, or summaries of, tests of reading ability) or elements of document literacy (signing), but quantitative historical studies of numeracy are absent. The social and geographical distribution of historic literacy is 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. Before the nineteenth century, reading is much harder to measure directly, but various indirect measures such as school provision or book production and ownership can be used. Until then, virtually all sources cover adults rather than children. Uniquely, the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia kept registers of reading and religious knowledge from the end of the seventeenth century. The Scandinavian example is a warning that comparison over time and place is rendered problematic by the many different sources and criteria of historic "literacy" used by churches, governments, social scientists, and historians. The figures given below may appear precise, but they are sometimes no more than broad indicators of different cultural achievements.

Fortunately, both direct and indirect indicators of literacy generally point in the same direction. 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 peasants; Protestant areas of Europe tended to have higher literacy than Catholic. Expansion occurred first 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 and did not fall substantially until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Classified by economic activity, agricultural workers come lowest in the European hierarchy, industrial workers next, slightly inferior to commercial and service occupations, followed by professionals and landowners. Differences between the sexes were pronounced and enduring. A quarter of Amsterdam grooms marrying around 1730 could not sign the register compared with half of brides. In southern Europe sex was more important than status or residence in determining achievements. Between 1540 and 1600 in the Spanish archdiocese of Toledo, 30 percent of town-dwelling men could not sign compared with 93 percent of women; the rural figures were 48 percent and 98 percent. In areas such as southern France, where the faiths coexisted after the Reformation, Protestant literacy was generally higher than Catholic until the eighteenth century. In other parts of Europe it remained so. Catholic illiteracy in Ireland fell from 46 percent in 1861 to 16 percent in 1901, but it remained higher than Protestant. Even among other apparently homogeneous social groups there were pronounced variations across Europe. Convicted criminals are an example. One English prisoner in three was wholly illiterate in the early 1840s. In contrast, "the intelligentsia of the criminal world" were the Germans, with fewer than one in fifty unable to read and write around 1860.

To these gradients can be added a bold geographical summary. If Europe was homogeneous in terms of its restricted literacy at the end of the Middle Ages, it had three massive cultural zones by the end of the nineteenth century: a literate, economically developed (and largely Protestant) north; a center with pronounced regional variations, notably France; and a less literate, underdeveloped (Catholic and Orthodox) south and east. The 1900 distribution was itself the result of four centuries of more robust advances in literacy in the northern parts of Europe than elsewhere. Within this broad-brush picture lay numerous local variations. A single English county at

Date Fraugdegård (Funen) Fussing (Jutland) Lindenborg (Jutland)

the time of the mid-seventeenth-century Civil Wars might contain villages with proportions of literate men four times higher than others. Pronounced regional variations were reduced during the eighteenth and nineteenth century in some parts of Europe. However, this long-term trend disguises some astounding differences in the timing of change. Table 1 shows the percentage of Danish manorial peasants unable to sign their copyhold documents, 1719–1850. The dramatic improvement in signing ability on the northern, Jutland estates during the eighteenth century created a huge gulf in literacy between them and the Fraugdegård estate near Odense, which was not bridged until the middle of the nineteenth century. Similarly pronounced regional variations are found across northern Germany around 1800.

The pace of change was everywhere hesitant and irregular. At the time of Italian unification, analysis of the censimento or national census shows that 81 percent of females aged six years or older were illiterate, as were 68 percent of males. In absolute numbers that meant 17 out of 23 million inhabitants. Illiteracy was similarly prevalent in Spain at that date with figures of 81 percent and 63 percent respectively. Even in countries like Italy, where literacy did not advance rapidly before 1800, achievements since 1850 have been considerable. For every 100 illiterate females in 1861 there were just 5 in 1981. However, change has also generated some unexpected side effects. Whereas in 1861 illiteracy was evenly divided between males and females in Italy, by 1981 there were two illiterate women for every man.

The painfully slow pace of change and the late arrival of mass literacy finds its most extreme example in Portugal. Of those over seven years of age in 1890, 76 percent were illiterate, falling only slightly to 74 percent in 1900 and 70 percent in 1911. The figure was still 68 percent in 1930 and it was not until the 1940s that more than half of Portugal's population could read and write: two centuries after the most favored areas had passed that threshold. Portugal's 30 percent illiteracy in 1968 was the highest in Europe. Other peripheral zones were deeply illiterate well into the twentieth century. Greek men were 71 percent illiterate in 1870 compared with 36 percent in 1928; the respective figures for women are 94 percent and 64 percent. Levels of literacy were similarly low throughout the Balkans. In 1880, 90 percent of Dalmatia's people were illiterate and, as in southern Italy, towns were little better in this respect than the countryside.

The patterns outlined above are sometimes complex and varied, but the overall distribution and progress of writing ability is clear. Yet in many parts of Europe before the late nineteenth century reading was taught before writing. Given the discontinuous and brief training most children received (spending no more than two or three years in usually part-time schooling), it would be surprising if reading were not more widespread than the easily measurable ability to sign. For example, a case has been made that Lowland Scotland had near-universal reading by the mid-eighteenth century. The only convincing statistics are based on the Swedish hustavla, or registers of the Lutheran church's household literacy campaign. By c.1780 in Sweden and Iceland, male and female, young and old, rich and poor alike were almost all able to pass the Lutheran churches' tests. Signing ability was confined to less than 10 percent: largely town-dwelling males. As late as 1921, 30 percent of Finland's people could not read and write—an achievement inferior to Italy's. It is argued that the "Scandinavian pattern" may be more extensive, and that between c.1500 and c.1900 Europe comprised two zones: one where reading and writing were taught together; the other where reading alone was taught, this including many areas of Germany and a large part of southern and northwestern France as well as Scandinavia.

Tacitly or overtly, studies that show apparently extensive reading suggest that the breadth of cultural access in early-modern Europe was much broader than the signing statistics imply. The problem here lies with the nature of the reading that people did. It was normally religious and based principally on rote learning and recognition of well-known passages. Indeed, as late as 1750 one authority assigns critical reading ability in the German lands to just 10 percent of the population. Another reports that fewer than 5 percent of the men in the region of Arras and St. Omer in northern France were reckoned "well educated" in surveys conducted in 1802 and 1804. Subjective as such assessments are, they indicate the restricted impact that literate media could have had on ordinary people who were ostensibly "readers." Nevertheless, we must be alert to the possibility that reading was more widespread than writing, especially in certain parts of Europe and among certain social groups: poorer men and most women.

Females generally had less chance to learn writing than males. An investigation of 3,036 women aged above 20 years living in part of northern Italy in 1854 showed that just 410 could read and write though 1,103 could only read. It was not till the 1860s and 1870s that women began to approach complete literacy in this part of Italy. The existence of social forms that privileged visual, spoken, and sung communication (such as the French veillée or evening gathering), and which were dominated by ordinary women, suggests that their cultural lives continued to be cast in an oral/aural and visual framework.

There are prominent exceptions. Women of the eighteenth-century French and English upper-bourgeois and landed classes (and especially unmarried ones it seems) read periodicals and novels; 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 we should not exaggerate the social penetration of extensive female literacy. Book ownership of the kind recorded in post mortem inventories was growing during the eighteenth century (notably in France, Germany, and England), but it remained principally the preserve of middling and upper-class males.

If reading was almost certainly much more extensive than writing, elementary numeracy was probably ubiquitous. Even in the Middle Ages, one test of basic mental capacity was the ability to count to ten. However, formal accounting skills were much more restricted. Though written numeration had been known in the Latin west for several centuries, and paper was in general use, the abacus with counters was still often used in the seventeenth and even in the eighteenth centuries. The celebrated mathematician Leibniz used one. Roman and Arabic numerals coexisted (as did Gothic and Latin type or script), but there is also evidence across Europe of "peasant numerals"—symbols which represented numbers that may derive from roman numerals, but which are distinctive. As an advanced skill in the school curriculum and one more often learned as an adult for economic purposes, higher-grade numeracy probably progressed at the same rate as writing. There are no quantitative studies, but age reporting in documents shows growing precision and reliability in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a fact which may indicate populations who were increasingly conversant with numbers.


Explaining these patterns and trends requires analysis of the central social, political, and economic relationships in historic Europe. The chances of being educated and of acquiring literacy depended on a wide variety of factors: wealth, sex, projected job opportunities and work experience, school provision and costs, community structures, employments for children, the power of landowners, access to literate media and the opportunities to use them, and even the language a person spoke in everyday life.

Schooling. Literacy and schooling naturally went hand in hand. For example, the German duchy of Württemberg had 89 schools in 1520 compared with over 400 by 1600, and across Germany in this period many rulers issued ordinances providing for or regulating elementary education. Catholics too expanded education. The first "school of Christian doctrine" was opened at Milan in 1536 to teach children the essentials of the Catholic faith. There were 28 such schools by 1564 and more than 120 in 1599. Postelementary education also expanded. Perhaps 1,000 new grammar schools were established in England, 1480–1660. Thus we find rapidly expanding literacy for some social groups in late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England, the German lands, and in the towns of northern Italy. Much of early-modern Europe truly experienced an "educational revolution."

The case of Italy shows the importance of schools in a later age. In the mid-nineteenth century 80 percent of children aged 6 to 12 years were at school in Savoy (later annexed by France) compared with just 9 percent in Sardinia. Small wonder that illiteracy among adult males was just 50 percent in the former provinces compared with 90 percent in the latter. In one southern province, Nuoro, only 337 of 61,479 women above the age of 20 years could read and write. Using broadly defined regions, proportions in school in the north of Italy grew from 67 percent in 1863 to 85 percent in 1901; figures for the central provinces are 28 percent and 50 percent respectively (incidentally, almost identical to Greece between these dates); for the south 22 percent and 44 percent.

Yet, until well into the twentieth century the vast majority of children anywhere in Europe could expect to receive only a few years of training in the rudiments of reading and writing. Children were contributors to the family budget from an early age in northwestern Europe until the nineteenth century, and until the twentieth century in the south and east. For them, leaving school might as easily mark the start of learning functional literacy rather than its culmination, for literacy has to be practiced as well as learned. As we chart the development of mass literacy we should also recall that schools became central to the acquisition of skills only by 1850 at the earliest. In Sweden, until 1858 the authorities assumed that children would have been taught to read at home; only after this did junior schools take over the tasks of basic education. The Nordic countries (notably Iceland and Norway) and some of the more thinly populated mountain and steppe regions of Europe relied on mobile teachers following a circuit until well into the twentieth century. As early as the eighteenth century, mountain regions of Austria like Tyrol or Vorarlberg seem to have had high literacy, but few schools. Fixed schools began to be common in the rural villages of Russia only in the decades following the emancipation of the peasantry in 1861. The total number of primary schools grew from 8 thousand in 1856 to 25 thousand in 1879 and then 100 thousand by 1911, the initiative coming from zemstvos (local authorities), the church, and the education ministry equally. The number of pupils rose from 450 thousand to 6.6 million between 1856 and 1911.

For all its importance, schooling was neither the only nor always the most significant cause of changes in literacy. Modern readers who live in states with powerful governments will be struck by how the progress of literacy in the nineteenth century was largely independent of major political events or, for that matter, educational legislation. From the sixteenth to the twentieth century, educational legislation was normally designed to consolidate, standardize, and enable rather than to innovate. Before the nineteenth century no European country had a school "system," but instead dozens of sometimes competing, sometimes complementary schools, which were organized and funded in different ways. Even major political upheavals like the French Revolution did little in the short term to change institutions or alter trends in literacy. By the time the republican statesman Jules Ferry realized the Revolutionary aspiration for free, secular, and compulsory education in 1882, France was already a literate nation.

Religion and wealth. However slowly and hesitantly, literacy was increasing. Did the expansion favor Protestants more than Catholics? Protestantism is commonly described as "the religion of the book." Indeed, a glance at map 1 shows the enduring legacy of the sixteenth-century Reformation. The extensive literacy of the Dutch and Lowland Scots in the eighteenth century stands alongside their commitment to Calvinism. The Catholic conservatism of rural France, Poland, or Spain cannot be divorced from deep illiteracy. Was it simply a question of faith? In the north of Ireland during the seventeenth century Protestant farmers were better able to sign their names than Catholic ones, but they were also richer and lived in less remote areas. The point here is that Protestants and Catholics were not distributed equally among all sections of society. In seventeenth-century Poland virtually all the Calvinist minority were either nobles or town-dwellers. Crude divisions between faiths often break down under examination. Ability to sign was as common in staunchly Catholic northeastern France as it was in strongly Protestant England at the end of the seventeenth century. In France and Germany the differences between Protestant and Catholic were less in 1750 than in 1650.

Despite the hothouse atmosphere surrounding it, the early years of the Reformation saw only gradual improvements in literacy, which followed on from fifteenth-century developments and which were not unique to Protestantism. Seventeenth-century achievements were more substantial. The campaign to promote religious literacy in Sweden produced remarkable results in less than a century, widespread literacy being used to consolidate rather than cause religious change. In Denmark and Prussia, on the other hand, it was not the Lutheran Reformation of the sixteenth or seventeenth century that brought about widespread literacy, but the early-eighteenth-century campaign waged by the Pietists with the help of the new "absolutist" rulers.

No more than schools did the competing churches work in a cultural vacuum. Powerful economic, social, and political forces continued to influence literacy levels. The Protestant Vaucluse had lower literacy in the early nineteenth century than the Catholic province of Baden, the reason being that the German region had more communal property and could thus subsidize schooling. Indeed, on closer inspection, it is plain that across Europe factors other than religion entered into the equation. In the 1870s German Catholics were more accomplished than those of Ireland, who were in turn more literate than Italians. High Italian illiteracy cannot be divorced from its economic performance, for not until the 1930s were more than half the population employed outside agriculture. Religion was only one of many social, economic, and political forces that influenced the distribution of literacy.

The Italian and Irish examples just cited point to a connection between wealth and literacy at both an individual and a communal level. The most literate départements of nineteenth-century France were the prosperous open-field ones to the north and east of an imaginary line drawn between St. Malo and Geneva. Townspeople were more literate than rural dwellers because they were wealthier and followed occupations that required reading, writing, and counting. Illiteracy had been almost eradicated by 1700 among London's male merchants and artisans: a remarkable achievement.

Urbanization. There is a connection between urbanization and literacy, but some cities were much more literate than others. Paris in 1850 was far superior to Naples, as London was to Madrid. Furthermore, some rapidly industrializing cities of northern England, northeastern France and northern Germany in the early nineteenth century saw literacy rates decline as overcrowding stretched the social fabric. The more general relationship between economy and literacy also involved positive and negative feedbacks. Literacy may serve to enhance a nation's economic performance, but it is also clear that growth (and political will) is needed to create and distribute the resources to fund the cost and opportunity cost of educating children, especially at the elementary level.

Urban children were likely to attend school longer than their rural cousins. When education was not compulsory, girls were taken away from school earlier than boys. The Russian school census of 1911 allows us to calculate the likelihood of a child attending school for a given period. Some 88 percent of boys would attend for a year compared with 52 percent of girls. But the chance that a boy would complete three years in school was just 39 percent and only 8 percent for a girl. In these circumstances, most functional literacy and other skills were picked up later in life. It was only in the late nineteenth century that regular and extended school attendance became a central part of growing up for British children and not until after 1945 in Eastern and southern Europe. A principal effect of this development was to fix childhood as a definable stage of life and as a social concept. Similarly, in the West, the expansion of secondary and tertiary provision after the World Wars respectively has helped to create modern notions of "youth" and "youth culture" with, among other attributes, distinctive tastes in printed media.

Gender. The Russian case is an extreme example of a common pattern. Males were educated to participate in the public sphere, females in the private or domestic one. This usually meant that girls gained religious knowledge, learned to read, and were given practical instruction in home-focused skills. In the Mediterranean lands, where gender roles were firmly delineated, it was long held to be positively undesirable to train girls in more than the rudiments of religion, reading, and housewifery. The legacy of such negative attitudes toward female education in those areas is clear in women's deep illiteracy well into the twentieth century. Such views are summed up in a French peasant's comment that girls in his canton (Quercy) had been taught to read, but not write, because the nuns did not want them penning love letters to their sweethearts. Reading was seen by educators as a passive skill. Writing enabled (among other things) unsupervised, long-distance communication and gave access to a different cultural world independent of teachers, pastors, family, and neighbors. Little wonder that secondary education for girls was not a serious subject of debate, let alone action, anywhere in Europe until the mid-nineteenth century—after 1868 in Spain, for example. Postelementary education for girls was only formalized in Britain from the 1850s. Previously, the daughters of the rich had been educated at home by governesses. Writing ability among women began to take off at the end of the nineteenth century in Scandinavia as they were drawn into teaching, clerical, postal, and service jobs. Even then, censorious attitudes toward educated women persisted among some sections of public opinion. Simply being literate was not always enough to transcend social conventions.

Because many women could only read, they did not have direct access to the full spectrum of literate culture. Worse, the growing dominance of written and printed forms in late-nineteenth-century Europe involved simultaneously devaluing the oral traditions of women and the elderly of both sexes, social groups who were commonly left behind in periods of rapidly advancing literacy. However, the presence of informal cultural intermediaries meant illiterates were never wholly isolated from the world of print and writing. Inability to decipher letters and words did not preclude access to the products of literacy. In the city factories and in the squares of small towns and villages of early-twentieth-century Spain and Portugal, newspapers might be read aloud by one person to anyone who cared to listen. Varieties of oral tradition survive in the mainstream until today, complementing rather than substituting for these traditions.

Linguistic variety. Intermediaries might bridge the gap between literate and oral culture, but the possibilities that literacy could open up usually depended on an individual possessing it for him or her self. In assessing why some areas or populations were less accomplished than others, it is hard to exaggerate how important linguistic variety could be. If education and writing or publishing were conducted in a language different from that of everyday life, literacy tended to suffer. Italy had had a relatively uniform written language since the late Middle Ages, but a great diversity of spoken tongues: just 2.5 percent of Italy's population spoke "Italian" (Tuscan) with any fluency in 1861. Four-fifths of the inhabitants of Wales were habitual Welsh speakers as late as the 1880s, while at least a fifth of the population of France did not speak "French" (langue d'oeil) in 1863. It is no accident that the corners of France where Breton, Basque, and Occitan (langue d'oc) were the languages of everyday life were also the least literate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Gaelic-speaking parts of the British Isles generally lagged far behind the advancing literacy of English-speaking areas. The west of Ireland is an example. Roughly 55–60 percent of Ireland's people born in the 1770s spoke only Irish. Three quarters of those in the 12 counties of Munster, Connacht, and Donegal (with 45 percent of the population) were Irish speakers at the end of the eighteenth century compared with just 10 percent in the remaining 20 counties with 55 percent of Ireland's people. Irish speaking was low and literacy probably high in northeast Ireland even in the early eighteenth century because of the prevalence of English-speaking Presbyterians, many of them of Scots origin or descent. This example reminds us that language is not the whole explanation of literacy trends. Different religious priorities, a more balanced wealth distribution and greater aggregate prosperity in this region also contributed.

Irish was an oral and manuscript language, writing being confined to a very small learned class (almost a caste) in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. English possessed these attributes, but it was also a printed language and the medium of education. During the eighteenth century printed literature for Irish speakers was developed (albeit slowly) by Dublin publishers using a phonetic spelling based on English language orthography. This helped bring about growing English language literacy, but it also contributed to the decline of spoken and written Irish because print-literacy in Irish was secured through English, even for Irish speakers. There were almost no secular works printed in Irish during the eighteenth century and very few religious ones. Other parts of the so-called "Celtic fringe" experienced different fortunes. From the mid-seventeenth century, northwestern French Catholics used printed religious literature in Breton to further the Counter-Reformation, thus fueling the development of reading and writing in the language of everyday speech. Breton was not the language of education, but it was part of everyday religious life and this helped secure higher levels of literacy. Welsh became more deeply embedded as a literate language for this reason too, and because there was more literature available. There was a full Welsh Bible in 1588 and three thousand works printed prior to 1820 compared with fewer than two hundred in Irish. In the southern Low Countries at the end of the eighteenth century illiteracy was higher along linguistic frontiers and in mixed areas. However, the context here was also created by a legacy of ecclesiastical conflict and political fracture, which made education and literacy a weapon as much as a prize.

The state. Since 1500 Europe has seen the retreat of dialects and of separate languages like Gaelic, turning some from majority into minority tongues. Even in the late twentieth century, Europe had a sort of "fault line" between the speakers of Romance languages like French and Italian, and Teutonic ones like German (or its dialects like Alsatian). The influence over time of the state and of printed and later electronic media has been to standardize language as, say, French or German, leaving only the older generation speaking dialect variations. Attempts to revive regional dialects, suppressed or surrendered through political and economic change between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, began in the early nineteenth century. A Provençal revival led to the foundation in 1854 of the Félibrige—a society of regional poets who sought to codify and purify Occitan and to restore its usage by promoting it in literary works. Such movements remained uncommon compared with the late twentieth century. Gaelic was the first language of perhaps 50 percent of Scots around 1400, 30 percent in 1689, but just 20 percent in 1806. Gaelic-speaking in the Highlands of Scotland continued to decline throughout the nineteenth century as monoglots recognized the powerful advantages to be gained from literacy in English. At the end of the twentieth century, Gaelic in modern Scotland was spoken by just two percent of the population (most of them in the urbanized region of Strathclyde), having being artificially resuscitated in the guise of an independent "national" language—although it was never spoken by all Scots, even in the Middle Ages.

In the historical case of the Félibrige, language was used to assert particularism, in the modern case of Gaelic, nationalism. Historically, it was more often an alien imposition designed to create a "national" identity. For example, German was forcibly reintroduced as the language of government and teaching in the Hungarian lands from 1849–1867 following earlier efforts to Magyarize the country. From the 1880s a revived campaign used Magyar in elementary schools while secondary schools taught "national consciousness." The country's 92 teacher-training colleges used Magyar exclusively. However, this was not just against the German-speaking Austrian empire, but was also done at the expense of Rumanians, Ruthenes, and Slovaks. The effect was slow to be felt. Around 1880, 14 percent of Hungarians spoke Magyar and 23 percent in 1910 but, significantly, 90 percent of university students. Modern Swiss cantons allow the local majority the right to dictate the language used in courts and schools, but it is harder to learn in a language that is not used in everyday discourse. Both the modern Swiss example and the Hungarian one of the late nineteenth century were seen by some minorities as not only hindering literacy, but also as an unwelcome form of "linguistic cleansing."

However robust the generalizations about language and literacy, neither linguistic pluralism nor the spread of a dominant tongue necessarily meant low or only slowly improving literacy. German was the vernacular in the Alagna region north of Turin (near the modern Swiss frontier) until relegated to the home by the spread of Italian during the nineteenth century. The region also suffered other apparent disadvantages such as few settled schools and a dispersed, largely agricultural population. Yet, more than four-fifths of confraternity members, albeit from a privileged section of society, who subscribed a document in 1781 did so with their full names. The need of inhabitants of the Alpine foothills to migrate seasonally in order to find work and their location in an interstitial zone helped foster demand for multilingual literacy. In contested regions that frequently changed hands between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries—northern Italy is one example, Lithuania another—the languages of public affairs and education might change more than once in a generation. Overlying this were more enduring cultural relations with a single culture such as German. Ecclesiastical visitations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries revealed extensive possession of books in German and of manuscript (heretical) religious works. A long, heretically based tradition of vernacular literacy in manuscript and print may also help to explain the phenomenon, notably in the former Waldensian areas of northern Italy. Certainly, the Alagna district seems to have been unusually literate in the eighteenth century, the statistics backed up by contemporary comment. However, the advantages were selective, for high male literacy could coexist with low female, even in an area so apparently well-favored. In subscribed marriage registers, beginning in the 1840s, nearly all grooms could sign, but less than half of brides.


Being able to use a pen or decipher letters and words on a page opens up new possibilities. Literacy has economic and cultural uses, the latter including recreational and religious dimensions. The quantity of books grew from the Renaissance onward, and qualitative changes in their uses occurred, notably in the eighteenth century. Until the latter period, reading involved an intensive perusal of a small number of texts; thereafter readers sought out multiple titles and novel subjects. However, mass literacy does not necessarily mean the widespread functional use of literacy. For the majority of early-nineteenth-century Europeans, the literacy they possessed was a blunt tool, quite insufficient to reshape their lives. In western Europe as late as 1900 the ability to read and write fluently was confined to town-dwelling men of middle class status or above. Furthermore, while literacy potentially offered a singular commodity, the ways in which people related to its products were emphatically plural. Reading, as much as writing, was a creative process which involved selective appropriation.

Germany had businesses that typeset, printed, and sold books and pamphlets in most major towns by 1520, producing an unprecedented outpouring—perhaps 300 thousand copies of Luther's writings, 1517–1520. From the dawn of the Reformation new religious ideas were available to the reading public. By 1530 perhaps 4 thousand pamphlet titles had been produced in Germany and over the sixteenth century as many as 200 million copies may have been turned out Europe-wide. They could be bought from publishers or shops and stalls in towns, from itinerant peddlers in the countryside. For all faiths religious titles made up the bulk of books owned until the Enlightenment. Across southwest Germany, works of modern literature were largely to be found in the libraries of the upper classes. Even in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, no more than a fifth of books owned by people from Tübingen had an obviously secular tone and in the Württemberg village of Laichingen the figure was close to zero; more than a half of books owned were spiritually oriented. Book ownership was largely informed by the Lutheran revivalist movement called Pietism rather than by Enlightenment precepts. This does not mean that change was not occurring, for it may be that eighteenth-century people were more interested in devotions and meditations on practical morality rather than on old-style divinity.

More obvious changes, like secularization, that were associated with new developments in thought can nevertheless be detected in book collections. Pious books made up nearly half those owned at death in nine western French towns around 1700, compared with less than 30 percent in 1789. Another aspect of changing tastes was the new value placed on originality and novelty. 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. 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. Also in France, pornography became a mature genre.

While the fully literate indulged themselves in its novelties, the semiliterate remained within their traditional mental world. In his autobiography, Goethe recounted childhood memories of enjoying a chapbook literature of magic, chivalry, and saints, which had changed little for centuries. Educational reformers were not slow to condemn the youthful preferences exemplified by Goethe. Whatever their faith in literacy (some argued that the poor should not be educated lest they got ideas above their station), its advocates from Luther onward can be found bemoaning the uses to which people put its products. It was cheap recreational pamphlets of perhaps thirty pages, known collectively as the bibliothèque bleue after the blue paper used as binding, which provided mass reading in France between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Russian peasants who read newspapers in the 1890s were interested mainly in sensational events like wars or natural curiosities. The poet Matvei Ivanovich Ozhegov (1860–1933) wrote of peasant readers being interested only in "the news of the evils of the day or about the birth of a dog with twenty heads." Saints' lives remained the most popular mass-commercially-produced reading in early-twentieth-century Russia, long after more secular items had taken their place in the west. Yet, reading tastes were changing, as shown by the explosion in detective and adventure stories after the 1905 Revolution and of "women's novels" from the 1910s. The lesson here is that making people literate is one thing, controlling what they do with their abilities is quite another. Most people used their literacy primarily for recreation. In the 1970s a tenth of Russia's population never read a newspaper and a fifth hardly ever read books. For those who did, the focus on practical and escapist literature of a century ago remains, a pattern replicated in the west.

By the end of the Napoleonic wars the population of the urbanized provinces of Holland had come within easy reach of books and newspapers, even if most readers still preferred almanacs, chapbooks, and broadsheets. In contrast, rapid growth in the volume of novels and newspapers did not begin in Finland until the 1880s and 1890s. Norwegian postal subscriptions to such materials grew from 11 million items a year in 1880 to 56 million by 1900—this in a country where reading had supposedly been universal for over a century. Even then, the reading public for serious literature and current affairs was restricted to the prosperous urban middle and upper classes. Norway had 185 public libraries in 1837, but roughly 300 by 1860, almost all in small towns. In late-nineteenth-century France and Germany too, most subscribers to books and periodicals were townspeople and it is unlikely that most rural dwellers saw reading and writing as central parts of their economic, social, or cultural lives before the twentieth century. Literacy surely created the potential for increased cultural participation, but it could take a long time to be realized.

People were using their literacy more extensively as the nineteenth century progressed. All the journals printed in Paris in 1840 amounted to 3 million copies, but by 1882 44 million were being produced. Table 2, based on the Statistique Générale du Service Postal, gives the number of stamped letters and postcards sent per head of population in selected European countries in 1886 and 1900. This is not purely an indicator of the use of literacy because the density and reliability of the postal network also played its part. The German imperial postal service had already developed quite extensively by the mid-seventeenth century, but competition from the posts of individual states produced an increasingly dense and frequent (if no quicker) network thereafter. Two points are clear, however: first, in almost all of Europe, increased letter sending; second, the marked differences between the "core" countries

 1886 1900
Great Britain4567

of western Europe and those on its eastern and southern fringes.

What was in the correspondence? Dictionaries were not widely used among the population at large until the nineteenth century. While copying was a central part of writing instruction, only the best-educated used standard spelling in their composition anywhere in Europe until the twentieth century. A careful study of writing among Danish soldiers was carried out by the Reverend J. L. Bang in 1882. He found that 32 percent could write well and 47 percent adequately, but only a fifth had good spelling and 44 percent were unsatisfactory. Of course, as long as what was written was understood, few letter writers worried about correct forms. Denmark was the first Scandinavian country to institute compulsory writing instruction in schools (1814), followed by Norway in 1827, Sweden in 1842, Finland in 1866, and Iceland in 1907. Most children were taught "passive" skills like reading. For example, a survey of over a thousand Danish rural schools in 1848, the year of revolutions across Europe, showed that 99 percent taught reading and 92 percent the rudiments of spelling (needed for writing). However, composition was taught in only a handful of schools and then only to the gifted few. This is reflected in the restricted use of writing among the population at large. For example, Danish rural diaries (Bondedagbøger) prior to 1850 record simple facts and were almost all written by affluent peasants. Thereafter, these writings become more abstract and reflective (especially about religion). More cottagers and artisans, and for the first time women began to keep such personal records in the second half of the nineteenth century. Extensive use of literacy was spreading rapidly among more social groups in late-nineteenth-century northern Europe.

Religion. Issues of grammar and orthography illustrate that, even among the literate, the ways people related to writing could differ. We can also identify qualitative differences in the uses and importance of literacy that distinguished, for example, Protestants from Catholics. Reading the Scriptures was central to the reformed faith. Religious books were probably read more frequently among Protestants and the very status of reading was special. Studies of eastern France in the seventeenth century have shown that, despite having comparable basic literacy, 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.

This does not mean that we should condemn Catholicism as obscurantist and antireading. Catholic leaders wanted literacy to spread, but in a controlled way, with the priest as intermediary in the process of understanding. They regarded some types of reading as a threat, rather than an invitation, to sound beliefs. An Italian priest, writing around 1530, could claim that "all literate people are heretics." Indeed, it is plain that being unable to read was construed by authorities in, for example, eighteenth-century Spain and Bohemia as a sign of Catholic orthodoxy, immunizing from contamination by this powerful force. Simply possessing a book was a sign of heresy. In short, there is no conclusive proof of the direction of the relationship between Protestantism and literacy, but the bond was stronger than that between Catholicism and literacy.

Limited literacy was not necessarily an obstacle to Catholic religious instruction. Illiteracy may have been an increasing disadvantage in everyday life, but the extent of any handicap was not uniform in all contexts or in all parts of Europe. Generally only the church imposed direct penalties on those without the rudiments of reading and religious knowledge. Illiterates might be refused religious rites such as communion or marriage in church—as in Sweden from 1686 and in Saxony from 1802. Literacy was not formally required for political participation and even in highly literate countries the franchise remained in any case highly restricted. One percent of adult males in Scotland could vote in parliamentary elections in the 1780s and 13 percent after the Reform Bill of 1832; just one Dutchman in ten could vote in 1853.

Advantages of literacy. In the course of the nineteenth century the practical, civil disadvantages of illiteracy became more apparent. After 1874 Russian conscripts who could prove they had been to school and had basic literacy were allowed to leave the military sooner than illiterates. Other countries used recruitment to foster literacy. The French army favored literate conscripts after 1872 and provided further training for soldiers. The rate of illiteracy among recruits to the Italian army fell much more rapidly than among the population at large: from 59 percent in 1870 to just 10 percent in 1913. For comparison, Swiss recruits had illiteracy as low as 6 percent in 1879 and 1 percent in 1900.

Access to the written or printed word could open up new horizons. Until the 1870s emigrants to North America came from Europe's most literate and economically developed countries. Within Europe, migrants to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cities were generally more literate than those who remained in the countryside. Was it literacy that made them move or was this desire to learn part of a wider set of dynamic personality traits? French, Spanish, and Greek people who arrived in North America in the 1890s were much more literate than those who stayed in the old country. In contrast, Austrian, Belgian, German, and Italian emigrants mirrored the abilities of their former compatriots. Irish who emigrated to North America showed above-average literacy, but those who went across to Britain were indistinguishable in this respect from those in the counties they had left. Contemporary migrants toward Europe's eastern limits seem to have depended less on literacy (almost all were illiterate peasants) than on possessing an independent and pioneering spirit.

Those who stayed behind in Europe were not blind to the value of education and literacy. A marginal annotation made in a Bulgarian liturgical book in 1834 reads: "You should care for education not money, for education brings money." By the end of the nineteenth century in western Europe simply being able to read and write made little difference to a person's chances of being upwardly socially mobile. However, basic literacy may have helped to prevent those from the lower classes being adversely affected by a changing job market. The most pronounced benefits came increasingly from higher-quality literacy associated with prolonged schooling and the possession of certification to that effect.

Education. During the nineteenth century education was also increasingly seen as a pathway to political participation, for example among the Norwegian workmen's associations who founded schools from the 1850s. Like workers all over Europe after the Revolutions of 1848, they recognized that education was one way of winning knowledge and freedom, of creating a sense of collective "class" identity while maximizing their potential as individuals. Optimism was tempered by experience. In the first flush of Italian revolutionary fervor during the 1790s and 1800s radicals advocated mass education in the principles of democracy. Later revolutionaries like Giuseppe Mazzini recognized that only the urban classes would be likely to pick up his propaganda. He was pessimistic about the opportunities to use literacy in the cause of political reform. He wrote: "As for speaking to the people . . . I would speak: but the paths are lacking, and we wander around in a circle . . . The people cannot read." Sicilian radicals of the mid-nineteenth century advocated extending the franchise to all men, but only those who could read and write.

The connection between politics and literacy is shown in twentieth-century Russia, but so too is the politicization of literacy. Lenin, the son of a school inspector, believed that "the illiterate person stands outside politics." Postrevolutionary Russia built on an existing liberal drive to promote learning and a growing mass desire for literacy and its products. Under Stalin, education made strong advances, but this was in the context of tight censorship and an obsession with the inculcation of political orthodoxy, including a vigorous attack on religion. Against a background of forced collectivization of the peasantry, rising literacy in 1930s Russia did not imply an invitation to understand and change the world in which the Soviets lived or to emancipate self and society, but a demand that they approve of an existing system.

There are other examples of literacy and education acting for stability rather than change. Take the example of the "fertility transition," which affected all parts of Europe between roughly 1870 and 1910. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, contraception was not widely practiced among the population at large. Couples could not, or did not, limit the number of children a woman would bear during her fertile years. The age at which a woman married for the first time was the primary determinant of fertility. The adoption of modern birth-control methods brought about a drastic reduction in fertility within marriage, couples had fewer children, and their standard of living improved as a result.

In some parts of Europe the relationship we might assume between education and modern attitudes is borne out. Regions of Italy and Spain with high basic literacy had low marital fertility by the early twentieth century, but in Germany the low illiteracy of adult males was only one precondition of an early and large reduction of marital fertility. In Brabant prior to 1920 it was in general only literate couples whose parents and grandparents had been literate who adopted new ways of limiting family size. In Portugal the expected relationship is reversed: marital fertility in 1930 and 1960 was lower in the less literate southern provinces than in the north. Indeed, we can turn the relationship between literacy and modernity on its head. Ron Lesthaeghe's The Decline of Belgian Fertility (Princeton, 1977, p. 194) concludes that: "the eradication of illiteracy through the development of primary-school education contributed more to the continuity of the existing moral norms than to their change . . . the degree of literacy in Belgium could be a better indicator of traditionalism than of modernization." Education and the literacy it brings is almost never value-free.

The Belgian example reminds us that education by itself may do little to alter the way people think. It can liberate an individual or society, but it can also be used to police attitudes and behavior. Its effect depends on whether the prevailing ideology supports continuity or change. The Belgian Catholic church effectively monopolized education in rural areas as late as 1900. Educational provision was excellent and illiteracy among adults under age 55 years was almost unknown by 1910. But the church was able to damp down changes in the moral climate that might have encouraged greater use of contraception.

At the same time, people may think or rationalize in a way that is "modern" thanks to their education, but behave traditionally because of the way they were socialized outside school. Literacy's growth may therefore sometimes have had limited effects. A further example is the continued dominance of middle-aged and older males in periods when their juniors were rapidly becoming literate. Reading ability was nearly universal among the under-fifties in mid-eighteenth-century Finland, but half the over-sixties could not read from the Bible. Illiteracy among Belgian men aged under 30 years was a fifth in 1880 compared with over a half for those aged over 80 years. But age brought wealth, status, and power in patriarchal families and communities, which illiteracy did little to diminish. It is the overall context of a society that makes literacy important or otherwise.


The areas and social groups that saw early and deep penetration of literacy were wealthier, more commercialized, and Protestant. Literacy became embedded in the society and culture of these regions and peoples, with the result that reading and writing were practiced more extensively and a "virtuous circle" was created. At different periods for different groups in different parts of Europe, the ability to read and write became a component of important areas of economic, social, political, and cultural life. In the seventeenth century, literacy was an integral part of Calvinist faith; in the eighteenth century it became central to the bourgeois and élite sociability that was a keynote of the Enlightenment; in the nineteenth century it was an agency both of political centralization and of particularism; in the twentieth century a firm connection with economic betterment became established as education and certification became synonymous.

Explaining the social and geographical distribution of literacy in historic Europe involves understanding failures as well as successes. Of the structural features of historic literacy, sex-specific differences have been all but ironed out in European countries covered by the OECD survey. The differences that remain reflect the other two historic givens, class and residence, which determine that in some countries, most obviously Poland, the population clusters into a much narrower (and lower) band of proficiency than others. Another international body, UNESCO, estimated that perhaps 15–20 percent of the population of late-twentieth-century France has some sort of literacy shortfall and perhaps 15–30 percent of Portuguese. "Residual" or "latent" illiteracy may exist even in nations with complete basic literacy. These figures are remarkably similar to the 10–15 percent illiteracy obtained in the more "advanced" European states of the late nineteenth century or in Russia in 1939. Perhaps at any given stage in social development after the introduction of mass education there is always a core of adults who are judged "illiterate." The reason is clear enough for some modern groups. For example, some Turkish Gastarbeiter in Germany run Koranic schools for their children as a way of preserving Islamic culture, but, since the same children are legally obliged to attend German state schools, a linguistic and cultural conflict arises, which inhibits learning. Elsewhere in Europe, older generations tend to be dialect speakers (or to use archaic Gothic or "black letter" script), and European educators perceive adult illiteracy to be their greatest remaining challenge. Any group left behind by mainstream cultural change, or which is socially or geographically marginalized may be so affected. Gypsies or "traveling folk" are another example.

Many of the positive implications of changing literacy are still with us. Scandinavia's early-modern reading campaign may be associated with the very high levels of book production there in the late twentieth century. Iceland had the largest number of published titles per capita of any Scandinavian country in the late 1980s and the highest average per capita book purchasing in Europe. Scotland's past literacy superiority may be exaggerated, but the very fact that people believe in it makes this vision of history a potent force for both continuity and change. In both tangible and intangible ways, the changing patterns of historic literacy have powerful legacies.

In the early twenty-first century, technological advances are said to be rendering obsolete the different literacies outlined above. Those with a calculator possess an electronic alternative to counting. Having access to a word processor may help us to dispense with all but a few uses of writing (including the need to authenticate by signature—and even that is being rendered unnecessary). However, television, radio, and electronic communication provide only imperfect substitutes for the ability to read. In some cases they actually require it. Indeed, economic and technological change may require the acquisition of new literacies to compliment rather than replace traditional skills. Two or three centuries ago being able to read and write marked a person out and gave him (rarely her) many opportunities denied to the illiterate. Simultaneously, the disadvantages of illiteracy were less pronounced. Since then, there has been an inflation of qualifications required of those wishing to use education to distinguish and advance themselves. The types of literacies and the levels of achievement needed to function in a modern society and economy have increased rather than decreased.

See also other articles in this section.


Arnove, Robert F., and Harvey J. Graff, eds. National Literacy Campaigns: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. New York, 1987.

Bartoli Langeli, Attilio, and Xenio Toscani, eds. Istruzione, alfabetismo, scrittura:Saggi di storia dell'alfabetizzazione in Italia (secolo XV–XIX). Milan, 1991.

Chartier, Roger. Lectures et lecteurs dans la France d'Ancien Régime. Paris, 1987.

Furet, Francois, and Jaques Ozouf. Reading and Writing: Literacy in France fromCalvin to Jules Ferry. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.

Graff, Harvey J. The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in WesternCulture and Society. Bloomington, Ind., 1987.

Houston, Robert A. Literacy in Early Modern Europe: Culture and Education, 1500–1800. London, 1988. A new edition is in preparation for publication in 2002.

"Lisants et lecteurs en Espagne, XVe–XIXe siècles." Special edition of Bulletin Hispanique 100, no. 2 (1998).

Literacy, Economy, and Society: Results of the First International Adult Literacy Survey. Paris and Ottawa, 1995. Report of the OECD.

Pelizzari, Maria R., ed. Sulle vie della scrittura: Alfabetizzazione, cultura scritta e istituzioni in età moderna. Naples, Italy, 1989.

Resnick, Daniel P., ed. Literacy in Historical Perspective. Washington, D.C., 1983.

Wagner, Daniel A., Richard L. Venezky, and Brian V. Street, eds. Literacy: An International Handbook. Boulder, Colo., 1999.


views updated May 23 2018


The word "literacy," which was first used in the nineteenth century to mean the opposite of the more easily defined term "illiteracy," has come to be a widely accepted term. In most cases, literacy means the ability to read and write, to understand what is written, and to be able to communicate in the written form. Within this framework, however, there are many aspects to its meaning. Scholars and researchers debate the context and intent of the uses of literacy in many disciplines, ranging from psychology to sociology to linguistics. It is the purpose of this entry to consider the history and development of reading and writing, to consider the need for a literate society, and to examine briefly some programs and activities that have been undertaken in an attempt to provide a reasonable literacy standard for all people.

Early History

Human beings first began to record activities in a recognizable way as early as 10,000 B. C. E. Cave paintings were used in many different parts of the world (especially in France and Spain) to record herds of animals that the artists had seen. These rough drawings were probably meant to indicate that a band of animals had passed that way or to record some other event or activity, although there is no actual account to indicate very specific meanings. It is thought that communication between people increased as the level of social development increased. As a community grew, it was necessary to keep a record of transactions between members—who traded so many animals to someone else or how much grain was produced in one harvest. Some of the earliest forms of recordkeeping involved the use of stones or pebbles, notched sticks, or knotted cords to represent a transaction.

From these early efforts, attempts at writing tried to be more systematic by using small separate pictures to tell connected stories. The hieroglyphics of ancient Egyptians, cuneiform, and scripts from Mayan and Aztec cultures are examples of this type of picture-writing. Most historians agree that there was probably one alphabet from which all others followed, but many details about these developments are still a mystery. This early writing was used to record the sophisticated dialogues of Plato and the logic of Aristotle, for example, but the system of writing was primarily used to record oral speech. There was little use of vowels, and letters, words, and sentences were not separated. Most scholars agree that this form of writing and reading was only marginally related to literacy, which required the development of language with rules of grammar and punctuation to make it intelligible in silent or private reading.

Toward the end of the seventh century, monks in Ireland and England introduced word separation and punctuation into Greek and Latin texts in order to isolate units of meaning. This made it possible for a reader to consider a text silently, an innovation that was exclusive to the British Isles until the tenth century. Writing in the vernacular—Middle English, French, Italian, and German, for example—was still largely used for oral reading. Although the clergy in the early Roman Church conducted schools for clerics and some sons of noblemen, the use of books was limited, and those books were primarily copied by hand. Even in university towns, reading was limited, and much of the learning that occurred was the result of "learned discourse." The scholarly reading of Greek and Latin was limited to only certain segments of the population.

In other parts of the world, the use of language was not associated with writing; the oral tradition was the most common method of instruction. In the early Middle Ages (through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), monastic orders spread throughout Europe and Great Britain, and the production of manuscript books became the occupation of many monks. Texts were produced by hand with elaborate decoration of everyday things as well as fantastic and imaginary beasts—often depicted with gold leaf and in rare colors. These books were highly valued and were kept chained to cabinets and lecterns in monastic libraries because they were so rare. Even with these manuscripts available, oral reading was still a major source for learning, praying, and governing.

Outside of books of prayers and texts for learning, writing continued to be primarily a matter of importance in the legal field—keeping track of births and deaths, property ownership, deeds, agreements, and the like. In reality, literacy was initially important only to the governing class, the Church, and the legal community. In fact, it was of great concern that reading and writing be limited to these groups for fear that the "lower classes" would use such abilities to assert themselves and destabilize the community as a whole. Although the Church hierarchy was opposed to popular literacy as a possible challenge to authority, some clergy, as early as the twelfth century, favored the use of the vernacular for reading the Bible. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier (1999, p. 34) point to the change in reading patterns from monastic, "which assigned to writing a task of preservation and memory that was in great part disassociated with reading," to "the scholastic model of reading, which made the book both the object and the instrument of intellectual labor" as a major revolution in reading.

In the late Middle Ages, with the rise of universities, libraries became a part of the scholarly process. By the end of the thirteenth century, library architecture and furnishings changed dramatically. Reference libraries were opened at Merton College, Oxford, in 1289, and a similar one was established at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1290. The library of the university was seen as a common good and that the books were there for scholarly use by professor and student alike. The restraints that were placed on the use of these books, however, restricted scholars and set the stage for the remarkable change that was brought about by the invention of printing.

The Printing Press and Its Importance

The invention of moveable type in the sixteenth century coincided with the Reformation that was started by Martin Luther and the posting of his theses. Luther and those who followed him stressed the necessity of reading the Bible to find true salvation. With the printing press, the potential for making such material available to a wide audience could be realized. At first, many of the printed works were more related to manuscripts than to books, but as the craftsmen became more familiar with the new invention, the printed book gained a distinct personality. The role of the individual author became more significant, a title page was included, and print characters were more standardized. One of the more important innovations was the distribution of these works through networks that were developed by the printers themselves and later by independent entrepreneurs in publishing houses.

The rise of the middle class and the spread of the use of vernacular language (instead of the Latin of the Church) increased a need for "common people" to read. As the Reformation swept over Europe, translating the Bible into the language of the people became a priority. Even with this proliferation of material, however, oral language was still at the center of most communication. Scholars have debated the degree of literacy that existed in Western Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the estimates of the number of readers range from the low 1 percent for women to the high 30 percent for some regions of Germany. It was not until the later half of the eighteenth century, however, that what some have called a "reading revolution" occurred. Conservative bookseller Johann Georg Heinzmann expressed a sentiment shared by many of his contemporaries in 1795: "[It] was not the Jacobins who dealt the fatal blow to the ancien regime in Germany, it was readers" (Wittmann, 1999, p. 285). Although historians debate the extent to which reading had spread in the latter half of the eighteenth century, there is no doubt that factors such as the growth in book production, proliferation of newspapers, and lower book prices among others encouraged a growth in the general interest in reading.

The Spread of Literacy

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, conditions in Western Europe were conducive to the spread of literacy. Public education was available in both the United States and Europe, although it was not until the middle of the century that most industrialized countries had legislation that provided for the firm establishment of formal schooling. In France, the Guizot Law of 1833 suggested the need for education, but basic education was not mandated until reform laws were passed in the 1880s. The literacy rate in Great Britain in 1850 was approximately 70 percent for men and 55 percent for women, but it was only with the enactment of the Education Act of 1870 that the basis for mandatory education was created in the British Isles. Although the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law in 1647 to "establish and maintain schools," attendance was not mandatory. It was not until 1852 that Massachusetts established a compulsory attendance law. Within the following fifty years, many states established universal public education as a standard. Public education in the United States was originally based on three assumptions: that all citizens could be taxed to support education, that parents must provide opportunities for basic education, and that free public education must be secular. In some places, factory schools allowed children and workers to attend classes for part or all of a day. Parents could choose to send their children to a school other than one supported by public monies, but that did not relieve them of their responsibility to provide support for the public schools. This general establishment of a basic, compulsory education system set up the possibility for educating a literate public. There was still a great discrepancy in readers between rural and urban communities, but with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the shorter workday provided more opportunities for reading.

This shift in literacy led to many changes. One of the first was a withdrawal of both teachers and children from the work force. Learning took place away from the family; it was given over to an established system for both socialization and education. This profound revolutionary development is still prevalent in modern educational systems. Another development was that the availability of and market for reading materials (including newspapers and "cheap" fiction) blossomed. Publishers became established as distributors of the printers' work. Books that had originally been printed in quantities of 1,500 to 2,000 copies in a first run were being issued in editions of 30,000 by 1850. The novel, which was not highly regarded as an art form, came into its own by the middle of the nineteenth century. Publishers began to expand the market for these new favorites by issuing chapters for newspapers and magazines to print in installments. In fact, there are accounts of American readers crowding the docksides to obtain the latest installment of the trials and tribulations of Charles Dickens's Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. This is similar to the modern phenomenon of lines of readers waiting to buy the latest book of the Harry Potter series.

Although public education initially catered primarily to young boys, girls were still part of the public education system, and they were a major part of the reading population by the 1890s. Novels were in great demand and magazines flourished. For women, Godey's Lady's Book was eagerly awaited for its tips on housekeeping and current fashion. Children read St. Nicholas Magazine, which was published between 1873 and 1939 and featured young writers and illustrators such as Louisa May Alcott and Winslow Homer.

In the transition from a largely non-reading population to one in which primary education provided a rather large mass of literate individuals, oral tradition still persisted. Street cries of peddlers hawking wares, song-sellers chanting ballads, and the reading of the Bible to families or workers was still very much a part of the everyday life of an ordinary citizen. In schools, children's recitations of Bible passages, poetry, or other forms of oratory often gathered large groups of adults to listen and applaud. Families shared the serialized adventures (such as those written by Dickens or Jules Verne) in a group as avid listeners—even though each member of the group might well have been able to read on his or her own.

Libraries also were important in the spread of reading in the nineteenth century. With Boston leading the way in 1852, tax-supported public libraries were organized in cities in the northeastern and midwestern parts of the United States. Public libraries were seen by community leaders as educational agencies, supporting and supplementing the newly formed public primary schools (although some public libraries posted "No children or dogs allowed" signs). Libraries were considered a public good, a necessity to support an expanding market and worthy of public support. State laws enabled public libraries to exist, rather than mandating them, and left ambiguities in the concept of just who was to be served. Well into the twentieth century, certain groups of people (e.g., African Americans and young people who were under fourteen or sixteen years of age) were excluded from being able to use some public libraries.

Although the idea that most communities should have a tax-supported public library was widely recognized, it was primarily the largess of Andrew Carnegie that spread the public library from major urban cities to smaller cities and towns across the United States and throughout the world. Carnegie's libraries represented a partnership with government—with Carnegie funding the buildings and the community providing the land and the upkeep of the facilities and collections. In England, public lending libraries were also widely distributed, helped by an 1850 law that allowed local authorities the right to levy support for a public library. As Martyn Lyons (1999, p. 332) points out, libraries in Great Britain and Europe were seen as "instruments of social control, designed to incorporate a sober working class elite into the value system of the ruling classes." Public taste did not necessarily conform to this concept, but the possibilities for self-education and life-long learning were goals that existed early in the public library movement.

Literacy in the Twentieth Century

In the early part of the twentieth century, some educators believed that the problem of literacy was settled, especially with the establishment of compulsory education in many parts of the United States and Western Europe. Many countries that were less developed were also still under colonial rule. As part of that social structure, literacy was considered to be a skill of the occupying powers and therefore available to only a small segment of the population. In the United States, however, it was quickly discovered that some groups of people had decidedly lower or relatively nonexistent literacy levels. African Americans and large groups of immigrants both had problems in literacy and learning. African Americans had consistently been denied access to materials and sometimes even instruction; immigrant groups had problems because of language differences. So although the basic pattern of public education was fairly well set at the beginning of the twentieth century and it was assumed that each child had an equal opportunity to learn to read and write, the actual implementation of public education programs varied greatly. Brave new experiments in learning (exemplified by the teachings of John Dewey, which, for example, held sway for some thirty years) did not touch the learning lives of children in rural and urban poverty. Beset by two world wars and a worldwide economic depression, the first fifty years of the twentieth century saw some major increases in literacy rates, with equally dismal rates for other segments of the population.

The actual definition of "literacy" has been the subject of some intense discussion. On an operational level, definitions have ranged from the ability to sign one's name, to pronouncing words, to comprehending paragraphs. In 1994, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) conducted the International Adult Literacy Survey. The second in a series of related reports (Darcovich et al., 1997) identified three "domains" of literacy, defining literacy along a continuum of skills rather than limiting the definition to a distinction of those who were literate and those who were not. The domains include "prose literacy," "document literacy," and "quantitative literacy." Prose literacy was used to describe the knowledge and skills that are needed to understand and use information from texts such as news stories, brochures, and instruction manuals. Document literacy identified the knowledge and the skills that are necessary to use information in a variety of formats, from job applications to bus schedules, from payroll information to charts, tables, or maps. Quantitative literacy was used to refer to such operations as balancing a checkbook or completing an order form or understanding other types of numerative material that is embedded in text. This categorization of adult literacy skills along a continuum has provided a more realistic way of assessing literacy for both adults and children as learners.

The way in which reading has been taught has also been the subject of heated debates in both the popular press and academia. The early studies of reading instruction concentrated on what was wrong with instruction. Since then, researchers have tried to identify those factors that were predictive of success in reading. David Wray (1997) has offered a clear overview of the many differences of opinion about the teaching of reading. He has identified two streams of thought: one that focused on a code-based approach to reading and another that emphasized the place of meaning. Wray contends that, although some aspects of the argument have shifted from whether teaching should focus on whole language or phonics to whether written language should be acquired naturally or through more formal means, most researchers and practitioners rely on a balanced approach to reading instruction. Research by Shirley Brice Heath (1983), for example, concentrated on the social context of literacy in her widely cited study of three communities in the Carolina Piedmont region. Brian Street (1999) notes that debates about literacy have shifted from teaching methods (i.e., phonics versus whole language) to literacy practice in a social context, which clearly sets an agenda for research, policy, and curriculum. Street further contends that this shift in direction extends "the clarification of the key concepts in the field, the analysis of the underlying assumptions and theories, and development of practical applications" (p. 39).

Preschool children and their families have also been the subjects of interest to those who are concerned about relatively low levels of literacy, especially among poorer families with less education. Some researchers have concentrated on literacy for younger children, not teaching reading but creating a "climate for reading." Terms such as "family literacy" or "emergent literacy" are generally associated with efforts to link early literacy efforts to success in school for poor children, while at the same time offering some sort of adult education program to parents, grandparents, or caregivers of these poor families. Family literacy programs may share a common goal, but the programs vary greatly from country to country, depending on funding, family culture within the country, and the political priority for literacy. While these programs have various goals, many other researchers have suggested that planning is a significant factor in the success of these programs. Short-term goals with very specific outcomes must be matched with long-term planning that takes into account the needs and successes of both child and family. Factors that are of major importance in determining the strength and direction of family literacy programs and plans include (1) a conceptual framework that identifies the cultural and social structures of families and (2) careful consideration of the measures used to assess the program.

Another area of controversy has been ways in which literacy programs for both children and adults are evaluated. Methods of assessing programs have altered as critics argue that traditional assessments are based on outdated and inappropriate models. The debates regarding children of school age have taken place within a larger discussion of the quality of education in the United States. Studies and publications—including A Nation at Risk, by the National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983)—have pointed to continuing arguments about literacy and its measures in society. Both the popular press and academia seem to disagree about the meaning and usefulness of some approaches to literacy. While some studies point to the fact that literacy rates have risen steadily since the end of the nineteenth century, others argue that simply reading and writing is not enough. Reading and writing well enough to function in an increasingly complex environment is the challenge.

By the end of the twentieth century, academics, employers, policymakers, and parents had begun to realize that the ability to organize, understand, and use language is essential to a creative, productive life. Many scholars who work with literacy programs, plans, and policy have come to agree that there can be no single, uniform approach to literacy. Rather, programs on a local or regional level are often the result of a national or international attempt to solve the problem. Several agencies are key players in this arena internationally and can serve as examples of how such agencies often directly affect lives on levels beyond that of acquiring skills in reading and writing.

The United Nations has a network of agencies, functioning on a practical level to address global concerns, guided by principals of peace, progress, and the setting of standards. In 1945, the United Nations charged one agency in particular with the responsibility of literacy provision: the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). By the end of the 1990s, several other agencies of the United Nations that had mandates for assistance to poorer countries saw education as a target for development. Chief among these agencies are the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

From the beginning, UNESCO's task was to persuade governments that universal literacy should be a priority. By identifying literacy as a basic human right, UNESCO set about analyzing needs, demonstrating the best practices, setting up pilot or experimental projects, and fostering cooperation between governments, the academic community, and practitioners. For nearly four decades (from its founding in 1945 through the mid-1980s), for example, UNESCO had a strategy of funding that emphasized basic education in African countries, which was shaped largely by British Colonial Office philosophy from the 1920s and 1930s. However, politics within the United Nations itself often stymied implementation of policies, including those related to literacy. When the Soviet Bloc in the 1960s proposed a World Campaign for Universal Literacy as part of the Development Decade, the proposal was opposed by the United States. The United States was much more interested in education as a part of economic growth, especially when connected with worker productivity, an approach that led to a rapid expansion of formal schooling in most newly independent nations. By the mid-1970s, however, UNESCO had begun to recognize that universal application of policy was not effective and instead adopted a more flexible and diversified approach to literacy policy, with an emphasis on culture as an organizing principal. UNESCO's policy stressed the social and economic consequences of literacy instead of the political and consciousness-raising implications. At the national government level, UNESCO argued for a balance between formal schooling and out-of-school strategies for literacy acquisition.

The World Bank is an agency that is concerned with lending, and projects are often developed to create systemwide change, along with reforms, training programs, policy advice, or other such arrangements. The World Bank, which is one of the major sources of funding (in the form of loans) for educational programs around the world, accounts for nearly 25 percent of educational assistance. One policy approach is to support universal primary education. The World Bank rejects adult literacy education, however, insisting that there is little evidence to support the link between adult programs and worker productivity, therefore economic growth.

UNDP is the largest provider of grant aid (as opposed to loans). Its programs attempt to foster partnerships between public and private agencies in order to enhance living standards and economic growth. In the literacy field, the UNDP's lack of commitment to adult literacy programs in the mid-1960s kept such efforts at a minimum. In 1990, however, UNDP was a co-convener of the World Conference on Education for All. This conference, held in Jomtien, Thailand, featured considerable rhetoric about the need for literacy programs for adults and young people. In addition, the participants in the conference pledged that the world illiteracy rate would be cut in half by the year 2000. Funding realities suggest, however, that UNDP remains more in line with the World Bank policy of favoring formal education programs rather than the balanced approach of UNESCO.

UNICEF is primarily concerned with the welfare of children, and it has always considered this commitment to include the mothers of these children. At first, UNICEF was careful to avoid conflict with UNESCO and declined any involvement with formal school programs. As UNESCO's influence shifted and waned, UNICEF incorporated both formal education as well as out-of-school programs for mothers and young women, hoping to elevate the level of the care being provided to children. UNICEF accomplishes much of its work through country-based programs for literacy.

In spite of the funding provided by these inter-governmental agencies, the promise made at Jomtien to cut the world illiteracy rate in half by the year 2000 was not realized. Oxfam International, a long-time leader in international development aid, refused to participate in the planning for the year 2000 follow-up to the Jomtien conference because of lack of progress, leadership, and commitment to literacy from the more developed countries. Mohamed Maamouri (2000) has identified several reasons for the failure to meet the goals of the Jomtien conference. He asserts that "basic education" is too often restricted to primary, formal schooling and that, in spite of a major emphasis in funding, the results of work concentrated in that area are not satisfactory. Economic restructuring, wars, falling amounts spent on basic education per capita, and high demographic growth rates have contributed to an increase in illiteracy and the continuation of low literacy rates among out-of-school youths and young adults. Maamouri points to three problems (in addition to monetary concerns) that have created such declines. First, mass literacy programs are often political in nature, making claims that cannot be fulfilled. Second, both teachers and students lose motivation when learning is not associated with positive, identifiable results. Third, he suggests that while adult literacy classes are often taught in local languages, formal primary schooling uses an official language (often that of the former colonial power). This barrier between formal and nonformal educational efforts can sow confusion and create problems for learners.

The number of illiterate people in most developing countries represents more than half of their total populations of youths and adults—with girls and women accounting for nearly two-thirds of the illiterate population. This gender imbalance reflects the growing "feminization of poverty." A number of programs attempt to offer practical solutions to the low literacy rate by suggesting activities that produce income and employment and foster good parenting skills. Other programs suggest a link between adult learning and the education of children and youths, encouraging the use of materials related to nutrition, primary health, and HIV-AIDS education as learning tools.


The problems for those who struggle with the basic skills of reading and writing and meaning are exacerbated by intensive technological expansion. The Internet and the World Wide Web have created even more demands on learners at every level, and the term "computer literacy" now vies with other forms of literacy for programs of education. Those who work with the poorest nations find themselves debating issues about which language or dialect to teach. Libraries, which were a force in the spread of literacy and life-long learning in the nineteenth century, struggle with problems of identity and survival in the twenty-first century. Those who set policy and create priorities find themselves faced with choices much like the clerics of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, who were afraid of the results of offering the "lower classes" access to reading the word on their own.

See also:Alphabets and Writing; Carnegie, Andrew; Computer Literacy; Libraries, Functions and Types of; Libraries, History of;Printing, History and Methods of.


Cavallo, Guglielmo, and Chartier, Roger. (1999). "Introduction." In A History of Reading in the West, eds. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Darcovich, Nancy, et al. (1997). Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Age. Ottawa: Human Resources Development Canada.

Flesch, Rudolf. (1955). Why Johnny Can't Read—And What You Can Do About It. New York: Harper.

Freire, Paulo. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Gadsden, Vivian. (1998). "Family Cultures and Literacy Learning." In Literacy for All: Issues in Teaching and Learning, ed. Jean Osborn and Fran Lehr. New York: Guilford Press.

Heath, Shirley Brice. (1983). Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, Phillip. (1997). "The World Bank and the Literacy Question: Orthodoxy, Heresy, and Ideology." International Review of Education 43:367-375.

Lyons, Martyn. (1999). "New Readers in the Nineteenth Century: Women, Children, Workers." In A History of Reading in the West, eds. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Maamouri, Mohamed. (2000). "World Literacy: What Went Wrong?" UNESCO Courier 3:31-33.

National Commission on Excellence in Education.(1983). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Nickse, Ruth. (1990). "Family and Intergenerational Literacy Program: An Update of 'The Noises of Literacy.'" ERIC Document Reproduction Service. ED327726.

Resnick, Daniel P., and Gordon, Jay L. (1999). "Literacy in Social History." In Literacy: An International Handbook, eds. Daniel A. Wagner, Richard L. Venezky, and Brian V. Street. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Saenger, Paul. (1997). The Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Shanahan, Timothy, and Neumann, Susan B. (1997). "Literacy Research That Makes a Difference." Reading Research Quarterly 32:202-212.

Stedman, Lawrence C., and Kaestle, Carl F. (1987). "Literacy and Reading Performance in the United States, from 1880 to the Present." Reading Research Quarterly 22:59-78.

Street, Brian V. (1999). "The Meanings of Literacy." InLiteracy: An International Handbook, eds. Daniel A. Wagner, Richard L. Venezky, and Brian V. Street. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Wittmann, Reinhard. (1999). "Was There a Reading Revolution at the End on the Eighteenth Century?" In A History of Reading in the West, eds. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Wray, David. (1997). "Reseach into the Teaching of Reading: A 25-Year Debate." In Educational Dilemmas, Vol. 4: Quality in Education, eds. Keith Watson, Celia Modgil, and Sohan Modgil. London: Cassell.

Margaret Mary Kimmel

Literacy and Reading

views updated May 21 2018


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


views updated May 11 2018


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.]


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

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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.”

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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.

Literacy and Reading

views updated May 08 2018


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


views updated Jun 08 2018


Nineteenth-century Americans imagined themselves as a nation of readers. Federal census returns affirmed that by 1840 more than 90 percent of white adults could read and write, while reports of the skyrocketing volume of newspapers, books, and mailed letters suggested they were avidly doing so. Public schools received credit for generating this literacy as proof of national civic achievement. The Hutchinson Family Singers' Uncle Sam's Farm (1848) boasted:

Yes! we're bound to lead the nations for our motto's "Go ahead,"
And we'll tell the foreign paupers that our people are well fed;
For the nations must remember that Uncle Sam is not a fool,
For the people do the voting and the children go to school.

(Hutchinson, p. 4)

Intrepidity, prosperity, sagacity, and democracy were thus linked to schooling. If the "strength of a people" relied, as Richard D. Brown has observed, on "an informed citizenry" (p. i), Americans had through public education seemingly attained a literacy rate commensurate with their strident national ambitions.


Once thought to be a competency uniform in all times and places with similar effects, literacy is now understood as a wide variety of practices, contingent upon prevailing geographical, social, and historical influences. Such "situated literacies" (Barton, Hamilton, and Ivanic, p. xiv), that is, ones located within specific contexts, elucidate the social meaning of reading and writing in the mid-nineteenth century United States: the "nation of readers" ("Nationality in Literature," p. 264) is revealed as being but a hopeful notion of them.

Precisely because censuses measured illiteracy to demonstrate national progress, their figures are unreliable. In 1850, for example, the literacy question was so self-incriminating—it immediately preceded one on disability, insanity, poverty, and criminality—that it elicited under-reporting of illiteracy. Moreover, through 1860 census takers asked whether adults could read and write; doing either, even reading but a tavern sign, generated a "yes." When the 1870 census finally distinguished reading from writing, it discovered a quarter more "readers" than writers. Since writing is a surer test of literacy, previous censuses had clearly overstated its extent.

The rate falls further when illiterates are compared not to aggregate populations including children but to all adults. If only North Carolinian whites over nineteen in 1850 are considered, for instance, the state's illiteracy rate rises from 14.52 percent to just fewer than one in three. When adult slaves are added, it can be said that half of North Carolinian adults were illiterate in 1850—far from the one-in-seven ratio Hinton Rowan Helper (1829–1909) abstracted from the census in his The Impending Crisis of the South (1857).

As this example suggests, literacy differed dramatically among regions, with the Southeast, Southwest, and Old Northwest having widespread illiteracy and the Northeast (Delaware excepted) having relatively little. These disparities emerged in colonial times, when New England reached near-universal adult male literacy (over 90 percent) and would never lose it. Religious motivations are commonly given to explain this achievement, but as William J. Gilmore found for a later time, reading there more likely became a "necessity of life" (even for women whose literacy grew to equal men's in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century) in locales of heightened market activity, thus signaling more secular influences. Although it remains unclear whether universal literacy was an effect, cause, or mere by-product of commercialization, by 1840 adult literacy in New England reached over 99 percent. Even the arrival in the 1840s and 1850s of numerous illiterate immigrants, especially victims of the Irish potato famine, resulted in only a slight regional downturn.


The educational history of New England and, to a lesser extent, the Middle Atlantic States challenges another "notion of readers": that public schooling directly led to mass literacy. The surge in rates predated the mid-century public school movement and rather resulted from informal instruction in families, neighborhoods, and on the job. Sunday schools, local proprietary "Dame" schools, and the often poorly funded, short-session district schools merely supplemented informal learning. Only long after state school boards in Massachusetts and Connecticut were founded in the late 1830s would free public schooling reverse conditions: the home became the reinforcer of literacy and the school its primary generator.

The relatively high antebellum illiteracy rate in western states (about 9 percent) underscores the importance of informal instruction. Many settlers came from literate northeastern states, but western conditions frustrated reproducing similar levels in the next generation: particularly, open-country farming reduced both population densities and, consequently, opportunities for neighborhood and on-the-job instruction. Unable fully to revive traditional eastern-style local literacy, western states rushed to launch school systems to stem the seeming social degeneration.

Whether in the Northeast or West, then, public schools expressed commitment to sustaining already fairly extensive literacy acquired under informal conditions, not the main means of achieving it. Yet although the advent of public schools promoted greater meritocracy that moderated class bias in literacy, this little benefited people of color and other outsiders stymied by prejudice. For whites, even after mid-century, illiteracy itself was not a bar to economic mobility—a "literacy myth," according to Harvey Graff (p. 17). Being white helped more than being literate.


To turn a notion of readers into a nation of them, mid-nineteenth-century literacy reformers pursued several agendas, not all of them benign. Philosophically, the Enlightenment had bequeathed widespread belief in the perfectibility of humankind through education. Politically, the widening franchise pressured voters to learn to read and write in order to participate in national political discourse as "republican machines," the term coined in 1798 by Benjamin Rush (1745–1813) in "Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic" (Rush, p. 14). Socially, literacy promised to help remedy the emerging pluralistic threat to national unity by providing the skill that gave outsiders access to a common cultural heritage in print. Middle-class reformers particularly waged literacy campaigns against poorer immigrants and native racial minorities. Protestant evangelicals pushed Bible reading against both irreligion and Catholicism—to them, illiteracy along with indolence, intemperance, and unchastity were but symptoms of sinfulness. To counter illiteracy, the American Bible Society (1816), American Sunday-School Union (1824), and American Tract Society (1825), among other evangelical publishing organizations, pioneered the mass production of inexpensive imprints (non-Protestants would respond via their own publication programs). In the economic realm, industrialism increasingly required a docile workforce able to read and follow basic rules yet one sophisticated enough to manipulate "the grammar of the machine" (Stevens, p. iii).

All these agendas eventually converged upon public education as a panacea, resulting in the most concentrated literacy campaign in the nation's history: the antebellum common school movement. Its reformers shared, according to Carl Kaestle, goals that included "more schooling for each child, more state involvement, more uniformity, and a more pervasive public purpose for schooling" (p. 105). The systems created by reformers like Horace Mann and Henry Barnard forged the still-persistent link between schooling and literacy—in most cases, a standardized imposition from above of a narrowly defined literacy as an unalloyed skill. Little room was left for local community contexts for literacy. The resulting shortcomings starkly emerged in the instance of Northern-directed schooling of freed people during and after the Civil War: reformers could not grasp why black students and parents preferred black teachers to middle-class Northern whites, for if literacy was simply a skill, why should the trainer's race or ethnicity matter? Rather than reexamine their assumptions, white reformers blamed the freed people for being uneducable, only to abandon them eventually in the 1870s.


In this supposed nation of readers, the audience for printed materials hardly approximated the adult population, but it was nevertheless vast. This is partly because reading printed material aloud within groups was at least as common as reading it silently alone, thus yielding an audience far exceeding the numbers of actual readers, let alone those who purchased books or periodicals. How, then, does one figure the audience for the 300,000 copies of Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) sold in its first year? Judged by sales alone, the book reached only about 1.3 percent of the population, but if there were at least three listeners for every copy read aloud and each copy went to two households, the percentage rises to nearly 8 percent. It is, after all, one thing to say that mature women read the book but quite another to say they heard it read while sewing at night among groups that included men, children, the elderly, and even servants. And all of these people might take turns reading aloud.

If sales figures cannot gauge literacy's impact upon readership, what can? Diaries and correspondence provide the richest information, for they reveal not only the who, what, when, and where of reading but also bespeak its significance within the writer's life course. A comprehensive diary kept by a Boston locomotive factory clerk and his wife, for example, which identifies 1,198 titles read from 1839 through 1861, also suggests larger principles guiding their selection: natural and family cycles (e.g., more reading in winter and more fiction as newlyweds), religious and political commitments such as Unitarianism or abolitionism, and ephemeral events like a comet in the sky, an exhibition, or a high-profile murder trial. Such accounts also reveal writers' own literacy levels, which in New England often approached that of published authors but elsewhere fell shorter.

Whatever the level, the desire to join the nation of readers spurred ever more literacy. After all, literacy was an admission ticket to a cultural nationality increasingly transacted through print. If one did not read the papers, quote poets, converse about novels, dispute pamphlets, and in short, engage the universe of print, one was not quite fully a citizen. Nor could people keep contact easily with distant loved ones strewn about by early industrial capitalism unless they could express themselves well with pen and paper.


The resistance of oppressed groups against marginalization from the literary franchise testifies to the power of the printed word in nineteenth-century America. Women had to struggle both against traditions that limited their influence to biological mothering and emergent conceptions of woman's sphere that, although granting them basic literacy to enable cultural reproduction, would narrowly confine their intellectual horizon to domesticity and benevolent volunteerism. Although women at times used domestic ideologies to justify their intellectual achievements, it is a tribute to their efforts that by mid-century the schoolmarm symbolized basic literacy, learned women like astronomer Maria Mitchell stood for advanced learning, and the "scribbling women" derided by the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne represented professional authorship (Kelley, p. 345 n 2). A literary woman was neither an oxymoron nor at all unusual.

Race and literacy played very differently, of course. Racial minorities had to strive not only to overcome prejudice but also to maintain autonomy and distinctiveness. One notable attempt at balancing literacy and autonomy was Sequoyah's 1821 invention of a Cherokee national language syllabary, which gained such acceptance that it spawned a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix (1828), written using it. More common, however, was the experience of the Pequot writer William Apess (1798–1839) in his Son of the Forest (1829). His schooling began when as a four-year-old he was bound out to a white neighbor after being "dreadfully beaten" by an intoxicated grandmother (p. 6). "I learned to read and write, though not so well as I could have wished," he rued (p. 7), and his sentiment was echoed by people of color receiving inferior and incomplete instruction. On hearing his master forbid his mistress from continuing her reading lessons—because "if you learn him now to read, he'll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he'll be running away with himself " (Douglass, p. 146)—Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) drew a key lesson in his My Bondage and My Freedom (1855): "from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom" (p. 147). Indeed, literacy acquisition became a focal point of many slave narratives as they elicited "Talking Books" to speak in a black voice, for doing so in the face of physical punishment and legal proscription meant gaining mental if not corporeal emancipation. Through these African Americans' notions of reading and by those of other groups pushed out of the circle of literacy, an unimagined nation of readers was indeed in the offing.

See alsoCurricula; Female Authorship; Immigration; Native American Literature; Reform; Slavery


Primary Works

Apess, William. Son of the Forest and Other Writings. 1829. Edited with an introduction by Barry O'Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1855.

Hutchinson, Jesse, Jr. Uncle Sam's Farm. Portland, Maine: Augustus Robinson, 1850.

"Nationality in Literature." U.S. Democratic Review 20 (March 1847): 264–272.

Rush, Benjamin. Essays: Literary, Moral, and Philosophical. Philadelphia: Thomas and Samuel Bradford, 1798.

Secondary Works

Barton, David, Mary Hamilton, and Roz Ivanic. SituatedLiteracies: Reading and Writing in Context. London: Routledge, 2000.

Baym, Nina. American Women of Letters and the Nineteenth-Century Sciences: Styles of Affiliation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Brown, Richard D. The Strength of a People: The Idea of anInformed Citizenry in America, 1650–1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Cohen, Patricia Cline. A Calculating People: The Spread ofNumeracy in Early America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Collins, William J., and Robert A. Margo. "Historical Perspectives on Racial Difference in Schooling in the United States." Vanderbilt University Department of Economics Working Paper, no. 9770, June 2003.

Cornelius, Janet Duitsman. "When I Can Read My TitleClear": Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Slave's Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "James Gronniosaw and the Trope of the Talking Book." In Studies in Autobiography, edited by James Olney, pp. 51–72. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Gilmore, William J. "Elementary Literacy on the Eve of the Industrial Revolution: Trends in Rural New England, 1760–1830." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 92, no. 1 (1982): 87–178.

Gilmore, William J. Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life:Material and Cultural Life in Rural New England, 1780–1835. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

Graff, Harvey J. The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities andContradictions in Western Culture and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Graff, Harvey J. The Literacy Myth: Literacy and SocialStructure in the Nineteenth-Century City. New York: Academic Press, 1979.

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

Kaestle, Carl F. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools andAmerican Society, 1780–1860. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage: LiteraryDomesticity in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Lockridge, Kenneth A. Literacy in Colonial New England:An Enquiry into the Social Context of Literacy in the Early Modern West. New York: Norton, 1974.

Morris, Robert Charles. Reading, 'Riting, and Reconstruction:The Education of Freedmen in the South, 1861–1870. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Murray, David. Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing, andRepresentation in North American Indian Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Soltow, Lee, and Edward Stevens. The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the United States: A Socioeconomic Analysis to 1870. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Stevens, Edward W., Jr. "The Anatomy of Mass Literacy in the Nineteenth-Century United States." In National Literacy Campaigns: Historical and ComparativePerspectives, edited by Robert F. Arnove and Harvey J. Graff, pp. 99–122. New York: Plenum Press, 1987.

Stevens, Edward W. The Grammar of the Machine: TechnicalLiteracy and Early Industrial Expansion in the United States. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

University of Virginia Geospatial and Statistical Data Center. Historical Census Browser. University of Virginia.

Zboray, Ronald J., and Mary Saracino Zboray. EverydayIdeas: Socioliterary Experience among Antebellum New Englanders. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, forthcoming.

Zboray, Ronald J., and Mary Saracino Zboray. "Reading and Everyday Life in Antebellum Boston: The Diary of Daniel F. and Mary D. Child." Libraries and Culture 32, no. 3 (1997): 285–323.

Ronald J. Zboray Mary Saracino Zboray


views updated May 18 2018


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


views updated Jun 27 2018


Reading and writing were widely taught in western Europe before the French Revolution. Demand from parents and teachers for learning aids sustained a large and diverse market for alphabets and primers. Publishers produced a range of simple texts upon which the inexperienced readers could practice their skills. Folk tales and devotional texts were carried by chapmen and colporteurs (book peddlers) through the countryside and sold for little more than the cost of a loaf of bread. If a peasant or a laborer could not read, he would know someone who did. If he owned no print himself, he would have some sense of its power, and would know some way of gaining access to it, if only as a listener at first or second hand. In the more developed northern and western countries, there were by the eighteenth century few communities entirely cut off from the written word and the skills of decoding it. The gentry, bourgeoisie, and urban artisans already had a tradition of universal literacy, at least among men, and even the laboring poor possessed in their midst a scattering of educated or self-educated readers. Only on the eastern and southern fringes of Europe were there to be found men in possession of property but deprived of the ability to compile and use the documents upon which their power was increasingly dependent.

Literacy was an invention of the nineteenth century more as a concept than a practice. The skills of reading and writing were separated from the broader spiritual and practical elements of education, and subjected to quantification. Historians have found ways of counting literacy in the early modern and medieval eras, but except in the Swedish church registers from the seventeenth century, this knowledge was denied to contemporaries. Literacy as it is now understood was a product of the rise of the modern state. The French Revolution produced little lasting educational reform either in France or in the countries influenced by its ideas. It did, however, give birth to the ideal of a universally schooled society, sustained and policed by governments and their bureaucracies. The emphasis given to the official curriculum was at the expense of the agencies that had borne the burden of instruction in previous centuries: the church, the educational marketplace, and the family. Even in the more developed countries it took most of the nineteenth century for the state to achieve effective control over elementary education. In this struggle, counting literacy became a key weapon. The case

for government intervention was displayed by literacy tables that demonstrated the scale of the task. Even the sprawling, barely governed Russian Empire knew where it stood in the European league table, although it was incapable of doing much about it. The criticism of the rival church structures, and still more of the long-standing informal systems of instruction, focused on their inability to count the effect of their labors. Literacy tables stood at the center of the transaction between the emergent state and taxpaying electors. The product of public expenditure could be measured in columns of marriage register signatures and marks or in the census returns. Literacy was a performance indicator. It simplified the meaning of education, but also for the first time enabled contemporaries and subsequent historians to measure change over time within and between countries.

The first attempts at counting literacy demonstrated that in terms of the capacity to sign a name, northern and western Europe began from a base of 50 percent or more for men, and embarked on a fairly even course of improvement during the nineteenth century, arriving at virtually universal nominal literacy in the years immediately before World War I. To the east and the south the first attempts at counting literacy rates were made around the middle of the nineteenth century. They demonstrated a much greater challenge and often initiated a steeper rate of improvement. As Figure 1 indicates, relative literacy levels remained much the same across Europe, but the gaps between the top and bottom countries narrowed as the decades passed. By 1914 even the more backward countries had universal literacy in sight, although in Spain, Italy, and even more so Russia and the Balkans, it would take a generation or more before some kind of victory could be claimed.

At one level, the statistics reveal a process of European cultural homogenization. In this key area of communication, countries were increasingly coming to resemble each other as the twentieth century commenced. All appeared to be embarked on the same journey, passing through the same stations, heading for the same destination. Behind the statistics were national school systems whose

differences were less important than their similarities. Educational reformers visited other countries, bringing back an enthusiasm for trained teachers, inspected classrooms, and systematic curricula. In most countries, conflicts with the families of pupils and with the churches led to compromises on the state's terms. Adjustments were made to the ambitions of parents and the power of religious institutions in return for an acceptance of a centrally subsidized and policed drive to mass literacy.

Figure 2 suggests that the growing homogeneity embraced gender as well as national origin. Women were everywhere behind men in the early returns, by around ten points in the more advanced countries and often much more where any kind of literacy was still uncommon. But unlike higher education, which remained almost exclusively a male preserve in this period, there was a growing equality of opportunity in elementary education. The same profile of descent from nominal illiteracy is present in both sets of figures. In many countries the rate of progress for women was often more rapid than that of men and in some cases, as in parts of midcentury England, brides were on average more literate than grooms. In informal educational systems, scarce cultural resources tended to be allocated first to boys, but when governments embraced the goal of universal schooling they tended to commit themselves to equal if frequently separate provisions for the sexes. Pressures within family economies under-mined the attendance of girls, and the widespread absence of opportunities beyond elementary schooling profoundly affected the meaning of the lessons in the inspected classroom. But if a wide view is taken of the distribution of privilege, power, and status between men and women over their lifetimes, the provision of basic literacy stands out in this era as an area of relative equality.

In other respects, the sense that the growth of mass literacy was collapsing the differences in European societies is profoundly misleading. At any point in this period of change, the lineaments of entrenched inequalities are still visible. For instance, the Geneva–Saint-Malo line that divided the better-educated north and east of France from the south and west remained apparent throughout the nineteenth century. Towns had always been and remained centers not only of education but also of access to the benefits that education created. The surrounding countryside was less literate, and tended to take its lead from the towns as to when and at what rate it improved. While the traditional gulf between the nominal attainments of artisans and laborers was closing, occupation remained the most powerful predictor of literacy throughout the period. A more significant gulf was that of age. A period of fundamental change in the possession and use of communication skills separated the generations. Gaps of twenty points or more are visible between children and parents in countries such as England, where population growth was steady over a given period, and by twice as much where there was a sudden population expansion, as in late-nineteenth-century Belgium. The pre-1914 victory over illiteracy in northwest Europe applied only to the young. Their less-educated parents and grandparents were still present in large numbers in the postwar societies. It was a difference not only of attainment but also of authority. With print, as later with computers, the instructed became the instructors. Those born too late to learn found themselves dependent upon their children for such access as they could gain to the benefits of the new mode of communication.

The greatest variation of all was in the range of skills measured by the single test of signing a marriage register or completing a census form. Comparative analysis of different modes of recording literacy suggests that the tests were a fairly consistent measure of a basic capacity to make a few words with a pen, which for the majority of the laboring poor corresponded to all the use they would be likely to make of writing. They under-estimated to varying degrees the distribution of the ability to read. In Sweden, for instance, which before the nineteenth century taught reading efficiently and largely ignored writing, the early statistics said nothing at all about access to print. In many countries, such as France, classroom reading lessons started a couple of years before writing, and pupils had often left for the fields before they attempted to form letters. Even in England, where the official curriculum taught the skills alongside each other, reading ability may have been 50 percent higher than writing at the beginning of the period.

The neat tables of attainment floated on a sea of improvisation. This was true of the basic question of capacity. The statistics counted individuals, but the ceremonies and households from which they were derived lay at the heart of the social lives of the laboring poor. As with all other material and culture possessions, the dispossessed begged, borrowed, and shared the skills and artifacts they needed. The more literate read to the less literate, the fully literate wrote and deciphered letters for their neighbors. Books were loaned or sold on through a flourishing secondhand market. This meant that until the arrival of cheap reprints at the end of the nineteenth century, poor readers lived their intellectual lives several decades behind those of their wealthier counterparts. The key forms in the transition from the possession to the use of literacy in this period were the mass circulation newspaper and the picture postcard. The former meant that for the first time the poor could purchase and privately consume up-to-date print. The latter meant that for the first time the barely literate began to use writing with some regularity. Both innovations had their origins in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, when steam power was applied to the printing presses and facilitated the flat-rate postal systems. But they only began to engage with the newly educated on a large scale around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This culture of appropriation challenges the association of literacy and progress that the decreasing rates of illiteracy shown in the figures helped to reinforce. Historians have now dispensed with much of the conceptual framework that informed the compilation and interpretation of those statistics. The contrast between a backward oral and an advanced literate culture has been undermined partly by a closer examination of the statistics, which reveals how rare wholly illiterate communities were in most of late-eighteenth-century Europe, partly by a recognition of how literacy skills were shared, and partly by a critical examination of the association of literacy with rationality and illiteracy with superstition. Ironically, mass education facilitated the expansion of many emblematic irrational vices, such as gambling and the consumption of unlicensed medicine. At the same time, the sharp division between elite and popular or mass cultures fades as attention is paid to the complexities of how access was gained to and meaning derived from the printed word.

The European governments that set about creating mass education systems took a gamble that a combination of disciplined schooling, capitalist cultural production, and variable levels of censorship would eventually produce voters who would accept the rules of orderly political debate. There was no guarantee of success, but the extremities of political stability and crisis in this period cannot of themselves be explained by the growth or distribution of literacy. Just two generalizations survive. The first is that the greatest use made of the skills taught by the nineteenth-century schools was in the consumption of fiction. Whatever else, mass literacy expanded the realm of popular relaxation. The second is that material deprivation was the single most potent force in shaping the potential of the written word to transform the lives of the newly educated. Not until the rise of credentialed and bureaucratized employment after 1914 did the potential for schooling to challenge inherited inequalities begin to become evident.

See alsoEducation; Libraries; Popular and Elite Culture.


Brooks, Jeffrey. When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861–1917. Princeton, N.J., 1985. The standard account of change in Russia.

Chartier, Roger. "Culture as Appropriation: Popular Cultural Uses in Early Modern France." In Understanding Popular Culture: Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, edited by Steven L. Kaplan, 229–253. Berlin, 1984. Important conceptual discussion.

Cipolla, Carlo M. Literacy and Development in the West. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1969. The first major European study, still influential.

Furet, François, and Jacques Ozouf. Reading and Writing: Literacy in France from Calvin to Jules Ferry. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. The standard work on France.

Graff, Harvey J. The Literacy Myth. London, 1979. Influential iconoclastic study.

——. The Legacies of Literacy. Bloomington, Ind., 1987. Detailed and thorough survey of Europe and the United States.

James, Louis. Print and the People 1819–1851. Harmonds-worth, U.K., 1978. Sparkling anthology of the materials produced for new readers in England.

Johansson, Egil. "The History of Literacy in Sweden." In Literacy and Social Development in the West, edited by Harvey J. Graff, 151–182. Cambridge, U.K., 1981. The standard study of Sweden.

Maynes, Mary Jo. Schooling in Western Europe. Albany, N.Y., 1985. Best short survey.

Schofield, Roger. "Dimensions of Illiteracy in England 1750–1850." In Literacy and Social Development in the West, edited by Harvey J. Graff, 201–213. Cambridge, U.K., 1981. The standard statistical analysis of English literacy.

Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750–1914. Cambridge, U.K., 1989. In-depth study of the British case.

——. The Rise of Mass Literacy. Cambridge, U.K., 2000. Survey of modern European development.

David Vincent


views updated May 11 2018



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.