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A brief history of literacy

Literacy – the ability to read and write – may be something that you take for granted. In fact, literacy has a long history. The first written communication dates all the way back to 3500 B.C., when only a small amount of people learned to read and write. In those days, people who knew how to read held public performances, displaying their skill.

It wasn't for several thousand years that the first books came on the scene. The first known books originated in Rome, around 23 B.C. Books were also developed in the Middle East and several Asian nations around this time. Initially, books were quite rare and expensive, until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. As printed books became more common, literacy rates began to rise.

Timeline of literacy development

Literacy in the American colonies

Notably, literacy rates were higher in the American colonies than in Europe. Certain religious sects, such as the Puritans, placed high value on reading for spiritual edification, and colonial governments required citizens to pass a literacy test in order to vote. America's founding fathers felt that if all men could read, and the press was free, meaning newspapers and other periodicals were allowed to print what they saw fit, then America would remain safe from tyranny. The ability to sign one's name and the importance of literacy grew as marks of status, and more and more of the early American population learned to use a signature, setting themselves apart from their less educated peers.

The Industrial Revolution brought more changes to the advancement of literacy. Paper production greatly reduced the cost of books, and literacy became a primary goal in U.S. public education. Also during this time, recreational reading became a popular activity in the United States and Europe, with literacy rates reaching 70 percent in some parts of the United States in the 1920s.

Measuring literacy rates

In the 1940s, the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) began tracking the reading habits of the American public. A survey from 1942 found that approximately 40 percent of Americans were reading literature. Literacy rates steadily increased until the early 1980s, with the NEA estimating that 95 million Americans read literature at least once a year. The period from 1982 to 2002 saw a 10 percent drop in literacy rates, which some researchers attribute to the proliferation of other types of entertainment media, as well as a failure of educators to encourage students to cultivate a habit of daily reading.

More recently, the importance of literacy has shifted, focusing less on the fundamental acts of reading and writing and more on functional literacy – whether a person's educational level is sufficient to function in modern society.


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