In Keywords, the term “literacy” does not have an entry of its own. Instead, Raymond Williams (1976) traces its evolution from its fourteenth-century root, “literature.” For the first three hundred years of its life, “literature” was an all-purpose word referring sometimes to “being well-read,” and at other times to “the books in which a man is well-read” (Williams 1976). Gradually, this common-ancestor word divided into several distinct species: the root-word, “literature,” strengthened its links to nationhood (as in English literature or French literature); “literate” came to describe being well-read; “literary” became associated with the “profession of authorship”; and “literacy” arose in the late nineteenth century as a social concept “to express the achievement and possession of what are increasingly seen as general and necessary skills” (Williams 1976). In the definition of “literacy,” the operative word is “skills,” suggesting a low-order, mechanical, even superficial ability related to the simple decoding of black letters on a white page. But by situating “literacy” as an outgrowth of “literature,” Williams reminds us to respect its tough root as well as all its more intellectual branches, including “literary,” “literate,” “reading,” and “writing.”

The term “literature,” as Williams carefully explains, has as its Latin root littera, the letter “L” of the alphabet. Learning to be literate begins with the alphabet. From the “Christ-cross row” of letters on a sixteenth-century hornbook to the animated letters and alphabet songs from the twentieth-century children’s television program Sesame Street, ABCs initiate children into reading. Teaching children their letters has always been the bedrock on which literacy is founded. In the early nineteenth century, poor children in Joseph Lancaster’s monitorial schools (the prototypes for compulsory, universal education) were taught to trace their letters with their fingers in sand-tables (flat trays filled with wet-sand, set into child-sized tables). First they learned letters with straight lines (H, L, T), then letters with angles (A, V, W), then those with curves (O, U, B) (Lancaster 1805).

Children’s book history itself arguably begins with a picture book alphabet: Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658) by Johann Amos Comenius. Ever since, alphabet books have functioned almost as barometers, reflecting and constructing images of children, society, and culture. From “In Adam’s Fall, We sinned All” (signaling the link between the letter A and the fall of humanity) in the New England Primer (1777), to the secular graphic puzzles of Mitsumasa Anno’s Anno’s Alphabet: An Adventure in Imagination (1974), to the attention to African children in Muriel and Tom Feelings’s Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book (1974), alphabet books contribute to the beginnings of identity formation. Being literate means being “lettered.” A “lettered” person comes to mean a person “of wide-reading.” Until the fourteenth century, a literate person was a well-read person, one who had acquired “polite learning through reading” (Williams 1976).

The word “literacy” did not merit a definition of its own until 1883 (the date the Oxford English Dictionary [OED] gives as its earliest use), when it was explained only as “the antithesis of illiteracy.” The OED gives 1660 as the first use of “illiteracy,” and defines it as “ignorance of letters, absence of education, esp. the inability to read and write.” Here, in the attention to writing as well as reading, the OED alludes to the way in which being able to read is no longer enough to qualify as being literate.

Through the Reformation, reading was important particularly as it pertained to the Bible—and so to salvation. People sentenced to hang for theft could literally save their lives by demonstrating what was called “benefit of the clergy,” that is, the ability to read the “neck verse” (Psalm 51:1). In late-eighteenth-century England, the rise of the Sunday School movement focused attention on teaching children to read the Bible so they would learn industry, piety, and obedience. The Religious Tract Society, founded in 1799 as an evangelical publishing house, successfully supplied the Sunday school market with suitably religious stories, including those by Hannah More. The late eighteenth century, marked by the seismic cultural shifts of the American and French revolutions, saw the religious reasons for reading give way to political reasons: literacy became the key to being enfranchised. As only a literate population could determine its own destiny, voters had to be able to both read and write. In colonial America, however, in order to maintain the fiction that slaves were somehow between animals and people, several states enacted contortionist legislation that made it illegal for slaves to learn to read. Those who attempted it risked punishment—or even death.

Until the mid–fifteenth century, when the increasing adoption of the printing press began the slow process of universalizing letter forms, the shaping of letters was the sole province of scribes and copyists. Writing was a skill, a craft taught separately and serving a different ideological agenda. Whereas reading was something that could be used to keep people tractable, writing proved to be a potent political weapon—and so gave rise to the pen as mightier than the sword. In colonial America, indigenous (Native) Americans were taught to read in order to make them obedient Christians, but those who learned to write used their skill to orchestrate their resistance to colonial power (Monaghan 2005).

By the nineteenth century, “literacy” conventionally came to mean both reading and writing, but was no longer primarily used for religious or political purposes. Instead, it was becoming a powerful cultural tool, used to inculcate ideas of national identity. Elementary schoolchildren in the United States were taught to memorize and recite writing by nationalist, quintessentially American poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier (Sorby 2005).

Over about a five-hundred-year period, being literate played a vitally important role in a person’s social and cultural matrix. It could save your life; it could save your soul; it could enable you to be politically enfranchised; and it could confirm your cultural identity. Only in the mid–twentieth century did being literate undergo a significant change of meaning.

In the Cold War America of 1955, Rudolf Flesch set off a firestorm of controversy over the definition of “literacy” with his influential book Why Johnny Can’t Read—And What You Can Do about It. He shifted the definition of literacy away from being well-read toward something about the process of learning to read. Flesch was horrified at the way the “look-say” or “controlled-vocabulary” reading instruction had gradually come to dominate the induction of schoolchildren into literacy. In the United States, The Eclectic Readers by William Holmes McGuffey (first published in 1836) marked the change toward the mass-produced-textbook model of reading instruction. By the mid–twentieth century, limited vocabulary, or “basal” readers as they were called, came into vogue. In 1940, Fun with Dick and Jane, by William S. Gray and May Hill Arbuthnot, heralded the ascendance of the characters, Dick and Jane, who became virtually synonymous with reading instruction in America. British children learned to read with “Janet and John.” The concentration on learning to read a restricted number of words effectively shifted attention away from learning to read the words of God, of the revolution, or of visionary writers, and toward sentences never uttered by a native English speaker. Educational publishers recognized that mass-market readers were, metaphorically speaking, golden-egg-laying geese: the literacy education of virtually every schoolchild in America and England would be founded on their books. Although Flesch was an influential advocate for the break-up of their monopoly, a revolt had clearly been brewing. The American journalist John Hersey, in a famous Life magazine article titled “Why Do Children Bog Down on the First R?” (1954), had also argued against the banality of basal readers.

Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, several publishers embarked on a compromise venture. They attempted to marry the conformist reading-specialist model of literacy instruction with the free-thinking individuality of authors of genuine works of imaginative literature. Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) came onto the reading primer market as a one-person army of liberation. Although his first book for children, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, had been published in 1937, it was the two-hundred-and-thirty-six-word The Cat in the Hat (1957) that made him famous and launched the Random House series of controlled-vocabulary, imaginatively vibrant Beginner Books. That same year, Harper and Brothers also successfully launched their I Can Read Books with Else Homelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear (1957). Other attempts to marry reading specialists with authors were unsuccessful. The Crowell-Collier house in New York (Collier-Macmillan in London) launched the Modern Masters Books for Children series in 1962 to much fanfare. The series fizzled out within a couple of years, despite the fact that that the famous American poet and anthologist Louis Untermeyer had managed to attract manuscripts from some of the literary giants of the day, including Arthur Miller, Robert Graves, Theodore Roethke, Richard Wilbur, and William Saroyan. The reading specialists employed for the project had no qualms about sending controlled vocabulary lists to famous authors. Those who obeyed wrote terrible books. Those who resisted often wrote terrific books—which, sadly, sank with the series. One of the successful contributors, the poet Richard Wilbur, explains the genesis of his book, Loudmouse (1963), and his resistance to what he described as the “hog-tying” of authors: “[T]he word-list which I was sent by the publisher (and which I ignored) was full of cow and barn and grandpa, and clearly meant to coerce me into writing about a visit to grandpa’s farm, whereas the story I had in mind was about a hollering mouse and a robber” (2008).

In the early twenty-first century, literacy increasingly became the focus of government policies designed to improve test scores on large-scale assessment exercises. The British National Literacy Trust (established in 1997) stresses its “commitment to evidence-based policy” (National Literary Trust 2009). The American Reading First program (established in 2002; U.S. Department of Education 2009) promotes and funds only “scientifically based reading research” geared to improving achievement scores. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines “literacy” as akin to saving the world, saying it “is at the heart of basic education for all, and essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable peace and democracy.” However, it too turns to test scores, acquired from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), to demonstrate success.

For the first time in history, “literacy” is defined not by reading and/or writing, but by grading. Because the economies of scale necessitate tightly defined grading rubrics, “literacy” is more narrowly monitored and controlled than it has ever been. That’s what literacy looks like at one end of the spectrum. At the other, literacy has blossomed into literacies, including adult literacy, adolescent literacy, balanced literacy, computer literacy, critical literacy, cultural literacy, early childhood literacy, emotional literacy, family literacy, information literacy, mathematical literacy, media literacy, technical literacy, and visual literacy, among others. Some of the above are subsumed under the umbrella term “new literacies.” And, in a curious twist on back-to-basics movements, “literature circles” (essentially book groups for schoolchildren) are being recommended to improve literacy scores.

As the description and measurement of ever tinier particles of literacy skills continue to constrict educational discourse, redescriptions—to use Margaret Meek’s (1991) preferred term—of literacy grow increasingly labyrinthine. Nearly two decades ago, Meek recognized that literacy had become “a maze of studies to match a multitude of practices, full of contradictions and paradoxes.” She also recognized that understanding “literacy” increasingly means acknowledging contributions from a range of disciplines, including “history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, [and] psychology”—all clamoring for attention but ultimately eluding any “final description.”

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