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date: 04 February 2023

Teaching Literacy in the West from the Middle Ages to the 21st Centurylocked

Teaching Literacy in the West from the Middle Ages to the 21st Centurylocked

  • Anne-Marie ChartierAnne-Marie ChartierUniversity of Lyons 2


Who should teach reading? To whom? How? And in order to read what? Literacy has had such a far-reaching impact on society that many historians have taken an interest in these four questions, which concern teachers (Who selects, pays, and oversees teachers?), students (age, sex, origin, qualification), schooling (language used, organization, materials, methods), and competency to be attained (curriculum implemented, reference texts, exams, degrees). Their approaches have varied over time. As early as the 19th century, educational historians described the ways pedagogical innovators such as Comenius, Melanchton, Locke, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel challenged traditional teaching methods, with Montessori, Decroly, Dewey, Freinet, and Freire taking up that torch in the 20th century and endeavoring teachers to take into account how a child is learning. Yet these world-renowned figures have changed more so what we expect of an educator than the teaching practices of a given country.

Other historians examine how education institutions evolved within their national contexts. Although initially provided for by the church (Protestant or Catholic, depending on the state), literacy was taught primarily to learn the catechism and participate in worship. Later, passing into the hands of the state in one way or another, literacy teaching served to impart basic, secular knowledge. The calendars vary from state to state, but every country in the West had made education mandatory and free by 1880, following centuries of efforts to ensure all people knew the 3 Rs (reading, writing, reckoning). The dream of eliminating illiteracy, however, would be shattered, as reading failure—far from being eradicated—would rise after 1950, even as the number of years spent in school was growing around the world. Since a lack of schools was not the issue, this failure was initially attributed to causes outside school (the child, the family, the social environment). At a time of violent splintering among literacy educators, linguists, and psychologists (phonics vs. whole-language methods), historians discovered that the act of reading, considered unalterable, had transformed over the centuries as various aspects of reading media changed, such as materials, layout, writing, language, and so on.

Since the scroll (volumen) was abandoned for the book (codex) in the early Christian era, five major innovations have marked the history of reading and teaching literacy: the invention of punctuation (from the 7th and 11th centuries) made silent reading possible; Gutenberg’s press (1454) expanded the number of readers, but only on printed text; cellulose paper and metal pens (ca. 1850) allowed reading and writing to be taught simultaneously, thereby accelerating early literacy; audiovisual media (mid-20th century) changed the importance of reading and schools as purveyors of cultural values; and the advent of digital in schools (21st century) transformed both reading materials and devices used for writing (screen/keyboard). Alongside an ideological history of theories, a political history of education institutions and a pedagogical history of literacy methods, we must also apprehend a history of reading technology, as it has affected literacy-teaching practices everywhere, regardless of national language and culture, political regime, and level of economic development.


  • Educational History

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