Handbook of Reading Research - Vol. II

By Rebecca Barr; Michael L. Kamil et al. | Go to book overview

3
THE DEVELOPMENT OF LITERACY IN THE INDUSTRIALIZED NATIONS OF THE WEST

Richard L. Venezky

Literacy represents both a national aspiration and a set of human practices anchored in space and time. From this dual existence literacy has acquired both a sociopolitical dimension, associated with its role within society and the ways in which it is deployed for political, cultural, and economic ends; and a psychological dimension, associated with cognitive and affective properties that lead to greater or lesser individual motivation for and competence with writing and print. These dimensions have developed over the past 1,000 years as literacy in the Western world changed from being the private possession of scribes and clerics, practiced primarily within the circumscribed domains of religion and government, to a near-universal tool of the masses, utilizable within every facet of daily life.

In parallel with this downward and outward spread of literacy within society have also occurred changes in literacy practices. As the manuscript page, with its often perceptually complex graphical style, its unspaced arrangement of words, and its irregular orthography was replaced over time by the printed page, with its increasing legibility of print and regularity of spelling, and as exposure to literacy practices began at earlier ages and received more regular and intensive practice through a lifetime, reading for the average literate changed from a slow, oral production to a more rapid, silent practice.

The goal of this chapter is to trace these complex changes within the histories of the Western industrialized nations, primarily from the rise of feudalism until the end of the first quarter of this century, when most of these nations had attained -- or were close to attaining -- universal literacy. This is not intended to be a comprehensive chronicle of literacy within the countries of interest, but instead a perspective for viewing literacy development, with emphasis on those issues of theory and methodology that are of interest to readers of this text. The primary focus here is the practice of literacy, its expansion over time, and the evidence for both the quantity and quality of literacy at different periods in Western history. Little attention is given to speculations on the consequences of literacy (e.g., Goody & Watt, 1968; Stock, 1983; Eisenstein, 1979) or on conspiracy theories, particularly those that posit manipulation of children through reading practices or of the masses through literacy expectations (e.g., Graff, 1979).

This chapter, like a classical symphony, is divided into four major sections. In the first, Preliminaries, the major theme of the chapter is introduced and a few secondary themes played out: how literacy has been defined over time, what threads can be

I am grateful to Rebecca Barr, John Craig, and Robert Hampel for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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