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Literacy is an issue in all countries of the world.

History[edit | edit source]

File:Illiteracy france.png

Illiteracy rate in France in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ancient and medieval literacy[edit | edit source]

In ancient times, literacy in its restricted sense was always confined to a small elite.[citation needed] Although some ruling elite were illiterate, literacy was an important distinguishing mark of the elite, and communications skills were politically important.[1]

In the late fourth century the Desert Father Pachomius expected literacy of a candidate for admission to his monasteries:

they shall give him twenty Psalms or two of the Apostles' epistles or some other part of Scripture. And if he is illiterate he shall go at the first, third and sixth hours to someone who can teach and has been appointed for him. He shall stand before him and learn very studiously and with all gratitude. The fundamentals of a syllable, the verbs and nouns shall all be written for him and even if he does not want to he shall be compelled to read.[2]

Literacy in Europe[edit | edit source]

England[edit | edit source]

In 12th and 13th century England, the ability to recite, in Latin, a particular passage from the Bible entitled a common law defendant to the so-called benefit of clergy, i.e. trial before an ecclesiastical court, where sentences were more lenient, instead of a secular one, where hanging was a likely sentence. Thus literate lay defendants often claimed the right to benefit of clergy, while an illiterate person who had memorized the psalm used as the literacy test, Psalm 51 ("O God, have mercy upon me..."), could also claim benefit of clergy.[3]

Wales[edit | edit source]

Formal higher education in the arts and sciences in Wales, from the Dark Ages to the 18th century, was the preserve of the wealthy and the clergy. As in England, Welsh history and archaeological finds dating back to the Bronze Age reveal not only reading and writing, but also alchemy, botany, advanced maths and science. Following the Roman occupation and the conquest by the English, education in Wales was at a very low ebb in the early modern period; in particular, formal education was only available in English while the majority of the population spoke only Welsh. The first modern grammar schools were established in Welsh towns such as Ruthin, Brecon and Cowbridge. One of the first modern national education methods to use the native Welsh language was started by Griffith Jones in 1731 - see History of Wales#Early modern period. Jones was the rector of Llanddowror from 1716 and remained there for the rest of his life. He organized and introduced a Welsh medium circulating school system, which was attractive and effective for Welsh speakers, while also teaching them English, which gave them access to broader educational sources. The circulating schools may have taught half the country's population to read. Literacy rates in Wales by the mid-18th century were one of the highest.

File:Adriaen van Ostade 007.jpg

Dutch schoolmaster and children, 1662

Continental Europe[edit | edit source]

The ability to read did not necessarily imply the ability to write. The 1686 church law (kyrkolagen) of the Kingdom of Sweden (which at the time included all of modern Sweden, Finland, and Estonia) enforced literacy on the people, and by 1800 the ability to read was close to 100%. But as late as the 19th century, many Swedes, especially women, could not write. That said, the situation in England was far worse than in Scandinavia, France and Prussia: as late as 1841, 33% of all Englishmen and 44% of Englishwomen signed marriage certificates with their mark as they were unable to write (government-financed public education was not available in England until 1870 and, even then, on a limited basis).

The historian Ernest Gellner argues that Continental European countries were far more successful in implementing educational reform precisely because their governments were more willing to invest in the population as a whole.[4] The view that public education contributes to rising literacy levels is shared by the majority of historians.

Although the present-day concepts of literacy have much to do with the 15th century invention of the movable type printing press, it was not until the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century that paper and books became financially affordable to all classes of industrialized society. Until then, only a small percentage of the population were literate as only wealthy individuals and institutions could afford the materials. Even todayTemplate:Dated maintenance category, the cost of paper and books is a barrier to universal literacy in some less-industrialized nations.

From another perspective, the historian Harvey Graff has argued that the introduction of mass schooling was in part an effort to control the type of literacy that the working class had access to. According to Graff, literacy learning was increasing outside of formal settings (such as schools) and this uncontrolled, potentially critical reading could lead to increased radicalization of the populace. In his view, mass schooling was meant to temper and control literacy, not spread it.[5] Graff also points out, using the example of Sweden, that mass literacy can be achieved without formal schooling or instruction in writing.[6]

Literacy in North America[edit | edit source]

Canada[edit | edit source]

Colonial Days (1600s to 1762)[edit | edit source]

Research on the literacy rates of Canadians in the colonial days rested largely on examinations of the proportion of signatures to marks on parish acts (birth, baptismal, and marriage registrations). Although some researchers have concluded that signature counts drawn from marriage registers in nineteenth century France corresponded closely with literacy tests given to military conscripts,[7] others regard this methodology as a “relatively unimaginative treatment of the complex practices and events that might be described as literacy” (Curtis, 2007, p. 1-2).[8] But censuses (dating back to 1666) and official records of New France offer few clues of their own on the population’s levels of literacy, therefore leaving few options in terms of materials from which to draw literary rate estimates.

In his research of literacy rates of males and females in New France, Trudel (as cited in Magnusen, 1985)[9] found that in 1663, of 1,224 persons in New France who were of marriageable age, 59% of grooms and 46% of brides wrote their name, however, of the 3000 plus colony inhabitants, less than 40% were native born. Signature rates were therefore likely more reflective of rates of literacy among French immigrants. Magnuson’s (1985) research revealed a trend: signature rates for the period of 1680-1699 were 42% for males, 30% for females; in 1657-1715, they were 45% for males and 43% for females; in 1745-1754, they were higher for females than for males. He believed that this upward trend in rates of females’ ability to sign documents was largely attributed to the larger number of female to male religious orders, and to the proportionately more active role of women in health and education, while the roles of male religious orders were largely to serve as parish priests, missionaries, military chaplains and explorers. 1752 marked the date that Canada’s first newspaper (the Halifax Gazette) began publication.[10]

From the British Conquest (1763) to Confederation (1867)[edit | edit source]

The end of the Seven Years' War in 1763 allowed two Philadelphia printers to come to Québec City and to begin printing a bilingual Quebec Gazette in 1764, while in 1785 Fleury Mesplet started publication of the Montreal Gazette, which is now the oldest continuing newspaper in the country.[10]

In the 19th century, everything about print changed, how it was produced, how it was distributed, and who read it[11] ).[8] Literature in its many forms became much more available. But educating the Canadian population in reading and writing was nevertheless a very big challenge. Concerned about the strong French Canadian presence in the colony, the British authorities repeatedly tried to help establish schools that were outside the control of religious authorities, but these efforts were largely undermined by the Catholic Church and later the Anglican clergy.[12]

From the early 1820s in Lower Canada, classical college curriculum, which was monopolized by the Church, was also subject to growing liberal and lay criticism, arguing it was fit first and foremost to produce priests, when Lower Canadians needed to be able to compete effectively with foreign industry and commerce and with the immigrants who were monopolizing trade (Curtis, 1985)).[8] Liberal and lay attempts to promote parish schools generated a reaction from the Catholic and later the Anglican clergy in which the dangers of popular literacy figured centrally.[12] Both churches shared an opposition to any educational plan that encouraged lay reading of the Bible, and spokesmen for both warned of the evil and demoralizing tendencies of unregulated reading in general. Granted the power to organize parish schooling through the Vestry School Act of 1824, the Catholic clergy did nothing effective.[8]

Despite this, the invention of the printing press had laid the foundation for the modern era and universal social literacy, and so it is that with time, “technologically, literacy had passed from the hands of an elite to the populace at large. Historical factors and socio-political conditions, however, have determined the extent to which universal social literacy has come to pass”[13]

1868 to 1986[edit | edit source]

In 1871 only about half of French Canadian men in Canada self-reported that they were literate, whereas 90 percent of other Canadian men said they could read and write (Greer, cited in Green, MacKinnon & Minns, 2005),[14] but information from the Canadian Families Project sample of the 1901 Census of Canada indicated that literacy rates for French Canadians and other Canadians increased, as measured by the ability of men between the ages of 16 and 65 to answer literacy questions.[14] Compulsory attendance in schools was legislated in the late 19th century in all provinces but Quebec, but by then, a change in parental attitudes towards educating the new generation meant that many children were already attending regularly.[12] Unlike the emphasis of school promoters on character formation, the shaping of values, the inculcation of political and social attitudes, and proper behaviour, many parents supported schooling because they wanted their children to learn to read, write and do arithmetic.[12] Efforts were made to exert power and religious, moral, economic/professional, and social/cultural influence over children who were learning to read by dictating the contents of their school readers accordingly. But educators broke from these spheres of influence and also taught literature from a more child-centred perspective: for the pleasure of it (Murphy, 2012).[15]

Educational change in Québec began as a result of a major commission of inquiry at the start of what came to be called the Quiet Revolution in the early 1960s. In response to the resulting recommendations, the Québec government revamped the school system in an attempt to enhance the francophone population's general educational level and to produce a better-qualified labour force. Catholic Church leadership was rejected in favour of government administration and vastly increased budgets were given to school boards across the province.[12]

With time, and with continuing inquiry into the literacy achievement levels of Canadians, the definition of literacy moved from a dichotomous one (either a person could, or couldn’t write his or her name, or was literate or illiterate), to ones that considered its multidimensionality, along with the qualitative and quantitative aspects of literacy. In the 1970s, organizations like the Canadian Association for Adult Education (CAAE) believed that one had to complete the 8th grade to achieve functional literacy. Examination of 1976 census data, for example, found that 4,376,655, or 28.4% of Canadians 15 years of age and over reported a level of schooling of less than grade 9 and were thus deemed not functionally literate (Thomas, 1983, p. 52).[13] But in 1991, UNESCO formally acknowledged Canada’s findings that assessment of educational attainment as proxy measure of literacy was not as reliable as was direct assessment (UNESCO, 1991, p. 5).[16] This dissatisfaction manifested itself in the development of actual proficiency tests that measure reading literacy more directly.[17]

Direct Systematic Measures of Literacy in Canada, 1987 to Present[edit | edit source]

Canada conducted its first literacy survey in 1987 which discovered that there were more than five million functionally illiterate adults in Canada, or 24 per cent of the adult population.[17] Statistics Canada then conducted three national and international literacy surveys of the adult population — the first one in 1989 commissioned by the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) department.[17]

This first survey was called the “Literacy Skills Used in Daily Activities” (LSUDA) survey, and was modeled on the 1985 US survey of young adults (YALS).[18] It represented a first attempt in Canada to produce skill measures deemed comparable across languages. Literacy, for the first time, was measured on a continuum of skills.[18] The survey found that 16% of Canadians had literacy skills too limited to deal with most of the printed material encountered in daily life whereas 22% were considered “narrow” readers.

In 1994-95, Canada participated in the first multi-country, multi-language assessment of adult literacy, the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS).[18] A stratified multi-stage probability sample design was used to select the sample from the Census Frame. The sample was designed to yield separate samples for the two Canadian official languages, English and French, and participants were measured on the dimensions of prose literacy, document literacy and quantitative literacy. The survey found that 42.2%, 43% and 42.2% of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 scored at the lowest two levels of Prose Literacy, Document Literacy and Quantitative Literacy, respectively.[18] The survey presented many important correlations, among which was a strong plausible link between literacy and a country’s economic potential.

In 2003, Canada participated in the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL). This survey contained identical measures for assessing the prose and document literacy proficiencies, allowing for comparisons between survey results on these two measures and found that 41.9% and 42.6% of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 scored at the lowest two levels of Prose Literacy and document literacy respectively.[18] Further, Canadians’ mean scores also improved on both the prose and the document literacy scales.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is expected to produce new comparative skill profiles in late 2013.[19]

United States[edit | edit source]

Main article: Literacy in the United States
File:FSA school in Alabama.gif

One-room school in 1935, Alabama

In 1820, 20% of the entire adult white population was illiterate, and 80% of the African American population was illiterate. By 1900 the situation had improved somewhat, but 44% of African American people remained illiterate. There were significant improvements for African American and other races in the early 20th century as the descendants of former slaves, who had had no educational opportunities, grew up in the post Civil War period and often had some chance to obtain a basic education. The gap in illiteracy between white and black adults continued to narrow through the 20th century, and in 1979 the rates were about the same.[20]

Full prose proficiency,[21] as measured by the ability to process complex and challenging material such as would be encountered in everyday life, is achieved by about 13% of the general, 17% of the white, and 2% of the African American population.[22][23] However 86% of the general population had basic or higher prose proficiency as of 2003, with a decrease distributed across all groups in the full proficiency group vs. 1992 of more than 10%, consistent with a general decline.

[24]Template:Failed verification

Literacy in South America[edit | edit source]

In 1964 in Brazil, Paulo Freire was arrested and exiled for teaching peasants to read.[25]

Since democracy returned to Brazil, however, there has been a steady increase in the percentage of literate people.

Literacy in Africa[edit | edit source]

Currently, Africa is the continent with the lowest literacy rate in the world.

Algeria[edit | edit source]

The literacy rate of Algeria is around 70%: education is compulsory and free in Algeria up to age of 17.

Botswana[edit | edit source]

Botswana has among the highest literacy rates in the developing world with around 85% of its population being literate.

Egypt[edit | edit source]

Egypt has a relatively high literacy rate. The adult literacy rate in 2010 was estimated at 72.0%.[26] Education is compulsory from ages 6 to 15 and free for all children to attend. 93% of children enter primary school today, compared with 87% in 1994.

Ethiopia[edit | edit source]

The Ethiopians are among the first literate people in the world, having written, read, and created manuscripts in their ancient language of Ge`ez (Ameharic)since the second century CE.[27] All boys learned to read the Psalms around the age of 7. National literacy campaign introduced in 1978 increased literacy rates to between 37% (unofficial) and 63% (official) by 1984.[28]

Kenya[edit | edit source]

The literacy rate in Kenya among people below 20 years of age is over 70%, as the first 8 years of primary school are provided tuition-free by the government. In January 2008, the government began offering a restricted program of free secondary education. Literacy is much higher among the young than the old population, with the total being about 53% for the country. Most of this literacy, however, is elementary and not secondary or advanced.

Literacy in Asia[edit | edit source]

China[edit | edit source]

Main article: Education in the People's Republic of China

The PRC conducts standardized testing to assess proficiency in Putonghua but it is primarily for foreigners or those needing to demonstrate professional proficiency in the Beijing dialect. Literacy in logographic languages like Chinese has been graded on the number of characters in the speaker's lexicon, with a few thousand considered the minimum for practical literacy. Similar tests exist in other countries where Chinese is an official language. Chinese can be expressed phonetically and alphabetically but Chinese speakers prefer the Chinese logographic system.

India[edit | edit source]

Main article: Literacy in India

Laos[edit | edit source]

File:Lao schoolgirls reading books.jpg

Three Laotian girls sit outside their school, each absorbed in reading a book they received at a rural school book party.

Obstacles to literacy vary by country and culture. Writing systems, quality of education, availability of written material, competition from other sources (television, video games, cell phones, and family work obligations) and cultural influences all influence literacy levels.

In Laos, which has a phonetic alphabet, the mechanics of reading are relatively easy to learn, compared to English, where spelling and pronunciation rules are filled with exceptions, and Chinese, with thousands of symbols to be memorized. But a lack of books and other written materials has hindered functional literacy. Many children and adults can read so haltingly that the skill is of no real benefit. Thus Laos has the lowest level of adult literacy of any South East Asian nation except for East Timor.[29]

A literacy project in Laos addresses this by using what it calls "books that make literacy fun!" The project, Big Brother Mouse, publishes colorful, easy-to-read books, then delivers them by holding book parties at rural schools. Some of the books are modeled on successful western books by authors such as Dr. Seuss. The most popular titles, however, are traditional Lao fairy tales. Two popular collections of folktales were written by Siphone Vouthisakdee, who comes from a village where only five children finished primary school.[30]

Big Brother Mouse has also created village reading rooms, and published books for adult readers about subjects such as Buddhism, health, and baby care.[31]

Pakistan[edit | edit source]

In Pakistan, the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) aims to bring literacy to adults, especially women.

Philippines[edit | edit source]

In the Philippines, it is assumed that before the Spanish colonization, the natives of the Philippine islands were universally literate that all can read and write in their own respective languages. During the Spanish colonization of the islands, reading materials were destroyed to a far much less extent compared to the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The Spaniards tried to rub literacy in the islands to prevent the islanders to unite. Education and literacy was introduced only to the Peninsulares and remained a privilege until the Americans came.

The Americans introduced the public schools system to the country which drove literacy rates up. English became the lingua franca in the Philippines. It was only during a brief period in the Japanese occupation of the Philippines that the Japanese were able to teach their language in the Philippines and teach the children their written language.

After World War II, the Philippines had the highest literacy rates in Asia. It nearly achieved universal literacy once again in 80s and 90s. Ever since then, the literacy rate has plummeted only to start regaining a few percentage years back.

The DepEd, CHED, and other academic institutions encourage children to improve literacy skills and knowledge. The government has a program of literacy teaching starting in kindergarten. New reforms are being brought in shifting to a K-12 system which will teach children their regional languages before English, as opposed to the 10-years basic education program which teaches English and Filipino, the country's two official languages, from Grade 1.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. The connection is pursued in Alan K. Bowman and Greg Woolf, eds., Literacy and Power in the Ancient World, (Cambridge) 1994.
  2. Pachomius, Rule 139.
  3. Baker, John R. (2002). An introduction to English legal history, London: Butterworths LexisNexis.
  4. Gellner, Ernest (1983). Nations and nationalism, Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.
  5. Graff, Harvey J. (1991). The literacy myth: cultural integration and social structure in the nineteenth century, Transaction Publishers.
  6. Graff 1991, pp. xxii, xxiv
  7. Furet, François (1977). Lire et écrire: l'alphabétisation des Français de Calvin à Jules Ferry, Paris: Editions de Minuit.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Curtis, Bruce (2007). Beyond Signature Literacy: New Research Directions. Historical Studies in Education / Revue d’histoire de l’éducation (Fall Special Issue): 1–12.
  9. Magnuson, Roger (1985). Two myths in New France education. McGill Journal of Education 20 (3).
  10. 10.0 10.1 Newspapers. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica-Dominion Institute.
  11. Aliaga-Buchenau, Ana-Isabel (2004). Dangerous Potential of Reading : Readers and the Negotiation of Power in Selected Nineteenth-Century Narratives, New York: Routledge.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 History of Education. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica-Dominion Institute. URL accessed on October 28, 2012.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Thomas, Audrey (1983). Adult Illiteracy in Canada: A Challenge, Ottawa: Canadian Commission for Unesco.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Green, A, MacKinnon, M., & Minns, C. (2005). Conspicuous by their absence: French Canadians and the settlement of the Canadian West. The Journal of Economic History 65 (3): 822–849.
  15. Murphy, Sharon (2012). Regaining pleasure in the teaching of reading. Language Arts 89 (5): 318–328.
  16. UNESCO Functional Literacy in Eastern and Western Europe. UNESCO Institute for Education. URL accessed on October 28, 2012.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 OECD, Statistics Canada Literacy for Life: Further Results from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. OECD Publishing. URL accessed on 23 October 2012.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 OECD, Statistics Canada (2011) Literacy for Life: Further Results from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. OECD Publishing. URL accessed on 23 October 2012.
  19. Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). URL accessed on 2012-10-29.
  20. National Assessment of Adult Literacy. URL accessed on 2011-11-23.
  21. NCES NAAL defines "below basic", "basic", "intermediate", and (fully) "proficient".
  22. NAAL web site graphic. URL accessed on 2011-11-23.
  23. Average scores increase for Blacks and Asians, Decrease for Hispanics. (PDF) URL accessed on 2011-11-23.
  24. "SAT reading scores drop to lowest point in decades" ''Washington Post'' 2011-09-14. URL accessed on 2011-11-23.
  25. Lownd, Peter. "Freire's Life and Work."
  26. National adult literacy rates (15+), youth literacy rates (15-24) and elderly literacy rates (65+). UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
  27. Weninger, Stefan. Semitic Languages: An International Handbook. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2011.
  28. (1991) "Literacy" Thomas P. Ofcansky Ethiopia: A Country Study., GPO for the Library of Congress.
  29., accessed June 27, 2011
  30. Krausz, Tibor. “People Making a Difference”. Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 2011
  31. Wells, Bonnie. "Picturing Laos”. Amherst Bulletin, August 27, 2010

Further reading[edit | edit source]

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