Teaching Literacy in the West from the Middle Ages to the 21st Century
Teaching Literacy in the West from the Middle Ages to the 21st Century
- 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
Teaching Literacy in the Era of Manuscripts
Content and Intent
The sole purpose of an education in the Middle Ages was to become literate, and being able to read both sacred and secular texts required several years of study. This education was comprised of mastering four main disciplines, the same as those practiced in Antiquity: lectio (made up of discretio et prononciato), emendatio, enarratio, and judicium.
Lectio was the process whereby a reader had to work out the text (discretio) by identifying its elements of letters, syllables, words and sentences, in order to read aloud (prononciato) according to the accentuation required by the sense. Emendatio, a process entailed by the realities of manuscript transmission, required a reader (or a teacher) to correct the text in his copy (. . .). Enarratio, was the process of recognizing (or commenting upon) features of vocabulary, rhetorical and literary form, and above all interpreting the subject matter of the text (explanatio). Judicium was the process of exercising judgement of the aesthetic qualities or moral and philosophical value of the text.
Students began with lectio but often faced the four disciplines together, which did not make for a very orderly curriculum. A teacher would have a student read a psalm aloud and make interruptions to correct pronunciation, call attention to the beauty of a certain passage, or ask questions such as who David was, and so forth. For the students, who worked with copied manuscripts that could be illegible and riddled with errors, even the most advanced among them would have experienced difficulty parsing out the various textual elements, let alone reading the whole in such a way as to make it comprehensible. But these were the same issues faced by native Latin speakers of old:
In Antiquity, the act of reading a text meant interpreting it; in most cases, one had to decipher breaks in the words (distinguere), phrases and sentences, marking these with pauses and varying the vocal inflection (pronunciare), everything that today we rely on a complex system of punctuation to indicate. . . . These were the problems schoolchildren faced, and it was the teacher’s job to guide them through it.(Marrou, 1949/1983, p. 21)
Yet this task was even more challenging in Medieval Europe, where lessons were taught in the liturgical Latin of the Church (established during the reign of Charlemagne) and not the native languages of the students. Thus, schoolchildren had to learn to read, write, and speak Latin simultaneously, while clerics were bilingual. Becoming increasingly aware of the disparity in usage between the vernacular languages and the Latin used by clerics, bishops called synods in 813 in Mainz, Reims, and Tours, pleading for the use of vernacular languages in their preaching. The synod at Arles allowed only for “rustic Latin,” as it was thought to be close enough to Langue d’oc, spoken in the south of France. Here we can see how speakers of Romance languages had a distinct advantage, as these languages were derived from Latin, unlike the languages spoken further north: German, Old English, Gaelic, Norse, and so on. And within Latin itself was a means of distinguishing between clerics and ignoranti, that is, non-Latin speakers. The difference between litteratus and illiteratus doesn’t have quite the same meaning as today’s literate versus illiterate, as explained by theologian Philip de Harvengt (+ 1183), noting the difference between a cleric and a priest:
When we meet a monk, we ask him whether he is a clericus. We don’t want to know whether he has been ordained to perform the office of the altar, but only whether he is litteratus. The monk will therefore reply to the question by saying that he is a clericus if he is litteratus, or conversely, laicus if he is illiteratus; . . . a person of no great book learning was a laicus, a layman, even if he were [sic] a monk or a priest.
Clericus and litteratus were interchangeable terms, both meaning learned or scholarly.
Rote Memorization in Everyday Life
Daily church services helped students to learn and retain their Latin. Schoolchildren were introduced to the language through recitation and singing, and the Benedictine Rule (ca. 530), more or less adopted by all monastic orders, organized the day’s work or study around seven prayer times (Laudes, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline), with certain prayers repeated daily: Pater, Ave, Credo, Benedictus, Magnificat, and 10 psalms in order to pray each of the 150 psalms 50 times throughout the year (Morard, 2018). Since many of these texts were set to music in plainsong, students were able to distinguish the syllables more clearly, and one could join a choir before knowing how to read. Using a finger to follow along in the books of psalms, children could begin to grapple with both the Latin language and how to read its text. It was thus thanks to the liturgical calendar that children memorized Latin through verse and song.
But rote memorization was not just for beginners. Word-for-word memorization of texts was a precondition for providing commentaries and interpretations, and this was the case both in the era of Charlemagne and Alcuin (ca. 800) as that of St Louis and St Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1250). Contemporaries of St. Thomas attributed his great intellectual capacity to his prodigious memory. He was said to be able to compose commentary in his head, and only afterward would he
take down the dictation which ran so clearly that it was as if the master was reading aloud from a book under his eyes. . . . Medieval culture was fundamentally memorial, to the same profound degree that modern culture in the West is documentary. . . . A work is not truly read until one has made it part of oneself—that process constitutes a necessary stage of its “textualization.” Merely running one’s eyes over the written pages is not reading at all, for the writing must be transferred into memory, from graphemes on parchment or papyrus or paper to images written in one’s brain by emotion and sense.(Carruthers, 1990, pp. 5, 8, 10)
From Reading Aloud to Silent Reading
Around the year 1000, monks devoting themselves to study of holy scripture worked off manuscripts, which they would parse through (lectio), repeat slowly (ruminatio), and meditate over (contemplatio). Historians thus have been able to clearly identify when changes to the writing system were introduced during the Early Middle Ages, first in Ireland and in England and, later, on the continent. The monks introduced signs aimed at facilitating discretio by separating words with a dot, marking the first and last letters of words with capitals, and shortening word endings. Use of these signs spread during the 11th century, and by the 12th century they had solved the problem that prefixes posed in that one could now show a clear difference between, for example, infelix and in felicitate. The manuscripts of Guibert de Nogent (+ 1125) have separated words, word-final capital Ss, and the ampersand. In the writings of Hugues de Saint Victor (+ 1141), we find capitalization of word-final letters in suffixes -um, -us, -orum, -tur, and -s, as well as capitalization of the first letters of all proper nouns. These marks appear later in the vernacular manuscripts that flourished in the 13th century, showing that these graphical innovations were aimed at facilitating reading in Latin, as reading an English or Flemish text in scriptio continua would pose no problems of comprehension for an English or Flemish speaker. The semicolon (punctus versus) was a strong sign marking the ends of sentences, whereas the full stop was a weak sign, indicating a pause within the sententia. While the first punctuation marks served a liturgical purpose (marking pauses in the readings to the faithful), they also clarified the grammatical and logical structures within a text, whereby scholars started using the marks in their arguments and proofs.
For historians, the impact of punctuation (however unanticipated) was clear. With separated words and punctuated sentences, readers could read with their eyes alone, which was faster than reading aloud (Saenger, 1997). Alongside reading in a whispered or subdued voice (submissa voce, suppressa voce), a new, silent, “mental” reading emerged, making it possible to read at various speeds, go back in the text, or linger on a difficult or well-composed sentence. In order to draw more quickly upon the increasing quantity of texts in memory, Hugh of St. Victor, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Bradxardine came up with several sophisticated mnemonic devices (Carruthers, 1990, Appendix), and clerics soon became “intellectuals” (Le Goff, 1957/2014) who interacted with texts. Abelard, for example, presented his lectures in the form of questions and answers, as if posing and resolving problems, which enthralled his students. Autographic writing would soon develop, with the first draft in shorthand to then be dictated to a secretary and later cleaned up by copyists working on individual sheets of paper, the latest innovation in manuscript writing. The monastic trilogy (lectio, ruminatio, contemplatio) thus gave way to the scholastic trilogy: lectio (exegesis and commentary), disputatio (the art of rhetoric and disputation), and praedicatio (spiritual and moral teaching) (Hamesse, 1999). The change from monastic to scholarly reading is most evident in the way schools would develop (Orme, 2006).
Teachers and Students in Monastic Schools
A teacher (magister infantum, didascalus puerorum, magister scholae, ecolâtre) did not have to instruct the faithful; that was the domain of preachers. Rather, a teacher trained future clerics on behalf of the church. He was chosen by the father superior and put in charge of children ranging from ages 5 to 12 offered up by their families. Schools were often located outside the cloisters for the sake of the serenity of other monks. The teacher was responsible for his pupils outside as well as inside the school. When teachers and students were not at the task of learning, they spent their time in the church (Riché, 2016). When a teacher couldn’t manage larger numbers of students, he could select one or two auxiliaries to assist him. No set number of years spent in school was established. In the same classroom we find some students reading the grammar of Donat while others were copying psalms.
What was the curriculum for first-year students? Following prayer, the teacher taught students to greet him in Latin and had them repeat short, basic dialogues. Then three exercises were used to ensure students acquired the rudiments: reading aloud, writing on a tablet, and listening to an oral lesson that was to be memorized and recited the following day. Students would begin with reading common psalms, moving on from there to unfamiliar texts to be deciphered. With loud, clear, and well-articulated pronunciation, one was eligible to be a “Lector” in church (a rank in the minor orders). Writing helped to learn letters and syllables for fast word recognition but was less helpful for learning how to separate sentences. Grammar was then the next stage in one’s education, and many clerics did not pursue education beyond grammar, as this was enough to be taken on as a copyist for the scriptorium.
Students only had to equip themselves with a wooden tablet, which was covered in wax, and a pen for drawing letters, copying verses, and, later, writing down the teacher’s lectures. After a tablet had been filled with markings, heat was applied to the wax to melt it, thereby making a tabula rasa for the next exercise. Learning to write the alphabet in order, students used a colorful array of descriptors for the various typographical elements: punctus, baculus, dorsum, pes, venter, gremium, vertex, galea (short line, stick, back, foot, belly, breast, crown of the head, helmet). When students were able to write a sentence containing every letter, their education was completed. They would go on to learn to use quills by practicing on used parchment, later (13th century) on paper, and eventually perfect their reading skills in their employment as copyists.
Urban Schools and the Birth of the University
Starting in the 11th century, the rise of urban populations prompted the founding of more schools, which were attached to collegiate churches or cathedrals. There, just like at the monastery, one learned to read, but the ever-increasing numbers of students required more auxiliaries, and these were presided over by a chancellor who was no longer teaching. Beginner classes were separated from grammar classes and taught by young clerics who had earned a licentia docendi (1179), allowing them to teach but only within the diocese. In Paris, teachers organized themselves as a guild to rid themselves of oversight by the canons and bishops, and in 1215 the King and the Pope recognized their independence, thereby founding the Université de Paris, which could establish a curriculum, issue grades, and recruit faculty. Literacy was thus taught in two phases. Basic education was offered at small schools run by the clergy and open to children from the entire city, while universities took in students at around the age of 14 when they were already members of the clergy. The universities as faculties of the arts had students work on Latin from both Christian and Classical authors in the three subjects studied in the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and then the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). They worked in the reading rooms of the libraries, and this, according to the Oxford Rule of 1412, was done in silence. As books were rare and expensive, professors wrote summaries and compiled anthologies that students then copied for their own use. Reading and disputatio practices aroused students’ interest in new translations and interpretations (Riché & Verger, 2006; Verger & Jolivet, 1982). In Italy, the masters of “abbaco schools” opened private or communal classes to teach commercial reckoning and calligraphy: After studying some basics in Latin, children started writing and reckoning in everyday language (Petrucci, 1986, 1995).
Teaching Literacy in the Time of Print
Gutenberg’s printing press (1455) transformed reading and the way it was taught (Eisenstein, 1983). Printed books were cheaper, more widely available, and easier to read than manuscripts. They entered the private libraries of the literate upper class at a time when new translations of the Bible were undermining the authority of the Church (Gilmont, 1990). The lower classes were affected as well. From 1520 to 1525, thousands of pamphlets made the name of Martin Luther known far and wide among the literate and illiterate alike. Reformation movements (Lutheran, 1520; Calvinist, 1530; Anglican, 1534) broke ranks with Rome and wars raged for more than a century, conflating religious and political disputes (the German Peasants’ War; the French Wars of Religion; the Thirty Years’ War between Protestant princes and the Catholic Habsburgs; the English Civil War). Yet during this period literacy was on the rise throughout Europe.
Purpose of Literacy Amidst Europe’s Religious Conflicts
Religious conflicts prompted every denomination to instruct its faithful—both men and women, adults, and children—in the “science of salvation,” an effort that took on different forms between the lower and upper classes.
As early as the 16th century, the age-old curriculum for educating clerics had been revised. Boys studying to join the clergy, and the children of the elite, were being taught in the same institutions as instruction in Latin was changing (Grendler, 1989). Renaissance humanists rediscovering Classical Latin preferred it to liturgical Latin and began teaching it in colleges (Catholic), gymnasiums (Protestant), and grammar schools (Anglican), and indeed Protestant countries did away with liturgical Latin altogether. Attempting to revive Classical Latin to the status of a living language, teachers first taught dialogues (hence the success of Erasmus’s Adagia) and “disputationes” (the pupils had to argue opposing viewpoints in Latin), yet the growing numbers of students would cause the decline of these oral methods. Reading and writing texts became the focus of grammar-class lessons, and by the beginning of the 18th century, most grammar schools no longer taught in Latin (Compère, 1985). Additionally, Classical pagan authors (Cicero, Livy, Virgil, Horace) were put at the service of teaching Christian morals of virtue and honor and became common cultural references across all European countries, Protestant and Catholic alike (Houston, 1988).
But the question remains: Why did people learn to read? After all, to be a good Christian, all one needed to do was be baptized, attend church services, and receive the sacraments. The illiterate could take part in the culture of the written word when they heard texts read aloud, whether religious or secular (R. Chartier, 1994), and this is how Christian worship carried on in southern Europe (Castillo Gomez, 2002; Magalhães, 1994; Roggero, 1992; Viñao Frago, 1999) and central Europe (Tóth, 1996). In the north, however, where the Reformed and Catholic churches were in competition, the faithful had to be able to confess their faith. With printed books, one could guarantee a stable text devoid of doctrinal errors and approved by the religious authorities of one’s confession. An unforeseen consequence was that since learning to read was most important, schools for the lower classes did not teach writing until the 19th century. Handwritten texts were thus illegible to most people, as learning to use a quill pen took a long time, was costly, and only useful to those needing to be able to keep accounts. Christians were to be instructed in “the science of salvation,” a science one learned from the catechisms.
Educating Teachers and Reading the Catechism
Pastors and priests worked from large catechisms in Latin while schoolteachers, who didn’t speak Latin, used abridged translations of these written in question-and-answer form. Students had to read and know the catechism before receiving communion (Catholic) or confirmation (Protestant), which marked the end of their education. Beginner students had printed extracts of the catechism that came with their alphabet primers.
Reading Scripture was the central tenet of the Protestant Reformation. Pastors-in-training learned to read and interpret texts in faculties of theology teaching Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (Frijhoff, 1994), as indeed ardent faith wasn’t enough to eliminate errors in one’s preaching and commenting on Scripture. Luther and Calvin wanted not prophets but learned pastors, which would not prevent further conflicts over doctrine and liturgy. Harvard College was founded in 1636 by exiled Puritans. In Germany, the Netherlands, the Lutheran countries of northern Europe, and Reformed cantons in Switzerland, children were taught using either Luther’s (1529) or Calvin’s (1537) catechisms. The Anglican United Kingdom used the Book of Common Prayer (1552) (Green, 1996, 2009). Due to the lack of schools in rural Sweden, fathers there were responsible for educating their children, which pastors would then validate with an annual exam. Cities in Germany and the Netherlands founded schools where lay teachers taught both religion (praying, reading, singing) and skills useful in merchanting (writing and counting). Children memorized certain formulations that they would recite by heart. In Geneva, for example, in response to the question “What do we think of people who pray in a language they do not understand?,” the children would answer, “We think that to pray that way is to mock God, and Christians will guard against such formalism” (Carbonnier-Buckard, 2014).
The Council of Trent (1545–1562) required Catholics to make equal efforts to resist Protestantism and conferred on bishops the duty of writing catechisms. Latin was reserved for services and reading the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) reserved for members of the clergy. Unlike pastors trained in universities, priests were trained in seminaries, then appointed priests of parishes where they would oversee the parish schoolteachers (Julia, 2014).
Orders of religious missionaries took up the fight against Protestant heresy as well. The most recent, the Society of Jesus (1540), focused on education and founded many colleges where all future Jesuits were trained to teach alongside their rigorous studies in the classics and sciences (Romano, 1999). They wrote the first Catholic catechisms, the most famous of which is that of Peter Canisius, published in Latin in 1555. Translated into many European languages, it was printed in three versions: Major, Minimus, and Minor, following the Lutheran example of providing long, medium, and short versions of texts depending on the target readership. In Italy, France, Austria, Spain, and Portugal, bishops had to approve the catechisms published in their dioceses and oversee first communion preparation for children, which took place between the ages of 12 and 13, much earlier than among Protestants (ages 14 to 16). This was one of the causes for greater illiteracy in southern Europe compared to the north (Roggero, 1999).
Students had to pass an exam to receive communion or confirmation, meaning some failed. Sweden’s Church Laws (1686) tell us why: “As no person can be confirmed till he can read and repeat his catechism, or until confirmed, can give his oath in court of justice, or get married, a great disgrace is attached to not being able to read; indeed, one who cannot read is nobody in the eye of the law” (Johansson, 1981, p. 153; Lindmark, 2004). As a result, 90% of the Swedish population was literate by 1800. In France, Jansenist priests were particularly strict and children who failed would repeat the school year, provoking the ire of parents as their children’s apprenticeships to craftsmen would have to be postponed. Naturally, one would think those failed by the clergy were at greater risk of rejecting religion, and indeed Jansenist regions were marked by a strong anticlerical tradition and quick to de-Christianize following the French Revolution (Delumeau, 1987).
Learning to Read Religious Texts with Alphabet Primers
All children learned to read from alphabet primers (salterio, Instructions chrétiennes, Primer, Crisscross), very cheap booklets sometimes illustrated with prints from wood engravings that were a student’s first and sometimes only schoolbook. The alphabet, shown in both upper-case and lower-case letters, wraps around a small, decorative cross followed by a short list of syllables presenting all “consonant-vowel” and “vowel-consonant” combinations. This was followed by common prayers, then various religious hymns depending on the denomination.
The common method for teaching reading without writing was to have students spell out letters and syllables aloud. An excerpt from Edmund Coote’s The English Schoole-master (1596) demonstrates how spelling aloud served as a substitute for writing: “-John: how do you write people? -Robert: I cannot write; -John: I mean not so, but when I say write, I mean spell, for in my meaning, they are both the same. - Robert: Then I answer you, p,e,o,p,l,e” (Cressy, 1980, p. 21). This procedure, called “the ordinary road,” is found throughout Europe and beyond, whether in lessons for princes or lower-class children, Protestants or Catholics, in Sweden or in New England (Monaghan, 2005). It was the technique used both among those who would be “reading only” as well as those who would go on to learn to write once they could read.
A school ordinance from Saxony in 1580 states:
when young boys first come to school, give them a copy of the ABC booklet specially printed with Dr Luther’s catechism. [. . .] When you are certain they have mastered the alphabet, teach them the syllables, using the Lord’s prayer as your text. All this time, pay close attention to their pronunciation, and do not allow the boys to slur or drawl their vowels and consonants in the manner of their natural speech, but make them separate and distinguish the sounds clearly from one another, as is done in Latin diction.
The rest of the booklet contained exercises: “-What is the first letter in pater? -It’s a p. -Show me the p in the alphabet. What comes after the p ? -An a. -Show me the a,” and so on (Strauss, 1981, p. 102). Dividing the Lord’s Prayer into separate syllables, the child could then make the association between the sound he was making and what he saw on the page, which is why slow, syllable-by-syllable pronunciation was emphasized.
Then, after a student had memorized the written letters and their corresponding oral sounds, he would be set to the task of reading unfamiliar texts (psalms, hymns, etc.). Pronouncing the sounds aloud syllable by syllable, he could hear words and sentences emerging in his mother tongue and then proceed to understand their meaning. For this reason, Catholics such as La Salle chose to teach literacy using the language of the catechism, his students’ native language, rather than Latin, however simplified. The teacher would make sure his students could first read on their own word for word, then move them on to whole sentences separated by punctuation marks. The only secular book used in teaching was Erasmus’s De civilitate morum puerilium (1530), subsequently translated into German, French, and English (1532, A Little Book of Good Manners for Children).
Creating New Primers as Secular Literature Flourished
It was in the interest of the churches to teach literacy, as the faithful could then learn the catechism and participate in worship. An education was meant to serve communal religious practice, but it likewise spawned readers capable of understanding the secular texts sold by peddlers (chapbooks, almanacs, Legenda Aurea). In the 18th century, new kinds of literature, suspect in the eyes of the churches, began to spread: novels, science writing, newspapers, and so on. The heroines in Richardson and Rousseau (Pamela, or, Virtue rewarded in 1740; and Julie, or, the New Eloisa in 1761) enthralled readers, men and women, and aristocrats and servants alike. Scholarly encyclopedias and popular-science texts challenged religious beliefs and political regimes. Newspapers went out to readers eager to learn the “news,” especially during the French Revolution.
How could literacy education be conducted to create readers capable of understanding these diverse, new texts? The solution was to separate reading from understanding the content, an idea familiar in England, as evidenced by Edmond Coote’s statement: “Tailors, weavers, shopkeepers, seamsters . . . mayst sit at thy shop board, at thy looms, or at thy needle, and never hinder thy work to hear the scholars, after thou hast once made this little book familiar unto thee.” That way, any adult could instruct a child in that purely repetitive labor. To sustain the attention of upper-class children, tutors made up simplified writing exercises and games (Locke created dice that, when thrown, composed different syllables) and used pictures. It was felt that if a student knew how to read any syllable, then he could read any word and therefore any text. Educators created new primers without prayers, comprised only of lists of syllables and words. Many children failed to retain all the meaningless syllables, and Rousseau and Pestalozzi rejected this method (Rousseau referred to it as “a torture”), as it caused many children to lose interest in reading altogether (A.-M. Chartier, 2007).
This technique prevailed, nonetheless. Syllabic-reading exercises were thought to develop general reading skills no longer restricted to the same set of religious texts. In the United States, the old methods were rejected forthright. The New-England Primer, for example, one of the first books printed in Boston, in 1777, was rooted in the old tradition with prayers and a catechism. The alphabet was set to verse (For A: “In Adam’s Fall/ We Sinned All”) complete with picture illustrations, but Noah Webster’s famous The Blue-Back Speller with its blue cover would eclipse it only 10 years later. In its first 100 pages, the student had to read out lists of short or long syllables and words of one to five syllables separated by hyphens. The first texts were religious maxims composed of monosyllables (“No man may put off the law of God / My joy is in his law all the day”), stemming from no one Christian denomination in particular. These were school texts disconnected from life in society that the student would have to spell out, understand, and say aloud, that is, read in the “modern” sense of the term (Monaghan, 1983). A new phase was ushered in with McGuffey’s Primer, created in 1836, followed by his seven-volume Readers series that constituted a complete learning curriculum. The Primer was intended to introduce children to reading, using short words with accompanying illustrations. The child could then immediately recognize the meaning of OX, AXE, CAT, say the names of the letters, then pronounce the whole word. Selling millions of copies of their books, Webster and McGuffey both advocated for a clear division between the primer and the reader. The primer was meant to develop automatic recognition of words and short sentences, then came a full curriculum in the Readers. To prepare students to be able to read any kind of text, they learned in two distinct phases: first to read, then to follow text-based lessons (Smith, 1934/2002).
Meanwhile, education in Europe needed to be scaled up, as a single teacher could only instruct so many children. Scotsman Andrew Bell and Brit Joseph Lancaster developed the approaches of mutual tuition and the monitorial system. Lessons were divided into series of short, simple, and orderly exercises. In large classrooms shared by eight different classes of different skill levels, “monitor” students would instruct and evaluate their peers as they worked through exercises. The teacher prepared the monitors before class, and during class he would stand at the pulpit conducting the entire ensemble like an orchestra. It was a new method advocated by philanthropists both for its efficiency and seeming effectiveness, but it provoked virulent debates once it spread to the continent after 1815. The Catholic Church protested that it minimized the role of the teacher, radicalized students, and separated literacy from the religious instruction it was intended for. The approach was unfit for smaller schools in rural Europe and would never take root, but its classroom materials would be adopted over time: writing boards on the wall and slates for beginning writing and arithmetic at an early age (Chalopin, 2011).
As state powers sought to do away with Church control over schools, technological innovations came about around 1850 that would put an end to the methods of sounded-out reading, in use since the 16th century. Cellulose paper cut the cost of paper to a tenth of the price and goose feathers were replaced by metal feathers which were much easier to use. Children could then learn to read and write at the same time and the method of sounding out letter by letter became useless. Children then began to learn letters, syllables, and words through writing and copying in their notebooks. A new method for teaching literacy began.
Teaching Reading and Writing in the Era of Compulsory Education
The Rise of Schooling and Reading
By the end of the 19th century, education had become compulsory throughout Europe, wherein governments became the bodies funding schools in which every child in the nation would learn to read, write, and count. Compulsory education limited the authority of parents over their children, notably depriving them of free labor. Mandatory education suffered much social and political resistance and passed into law only sporadically across Europe: 1736 in Prussia, 1764 in Saxony, 1802 in Bavaria, 1842 in Sweden, 1848 in Norway, 1868 in Spain, 1869 in Austria, 1872 in Scotland, 1874 in Switzerland, 1877 in Italy, 1878 in Portugal, 1880 in England, and 1881 in France. In the United States, the first compulsory-education law dates back to 1851 in Massachusetts (home to Harvard College) and between 1851 and 1880, 12 other states would pass their own laws (Buisson, 1887).
These landmark dates seem to divide each nation’s history into before (illiterate) and after (literate) periods, and the figures behind these movements would become legendary. In the 1950s, France would celebrate Jules Ferry, whose eponymous law established mandatory education in 1881, as “France’s schoolteacher,” the man responsible for making the country literate, even though most people could read by the time mandatory education became law. By 1700 in France, 30% of men and 14% of women could sign civil registers; by 1800, the percentages had grown to 47% and 27%, and to 83% and 73% by 1881 (Furet & Ozouf, 1977). If the criteria for a “literate” country is that over 80% of the population can read, then Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway were literate by 1850; England, Wales, France, Belgium, and Ireland by 1900; and Austria, Hungary, Spain, Italy, Poland, the USSR, and the Balkan countries by 1950. Portugal remains 50% illiterate, even though education has been “compulsory” there for three generations (Graff, 1981; Kaestle et al., 1991). Nonetheless, these figures can be deceiving. The criteria for being considered literate in the 17th century had changed by the 19th century. The purpose of literacy and methods of reading had transformed. What new purposes did reading serve in the age of compulsory education?
Teacher Training and the Dual Roles of Reading in School
The German states that had made education compulsory as early as the 18th century established schools to educate teachers called seminaries, later to be renamed teacher-training colleges. Accepted students trained in a three-year program for free. The curriculum included study of the religious and secular subjects teachers would have to be able to teach (Bible reading, Biblical history, the catechism, German language and grammar, arithmetic, choir, the calendar, geometry, geography, and natural history), as well as practical classroom experience. Every week, students would both observe and teach lessons with teacher-mentors in a primary school where they could practice implementing Schulmethodus on young students. Throughout the 19th century, this model would be adopted by several other countries in Europe as well as North and South America (A.-M. Chartier & Rockwell, 2013). Teacher-training colleges, “Normal Schools,” were not immune to polemics, however, as they were considered too expensive for many and became the sites of public demonstrations in 1848. The state regularly employed teachers without training, with teachers with training constituting a small elite (Grandière, 2006).
The dual purpose of reading becomes obvious looking at this affiliation between a teacher-training college and a primary school for applied teaching. Primary school students first had to learn to read to then continue learning by reading. Only children who could read on their own were able to review their teacher’s lessons and study them further in textbooks. Affiliating with a primary school was important for teachers-in-training as they could master teaching literacy, the skill that would determine a student’s success in every other subject.
Between 1850 and 1950, curricula varied nation to nation. Different states placed unequal emphasis on science, religion, history, and the national language depending on their political and ideological inclinations. Nonetheless, disputes over the right teaching methods to use with beginner students were the same everywhere.
Learning Different Subjects: Mandatory and Voluntary Reading
What subjects did schools have to teach? Children had to be able to read anything and everything, but teaching texts as frivolous and potentially dangerous as novels and newspaper articles was out of the question. Thanks to the steam-powered printing press, academic publishers could mass-produce textbooks, the purpose of which was to provide both a scholastic and moral education. Some countries still used religious texts in the classroom, but in places where several denominations coexisted (England, United States, France, etc.), texts such as The Blue-Back Speller were preferred as they invoked God without reference to any particular dogma or clergy. As a result, texts that everyone knew from church and which had been ubiquitous in textbooks up to that point were suddenly banished from school. Literacy in the classroom became distinctly different from literacy outside the classroom.
At the end of the 19th century, greater emphasis was being placed on the sciences. To study geography, the natural sciences, and physics, students needed maps, diagrams, illustrations, and graphs, thus writing took precedence over reading. At the same time, national history either superseded or became integrated into religious history. Teachers started teaching foundational moments in national history, the nation’s founding heroes and stories that would foster national pride. Child soldiers in the children’s novel Heart (De Amicis 1886) celebrated Italian history and would be translated into more than 10 languages and taught in classrooms from France to Argentina. France’s secular schools had no catechisms or prayers to teach morality and so relied on the literature of contemporary authors (Victor Hugo, George Sand, etc.)—though these would be kept out of secondary school curricula—and secular poetry and songs replaced prayers and hymns. Yet patriotic fervor would dampen with World War I. Many teachers went the way of the Ligue Internationale pour l’Education Nouvelle (“New Education Fellowship,” 1921) in support of progressive education (Reformpädagogik, Educación Nueva, Escola Nova, Ecole active) that was pacifist, altruistic, and international (Gutierez, 2009; Haenggeli-Jenni & Hostetter, 2011). The IBE (International Board of Education, 1929) in Geneva set about translating international childhood literary classics into every language, but the 1930s were marked by inward-looking nationalism and political tensions. Moscow (1931) and Berlin (1933) condemned experimental schools and denounced progressive education, which caused rifts within the movement (Brehony, 2004; Hofstetter & Schneuwly, 2006).
New literature was able to enter schools thanks to school libraries. To get away from mandatory reading, teachers offered good students—whose parents often didn’t buy books—the opportunity in class to read a select group of children’s novels prized for their literary, moral, or social value. The aim was to get children to enjoy reading. Secondary school kept to national literary heritage while primary schools opened up beyond national borders, with heroes who tended to be young, male rather than female, and English-speaking: Oliver Twist (1839), Tom Sawyer (1876), Treasure Island (1883), The Jungle Book (1894), White Fang (1906). Excerpts from these best-sellers can be found in reading manuals from the 1930s. Beyond small classroom libraries, full youth libraries were created in Great Britain and the United States prior to 1914, and after the war in Belgium and France. Nonetheless, we see librarians often blaming schoolteachers for children’s meager appetites for reading, complaining that because teachers forced students to read, they made it repetitive and boring. Meanwhile, youth organizations of every stripe, religious and secular, conservative and progressive, all opposed low-brow comic books and published illustrated journals for children to contend with their popularity (A.-M. Chartier & Hébrard, 1989/2000). Progressive education supported the journals, as they prompted shared reading over individual reading. It was only in the 1960s that the opposing camps (teachers, librarians, journalists) put their differences aside to join forces against a new common threat, television.
Disputes over Failure in School: Was the Student or the School to Blame?
By the end of the 19th century, education policymakers were certain of two things: (a) compulsory education would eradicate illiteracy and (b) teaching reading and writing simultaneously would accelerate learning. Yet many children were failing in school. Since the issue could not be due to a lack of schools, other causes had to be determined. Many doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists went about diagnosing the situation, and their observations were taken up by political decision-makers and educators’ associations in their attempt to answer three questions: the first addressed the question of aptitude, “are all children capable of learning how to read?”; the second, that of collective-learning environments: “do some children learn to read slower than others?”; and the third, that of teaching methods, “are the learning materials in use adapted to the realities of learning?”
On the question of aptitude, French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857–1911) invented the first practical IQ test in 1905. This test determined students’ “mental age” by comparing their test results to the average performance of their age group (Binet & Simon, 1907). Two groups had to be exempted from compulsory education: children with severe or medium intellectual disabilities (who either could not speak or did so with difficulty). Those whom Binet classified as “abnormal” or who had “mild retardation” could be educated, but only in special programs given their need for additional aid and time in decoding and understanding texts. The test also identified gifted children, meaning early readers who were above average in mental age. In 1912, German psychologist William Stern (1871–1938) coined the term “intelligence quotient,” which referred to the relationship between one’s mental age and chronological age. The IQ method was adopted the world over and with it the idea that early reading and success in school was “proof” of a student’s intelligence and, conversely, that difficulty in reading and failure in school was “proof” of a student’s intellectual deficiency.
New Trends in Education and Teaching
The second possible cause of failure was the learning environment. Three doctors, Decroly (1871–1932) from Belgium, Montessori (1870–1952) from Italy, and Claparède (1873–1940) from Switzerland rejected the idea that difficulty reading and intellectual deficiency were one and the same. According to them, many children experienced difficulties that could be attributed to the teaching methods implemented. Decroly founded a school where “abnormal” children managed to learn to read and write as long as lessons incorporated their “centres of interest.” His book, The Decroly Method (Hamaïde, 1922), was translated into 13 languages and popularized the principles of so-called active methods and the global method of reading, which made reading and writing lessons from sentences the children produced themselves. In Rome, Maria Montessori used ideas she had developed working with children with disabilities and applied them to very young children without disabilities, creating educational materials that allowed them to work at their own pace and engage their sensory and motor skills. By age 4, many children had already learned the shapes and sounds of the letters and could begin writing before they learned to read (Montessori, 1909). Edouard Claparède had a chair of psychology at the University of Geneva (Claparède, 1909). In 1912, he founded an educational research center called the Rousseau Institute, which became affiliated with the Maison des Petits [“children’s house”], modeled after Montessori’s Casa dei Bambini in Rome. Opened in 1913, the Maison applied the methods of progressive education and it was here that Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and his team conducted a lot of observations. The results of his and other similar studies were celebrated by the Ligue (“the New Education Fellowship”) since they confirmed their hypothesis, that is, that traditional, group learning environments, while offering teachers simplified methods for testing students, prevented observation of the students at work. “Active methods” such as hands-on learning activities and working in small groups offered more immediate access to students’ responses to lessons, whereby teachers could then intervene when students experienced difficulty (Ferrière, 1922). With these observations, psychologists such as Henri Wallon (1879–1962) and Jean Piaget (1896–1980) identified constants in childhood development and created theories of the successive stages of development.
The Normal-Word Method and the Whole-Word Method
Teaching methods were the third possible cause of failure. By the end of the 19th century, journals and congresses the world over were rejecting sounded-out reading and “mechanical” memorization of the syllables. Was it better to learn letters first, then move on to syllables, and then words (as in Webster)? Or learn the sounds of each letter? Or whole words with an actual meaning (McGuffey)? Or whole sentences? And should accompanying illustrations be used in the lessons? Germany had provided the system of choice, a phonic method called the “Word-Method” or “Normal-Words Method” which had been described in numerous essays (Kehr, 1889) and detailed by visitors to the country, including Horace Mann, founder of the Boston Normal School (Mann, 1937). In his account, he records that the teacher drew a house on the blackboard and wrote the word Haus; he ran over the forms of the letters, the children following the movements with their fingers in the air, and then copied the word on their slates. Drills in the sounds of the letters followed (never their names) and the teacher instructed them to combine the sounds, and finally the entire word was spoken (Mathews, 1966). Thus, all at once students were exposed to the word and the object it referred to, writing and reading, and the shape of the letters symbol and their sounds.
In France, Switzerland, Italy, and the Scandinavian countries, reading lessons were accompanied by illustrations. The word for the thing represented (AX for A, BEE for B, etc.) was printed in both block print and cursive, and students read the word before copying down the letters. Publishers in Latin America abandoned Spanish and Portuguese primers for the publishing markets in Leipzig, Frankfurt, London, and Paris. Mexico and Chile dropped French primers for Swiss and German primers around 1880, and Brazil started using American books as of 1900 (A.-M. Chartier & Rockwell, 2013). The Normal-Word Method spread, but teachers in England and the United States suffered frustration with the variations in English spelling, something teachers using German or Spanish books didn’t have to worry about.
In 1908, Edmund Burke Huey (1870–1913) published The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading from his observations of the act of reading in a laboratory setting (speed, eye movement, direct word recognition, etc.). He concluded that the Normal-Word Method focused students’ attention on individual words and graphic-phonic relationships, which hindered overall comprehension of text. He advocated for reading in which children immediately recognized whole words, whereby they could develop early silent-reading skills by focusing on the meanings of the sentences and texts. He turned the priorities of teaching literacy on their head by promoting a child’s “global” perception based on visual memory, motivation, and repetition. In teacher-training colleges, Huey’s work complemented the “learning-by-doing” trademark of pragmatist John Dewey (1859–1952), an eminent member of the Ligue and advocate of active methods.
Different Ways of Teaching Reading in Europe and United States
In Europe (Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, France), the Normal-Word Method remained the dominant system, with only a minority of teachers practicing whole-word reading. Freinet’s “natural method” used a press to print the children’s texts (Freinet, 1968/1994). Despite these differences, all teachers taught reading and writing together (letters or syllables written out on a line, copied, spelling exercises, sentences created). Methods that relied on articulating graphic-phonic relationships thus became the standard along with an emphasis on reading aloud. There was no question of prioritizing silent reading (A.-M. Chartier, 2007).
In the United States, psychologist William S. Gray (1885–1960) in 1920 conducted a survey of soldiers and sailors who had received a standard education and found that 25% of them were unable to understand simple newspaper articles, carry out written instructions, or communicate in writing. He deemed functional reading more important than literary reading in terms of using the written word in everyday life. To this end, he created Dick and Jane in 1930, a series beginning as a pre-primer for kindergarteners followed by readers for successive age groups. To keep students from failing, classes were to be divided into three groups of fast, medium, and slow readers. The “look-say” flashcard exercises trained students in immediate recognition of words they had previously encountered. Teachers had every lesson provided for them in an accompanying teacher’s guide, but these did not include lessons for teaching writing. Gray recommended this method in his report for UNESCO (Gray, 1956, 1967) and it became a kind of bible for literacy campaigns in developing countries until the 1970s.
Teaching Literacy in the Era of Mass Media
Period of Education Extended Following the War
At the end of World War II, social services for demobilized soldiers in England and the United States reported high rates of illiteracy among them. This phenomenon had already been observed in the United States in 1920, but Europe, confronting the issue for the first time, attributed it to meager education. By extending the period of education, education policymakers redefined both the ends and means of teaching literacy, introducing reforms in a new demographic (the baby boom), economic (expansion), and geopolitical (East-West contention) era. The baby boom following World War II was unexpected, and to accommodate the growing numbers of students, schools had to hire young teachers with no training. Suburban areas where factories, offices, and new residential buildings were cropping up also saw the establishment of new schools.
Education expansion carried the day with universal support. Outcry from teachers condemned the elite exclusivity of higher education, families desired greater social mobility for their children, and the business world needed better-educated employees, skilled workers, and engineers. By extending the period of schooling (to ages 15, 16, or 18 depending on the country), education was supposed to become fairer, more worthwhile, and more effective. Countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland continued down traditional education avenues, separating general, technical, and vocational education, while others such as England, France, and Italy created a new structure based around common schools allowing for oriented programs. In the United States, school became compulsory through age 16 or 18 (depending on the state). A 1938 law had ushered in an era of extended education, but the war prevented it from being enforced. In the 1950s and 1960s, more children were introduced to reading prior to entering nursery school, that is, before age 5 in England and age 4 in Switzerland. By 1960 in France, 85% of 5-year-olds and 36% of 3- to 4-year-olds attended nursery school. By 1970, those numbers reached 98% and 61%.
Educational Expansion and School Failure among Adolescents
For these reasons, the definition of educational expansion had changed. Prior to the war, “democratizing education” meant selecting the top students from low-income backgrounds and preparing them for school-leaving qualifications with the help of financial aid. After the war, it meant raising the level of education across the population (Prost, 2013). Yet in countries with nonselective programs, many primary-school students failed, as they were unable to read either fast enough or well enough on their own to keep up with the curriculum.
These adolescents were labeled “nonreaders” or “weak readers” in the 1950s and 1960s. In the United States, Rudolf Flesch (1955) attributed their illiteracy to the Whole-Word Method, which in his view did not teach reading as much as how to guess words based on their visual form. Public trust in the education was shaken, only to be further undermined in 1957 when the USSR launched Sputnik. Jeanne Chall (1967), director of the graduate programs in reading at Harvard, published Learning to Read: The Great Debate, an in-depth study showing that many children who made progress in reading early on often fell behind later in their education. This was especially true among students from low-income backgrounds. In Europe, teachers observed similar failure among adolescents. In France, the “global method,” which had assimilated with the “natural method” of cooperative education, became stigmatized for ideological reasons (Freinet, 1959), but it was the predominant phonics-based methods that became the true anathema in teacher-training programs. Teachers emphasized speaking words aloud over understanding sentences (Charmeux, 1975). The reality of reading failure sparked heated debates both in the general public as well as among educators (Copperman, 1978), producing a host of purported causes: the inadequacy of young teachers, urban living, mothers in the workforce, divorce (Despert, 1962), and, above all, television.
Cultural Education and Mass Media
Up until the reading debates of the 1960s and 1970s, education was valued for its perpetuation of the culture of the written word, synonymous with civilization and progress. According to the UNESCO (1945) charter, being able to read and access the world’s knowledge and literature through the written word was an issue of freedom, peace, and development. Literacy guaranteed a free flow of information between democratic individuals and peoples (Graff, 1979, 1987), and for this reason schoolchildren had to be exposed to a chosen body of literature considered instructive and formative both morally and civically. Yet that belief was undermined in the 1960s and 1970s in the developed world, where reading had to compete with other leisure activities (cinema, records, television, etc.). Previously, literature had been the sole purveyor of models for cultivating personal identity and providing shared cultural references, but its monopoly was soon under assault by entertainment industries targeting youth demographics. Would this be the end of The Gutenberg Galaxy (McLuhan, 1962)? How could reading compete with the appeal of mass media? In an effort to elevate “typographic man,” cultural institutions for reading (schools, libraries, the press, publishing, etc.) adopted a catchphrase: “reading for pleasure.” In order to continue to have appeal, texts had to be simple in form and pleasant in content.
Meanwhile, people with educational backgrounds in science and technology saw their value grow in the labor market, yet surveys found that excellent students particularly in math did not enjoy reading. Teachers had previously assumed that the prerequisite for academic success was a proclivity for reading. With television, people could stay informed without having to read the newspaper. With documentaries, people could gain knowledge about some things without having to consult an encyclopedia. With films, people could bypass the novel for entertainment. The telephone made it possible to communicate without writing. The new means of communication on the market were free and accessible without any obligations, exams, or failure. These “parallel schools” (Porcher, 1974) undermined the civic role of the school and the cultural role of school reading.
Reading Repurposed: Entertainment Readings and Functional Literacy
Nonetheless, learning to read was more crucial than ever, as new jobs, even modest ones, required reading proficiency for consulting procedures and schedules as well as filling out tables and forms. These same skills were necessary for the simple paperwork of everyday life. Whether it concerned health, children, housing, transport, shopping, or banking, there were stacks of paperwork to be read, kept, filled out, or sent off. Written documentation underpinned the oral communication of professional and daily life. The importance of writing in the modern world exposed how far education had fallen short in guaranteeing utilitarian literacy. Following the findings on illiterate soldiers, the rise in unemployment after the oil crisis of 1973 shined a spotlight on general adult illiteracy (Barton & Hamilton, 1990). Reading was not as common a skill as previously thought, and people who could read could not necessarily read anything and everything, contrary to what educators had taken for granted since the Enlightenment.
Schools could not abandon the two traditional goals of literacy, instruction (being able to read lessons) and enlightenment (reading ethical and aesthetic works). These were what defined a teacher’s professional identity, yet following May (1968), literature teachers distanced themselves from the traditional Western canon and the notion of the “great authors.” Studies in linguistics began to influence education, on the one hand toward “functional literacy,” and on the other toward “entertainment readings.”
How could functional literacy be taught in schools, which are disconnected from the economic and social world? First, by reading documentary texts. Rather than do recitations in their lessons, children now had to extract information from texts on their own, prioritize the data, summarize it, then answer questions about them both orally and in writing. More and more often, schools used preprinted notebooks for teaching children to be able to read instructions on their own, produce answers according to a given procedure (check a box, underline, cross out, circle, etc.), fill in tables, and check their answers. The goal was to have them learn to be students as a kind of profession in itself, thereby making them autonomous. Teachers established a student functional literacy.
With regard to fictional literature, there was a proliferation of reading initiatives encouraging discussion and active participation in reading for the sake of “reading for pleasure,” that is, book clubs, reading competitions, programs in which older students read to younger ones, inviting writers to be guest lecturers, children’s literature awards, and so forth. Youth publishers published new, creative authors and school libraries became stocked with international favorites such as Leo Leoni (Little Blue and Little Yellow, 1959), Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are, 1963), and Mercer Mayer (There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, 1968), whose works reunited text and illustration; meanwhile, Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 1964) replaced Enid Blyton (The Famous Five). From 1963 onward, there was an explosion of exchange and translation of children’s literature thanks to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, which brought Charlie Brown and Mafalda to young European readers. Some classrooms even read these comic strips in class, something unimaginable in 1960.
Psychological and Sociological Inquiries
Such efforts to get adolescents to enjoy reading did not solve issues surrounding “poor readers” or early reading failure. Psychologists, neurologists, linguists, sociologists, and education specialists set about diagnosing the problem. Psychologists found that students with normal to high IQs were failing in school, so intelligence could not be the issue. Academic psychologists attributed failure to inadequate teaching, psychoanalysts to emotional barriers caused by trauma, neurologists to dyslexia caused by “minimal brain dysfunction” that interfered with the development of automatic responses, and so on. Solutions to the problem likewise varied (tutors, psychotherapists, speech therapists). Case studies also showed there were a number of risk factors determining a child’s school performance, namely, hereditary biological traits, educational conditions, poverty, and family life (Anthony et al., 1974).
Sociologists used statistics to emphasize the role social background played. To inform
policymakers, researchers produced myriad reports, the most well-known among them being the Coleman Report (Coleman et al., 1966), the Plowden Report (1967), and various surveys by the French Institute of Demographic Studies (INED, 1970). Coleman argued that the special ESEA funds (Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 1965) for underserved schools, while they should be made permanent, would not solve issues related to cultural differences and the effects of ethnic and racial segregation. Lady Plowden discussed “Educational Priority Areas (EPA’s), the recruitment of teachers’ aides, to create classrooms which would support child centred learning.” While the EPAs never took root in England, France adopted them in 1981 with the establishment of Priority Education Zones.
These studies echoed commentaries made by sociologists concerning education and language norms in written communication. The principal thinkers on these issues were Bourdieu and Passeron in France (1964/1979) and Basil Bernstein in England (1971). Bernstein made a famous distinction between “restricted” and “elaborated” codes, which could be applied to issues surrounding reading as well. Learning to read now included analysis of the function of language, that is, how sounds and graphemes-phonemes relationships work, how oral and written language have different standards, and how knowledge gleaned from books is different from that gained from daily experience. On top of this, approaches to teaching literacy were fiercely debated (formal group pedagogy vs. variable “whole language” philosophy).
Education Policy, Scientific Research, and Teacher Training
Teachers could draw one of two conclusions from the various studies. The causes of failure either came from outside the school (dyslexia, problematic family life, lack of economic and cultural vitality among the working class) or were born from the nature of the institutional education, that is, teachers treating uniformly a student population with differential characteristics, thereby perpetuating and legitimizing gaps between slow and fast learners (in the United States), grade repetition (in France, Belgium, England), and childhood orientation programs (in Germany, Austria). In either case, teachers had little means for doing anything about it, as they lacked broader perspectives for how to strengthen early learning. What should their priorities be?
In the 1980s and 1990s, congresses, symposia, conferences, and publications in the education sector disseminated research findings to better inform practice in classrooms (Harris & Hodges, 1995). When Shanahan produced a list in chronological order of the 13 most influential literacy studies since 1961 (Shanahan & Neuman, 1997), Paulo Freire (1970) was the only author not from the United States. In France, in 1992, government minister Jack Lang issued to all primary teachers an expert report entitled La Maîtrise de la langue à l’école primaire [“Mastering language in primary school”]. Across the globe, “the beginning of the modern age of reading-writing research” was on the march in the 1980s, and every child “had exposure to phonemic awareness” (Shanahan, 2019), an approach considered necessary though not a panacea. Research did not, however, take into account the uniquely cultural characteristics of each country’s school system, methods for hiring teachers, and teaching language.
In light of spelling variation in both English and French, linguists created “temporary alphabets” (with each sound ascribed one and only one letter) in an effort to make children more “phonologically aware.” In nursery school and first grade, teachers used the ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet) created by James Pitman (1961), which had first been tested out in Great Britain and the United States (Harrison, 1965). Next came Alfonic from French linguist André Martinet (1983). Yet these developments in the 1960s and 1970s would soon be swept aside by a new field of research called “emergent literacy.” Before entering school, what awareness and knowledge did children have of the written word? At what age could they start to recognize words, name letters, and write names from memorization or with “invented spelling.” Emergent literacy made it possible to observe differences between languages. English (Read, 1986; Treiman, 1993) and French (Rieben et al., 1997) were more difficult to acquire than Spanish (Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1979, 1982) and Italian (Pontecorvo & Orsolini, 1996), which had lower rates of dyslexia. Uta Frith, an expert on dyslexia, determined three stages of literacy development in English (logographic, alphabetic, and orthographic) (Frith, 1985). Influenced by Piaget, E. Ferreiro identified four stages of development in the Romance languages (presyllabic, syllabic, syllabic-alphabetic, alphabetic), which have become a common diagnostic tool in Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil (Ferreiro, 1985).
Every researcher seemed to agree that reading is understanding, that is, processing information to then produce a mental representation of the written message. Despite disagreements over methods and debates over how to correctly model the process of reading, reading exercises had to get at the “meaning of the text” and not separate code from comprehension. New primers introduced phonological representation (sometimes with the International Phonetic Alphabet) and included “meaningful” texts (illustrated narratives) that varied. Between 1970 and 2000, literacy comprised of more and more subskills (phonological awareness, knowledge of vocabulary, mastery of syntax, ability to make inferences, etc.). When faced with a “struggling” student, the teacher had to diagnose which constituent part of the reading process was faulty using specially designed tests in the hope that students could receive effective, targeted help. Teacher training could no longer afford to ignore the data on reading, learning, and failure.
In the European Union, following the Bologna Process (1999), teachers were required first to earn a license (three years of university), then a master’s degree (five years of university), which consequently disrupted classroom training. On the other hand, to test the effectiveness of lessons (and thus the effectiveness of teachers), institutional authorities increasingly adopted local or national evaluation tests. With the dawn of Internet came a common standardized test designed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that has spread throughout the world.
School Literacy Driven by Testing in the Era of the Internet
In the year 2000, two events had a major impact on teaching literacy. The first, the dreaded “Y2K bug,” had an indirect impact since it never occurred, yet it made the general public aware of the significance of digital communication. In the 1980s and 1990s, teachers lamented the worrisome decline of reading rates among youths, but in the age of the Internet, young people had renewed verve for written communication and consulting information (Serres, 2012). But was reading and writing the same online as on paper? The other impact was direct. The Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) test was administered to all 15-year-olds in member countries of the OECD. From a representative sample, PISA experts could offer a snapshot of the reading, mathematics, and science skills of students at the end of their compulsory education. States then used this data to make the appropriate adjustments according to the outcomes they wanted to see in subsequent tests (once every three years). Rates of school literacy could now be tracked over time and education policy was influenced by international comparisons of public data, a phenomenon which only amplified as OECD countries (20 in 1960, 30 in 2000) brought in new members, adding 42 by 2015. Did teaching literacy change with the advent of digital and international standardized testing in school?
OECD International Assessments
The OECD is an organization of countries committed to democracy and market-economy and free-trade principles. Education does not fall under the scope of its ambitions the way it falls under UNESCO’s, whose EFA (Education for All) reports target developing countries. But education is certainly a driving force in economic development and national competitiveness and has therefore become an important element of the OECD’s concerns and policy advice (Sjøberg, 2012).
The PISA test was intended to provide a data-based education assessment using a model hailing from the business world but applied in education as far back as the 1960s. The model is intended to assess skill levels using standardized performance indicators without interference from human graders, who are susceptible to inconsistency, imprecision, and error. In his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Bloom offers a framework for classifying education objectives (Bloom & Krathwohl, 1956), and following in that tradition, the PISA was not intended to compare literacy methods, evaluate learning procedures, or investigate the factors influencing success or failure. Its sole purpose was to measure results. It was up to each state to interpret the data and then adapt political and education policy as needed. PISA “provides inputs for standard-setting and evaluation; insights into the factors that contribute to the development of competences and into how these factors operate in different countries and it should lead to a better understanding of the causes and consequences of observed skill shortages” (OECD, 2001, p. 3).
In the 20th century, such a large-scale comparison of levels of literacy would have been hard to imagine. Mathematics and science transcend the language they’re communicated in but could reading really be assessed without taking into account a given country’s language, literature, and national curriculum? Beginner students were already on unequal footing depending on whether they learned in English or Spanish, and secondary-school students studied history and heritage unique to their own country. The OECD defined literacy as a skill unimpeded by cultural context, a matter of processing information from texts deemed important in a given developed country, with no regard whatsoever for specific education programs. Furthermore, it did so using texts translated from different languages. Four indicators were selected for assessing reading: retrieving information, interpreting texts, reflection, and evaluation. From 1920 to 1970, Gray classified students as either literates or illiterates while sociologists from New Literacy Studies interpreted literacy based on an array of specific sociocultural skills (Street, 2005, 2010). In 2000, PISA began ranking literacy levels according to mean scores, the same model used with schools. This allowed education economists to weight results (output) against education expenditure (input) since a school’s level of “functional literacy” represented student achievement and thus the efficacy of the school and its teachers. With PISA, literacy and numeracy became the modern equivalent of “reading-writing-reckoning”—the 3 Rs of the digital age—but on an international scale.
The media quickly made much of the scores indicating who was on top (Finland, Canada), bottom (Portugal), and in the middle (France, United States), but they had little to say about scores reflecting levels of inequality within the various countries. In 2001, the countries with the widest achievement gaps between strong and poor readers were Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. In all these countries, students at ages 10–11 were sorted into one of three different education tracks (Gymnasium, Reale Schule, Hauptschule), while countries with a single education track had narrower achievement gaps. Between 2000 and 2006, Germany’s ranking improved, but only because Gymnasiums had begun to score higher, meaning achievement gaps between the different tracks only widened. Germany would later establish common standards for each of the country’s Landers (states), yet for political reasons policymakers could not venture to abolish the track system or push back the age of sorting (Greger, 2008). Researchers have compared the ways different countries have used PISA results (e.g., Portugal, France, and Scotland by Pons, 2010), observing that policymakers have not made interpretative analyses of PISA results. Rather, they have simply used the rankings to legitimize policy in line with new public management, an approach focused on “efficiency and accountability.”
“No Child Left Behind”
Between 2001 and 2015 in the United States, the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) demonstrated the effects of “teaching to test” on a large scale. The program applied the same ambitious set expectations to all schools nationwide and, using a business-like management model, closed down schools considered unprofitable. Schools with two consecutive years of inadequate results could face financial penalties, and after four consecutive years they could be transformed into charter schools (a for-profit education-management structure where the teachers are paid based on performance). Test scores improved across the board, even in schools that failed to achieve the adequate level, but the obsession with testing made schools focus less on or even eliminate courses deemed less profitable (history, geography, physics, biology, and the arts) and furthermore put the most underprivileged schools at an even greater disadvantage (Meier & Wood, 2004). Independent audits uncovered tampered test results at schools trying to avoid financial sanctions and public disgrace, which caused middle-class students to flee to private schools. Tampered test results discounted underperforming students, and some states such as Missouri even opted publicly to lower their standards. The program was highly criticized for both its principles and implementation (Darling-Hammond, 2006, 2010/2015) and was eventually abandoned in 2015. Its replacement was the Every Student Succeeds Act, a program measuring the progress schools make based on four indicators rather than deviations from a uniform standard applied to all schools.
International Comparisons Used in the Classroom
The appetite for evaluation among policymakers brought back to the fore surveys by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). The cooperative was formed in 1958 when the first Sputnik launched, an event which intensified competition between East and West. Two programs, TIMSS (mathematics and science) and PIRLS (reading), use random samples of students in grades 4 and 8 to measure performance, and the tests are administered once every four years. As with PISA, students are graded according to four criteria: extracting specific information from a text, extrapolating from what they know, interpreting ideas from it, and appraising its content, language, and composition. This is then followed by an open-ended questionnaire that allows students and teachers to offer a qualitative assessment and share opinions. For the period 2000–2020, performance data can be classified according to country, region, type of school, gender, and social or ethnic origin. Yet researchers remain divided on how the tests should be structured, how data should be collected, and, most importantly, how to interpret results. No two researchers can seem to agree, for example, on the significance of strong performances in Finland and South Korea, countries with very different school systems, or how to diagnose the cause of dropoffs in performance (France has been in steady decline since 2000).
Nevertheless, some researchers have sought to weigh the results against country-specific education variables. For example, a Belgian team (Schillings et al., 2014) compared statements from teachers and found that strong performances in interpreting information and appraising textual elements stemmed from two specific exercises: student discussion (91% in Ontario and 69% in England) and individual written textual analysis. Oral discussion of texts with the teacher is the standard practice in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. Could this explain their lower results? These examples demonstrate the importance of sharing results with teachers and encouraging them to experiment with new methods. Indeed, international comparisons ranking country performance like student performance could also serve as a database of best and worst teaching practices. As such, reading can be treated for what it is, that is, the process of constructing the meaning of a text. While everyone can agree that “reading is understanding,” knowing how to teach that understanding is immensely complicated and keeping a record of different practices country to country can help spread new ideas.
Teaching Literacy in the Era of Digital Communication
Since the dawn of the Internet, the written word has invaded our lives, especially with the arrival of smartphones in 2010 and 24-hour access to written communication at home, at work, on the street, and so on. A single screen allows us to consult private communication (mail and messaging), news and information (the press, radio, and television), commercial communication (catalogues, advertising, order forms), and professional communication (agendas, schedules, meeting minutes, projects in development). On top of that, we can allegedly access all the knowledge in existence in just a few clicks, whereas previously this information was confined to libraries. A text’s given material form traditionally gives an indication of its type and content (book, newspaper, file, letter, etc.), but now, for the first time in history, the same medium (a screen) displays every single type of text (R. Chartier, 1997). Written text used to be set, but now it’s modifiable (I can copy, paste, and edit text). Linguists study how written language gets transformed through the various acts of reading, writing, seeing, and hearing, observing that through billions of message exchanges taking place, written communication is now much closer to oral communication than conventional writing with its phonetic spelling and emotional punctuation (emojis). It is still too early to determine the effects digital technologies have had on teaching literacy, but key areas to focus on will be early learning, the digital autonomy of students and changes to teaching.
Regarding early learning, focus has shifted to writing, as pencil-and-paper handwriting and typographic keyboard-screen writing are in contention. In 2013, in the United States, 45 states made handwriting instruction optional and keyboarding mandatory. What purpose does handwriting serve (Trubek, 2016)? For starters, various researchers have demonstrated the importance of “kinesthetic” memory (Gentaz, 2013/2018; James & Atwood, 2008). Starting children out with typographic writing could lead to the same difficulties observed in prematurely imposing silent reading on beginner students. Then again, voice-to-text software (the child sees on screen what he or she is dictating to the computer) and “auto multiple-choice” exercises (a fun way to memorize grapheme-phoneme relationships, learn spelling, and punctuate texts) can allegedly improve literacy methods for beginners.
Online Texts and Digital Images for Young Readers
Regarding autonomous use of digital tools, forecasts about “digital natives” have not held up according to several surveys that found differences in digital usage are being drawn along familiar lines of social-economic background. In France, a study was done in which 11- and 15-year-old students were presented a series of questions and had to find the answers on online (DEPP, 2015a, 2015b). Girls performed better than boys overall, but one in two students had difficulty navigating through sources on their own. Unlike text on paper (which is static, linear, and unequivocal), the Internet requires readers to be able to determine the structure of what they are reading (navigating sources and extrapolating information). Students who excel in these tasks developed their skills informally at home. Teachers therefore must be prepared to teach students how to “read online” (find sources online, extract information, determine credibility). This means not only equipping schools with the adequate tools but more importantly training teachers to move beyond traditional lecture-style courses, whether that’s in the classroom or online (top-down massive open online courses), and integrate new teaching formats (short explainer videos, interactive whiteboards, tablets, and alternating between large group, small group work, and individual work, etc.).
Concerning voluntary reading, the international success of the Harry Potter series (1997–2007) may have given the impression that long novels are making a comeback, but adolescents became familiar with the saga through the films much more so than the books. The only sales sector on the rise in children’s literature is picture books for young children (bought and read by adults) and comic books. The amount of time devoted to long reading has gone down across the world. Sound- and image-based communication goes hand in hand with more downloading and streaming of television shows, films, and especially video games, more so than reading. Since 2010, the video-game industry (Atari, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft) has been the top-performing entertainment industry in the world, outpacing music and movies. Children begin playing early (Playstation for kids), 80% of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 regularly play, and players of RPGs (role-playing games) are overwhelmingly young adults (Genvo, 2016). Yet just as illustrated books in the 20th century featured the best and the worst in terms of content, it’s worth noting that games stand head and shoulders above the rest in the commercial mainstream for their aesthetic qualities, strategy-based play, and cultural environments (historical games). Public libraries have already begun to offer them for loan. Will they soon be brought into school libraries alongside books and films?
Perspectives and Perplexities
We can predict how teaching literacy in the 21st century should change, but we can’t predict the effects of these changes. Reading online, evaluating comprehension, and using new technologies will be imperative in the classroom, as will legal and ethical reflection on how digital tools should be implemented and what assistance students will need to keep them from failing. Still more unpredictable is how the traditional culture of the written word and the writing standards established through the literature of the world will carry on into the future, as new modes of expression come to the fore and digital communication changes the ways people write and speak. Yet technical and scientific knowledge, both existing in writing, is becoming increasingly more important for academic success, requiring use of a global lingua franca (English) and mastery of technical languages (varying depending on the scientific discipline, but universal nonetheless). In this reason, the digital divide is surely here to stay.
Literacy has always been useful in professional and daily life, but these applications weren’t what made public education valuable. The great shift starting at the beginning of the 21st century was not therefore defining literacy as a set of basic skills useful in the workplace and the marketplace of cultural consumption but considering compulsory education valuable because literacy is useful both economically and practically. In the year 2000, children were promised all the knowledge in the world with just a double click, but access to big data alone cannot expand a child’s knowledge. Knowledge, which can neither be bought nor sold, is never given. Now as ever, it is expanded slowly through the patient efforts of those who teach it.
I. Teaching Literacy in the Era of Manuscripts.
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II. Teaching Literacy in the Time of Print
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III. Teaching Reading and Writing in the Era of Compulsory Education
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IV. Teaching to Read in the Time of Mass Media
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V. School Literacy Driven by Tests in the Internet Age
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