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Literacy in the United States

Literacy in the United States: Readers and Reading Since 1880

Carl F. Kaestle
Helen Damon-Moore
Lawrence C. Stedman
Katherine Tinsley
William Vance Trollinger
Copyright Date: 1991
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 361
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  • Book Info
    Literacy in the United States
    Book Description:

    The United States is at a crucial moment in the history of literacy, a time when how well Americans read is the subject of newspaper headlines. In this insightful book, Carl F. Kaestle and his colleagues shed new light on this issue, providing a social history of literacy in America that broadens the definition of literacy and considers who was reading what, under what circumstances, and for what purposes.

    The book explores diverse sources-from tests of reading ability, government surveys, and polls to nineteenth-century autobiographies and family budget studies-in order to assess trends in Americans' reading abilities and reading habits. It investigates such topics as the relation of literacy to gender, race, ethnicity, and income; the magnitude, causes, and policy implications of the decline in test scores in the early 1970s; the reasons women's magazines have been more successful than magazines for men; and whether print technology has fostered cultural diversity or consolidation. It concludes that there has been an immense expansion of literacy in America over the past century, against which the modest skill declines of the 1970s pale by comparison. There has also been tremendous growth in the availability, purchase, and use of printed materials. In recent decades, however, literacy has leveled and even declined in some areas of reading, as shown in the downward trends in purchases of newspapers and magazines. Since Americans are now being lured away from the print media by electronic media, say the authors, current worries about Americans' literacy levels may well be justified.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16221-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
    Carl F. Kaestle
  7. PART ONE: Historians and Literacy

    • 1 Studying the History of Literacy
      (pp. 3-32)

      The history of literacy is a lively and often controversial field, full of surprises, contradictions, and reinterpretations. Not only the explanations but even the basic facts about literacy trends remain uncertain. As with other topics in the history of ordinary people, historians of literacy have tangled with problems of inadequate data and fuzzy definitions. The termliteracyappears straightforward, but because it can refer to a wide range of reading and writing activities, historians’ definitions vary. Even if restricted only to reading, the term literacy may imply a wide range of abilities.

      In this chapter we define literacy as the...

    • 2 The History of Readers
      (pp. 33-72)

      A broad history of literacy must look beyond the labels of “illiterate” and “literate” to study the functions of reading in adults’ lives; that is, it must move beyond the reader to the production and distribution of printed materials and the situations in which they are read. Conversely, an improved history of popular literature must go beyond the texts to the readers. In short, to understand the functions of literacy over time we must reach out to more general histories of education, culture, publication, and communication, as well as theoretical works in these areas. Broadening the history of literacy to...

  8. PART TWO: Americans’ Reading Abilities

    • 3 Literacy and Reading Performance in the United States from 1880 to the Present
      (pp. 75-128)

      Two objectives motivate our efforts to examine trends in reading abilities over the past one hundred years. First, if the history of literacy is to expand its focus from the simple “head counts” of who is literate and who is not to a more sophisticated analysis of the uses of literacy, we need to know more about the range of literacy abilities among America’s population and how those have changed over time. Second, current discussions about literacy focus on an alleged decline in reading abilities and an epidemic of functional illiteracy. Better knowledge of long-term trends can set the recent...

    • 4 The Great Test-Score Decline: A Closer Look
      (pp. 129-146)

      Chapter 3 analyzed trends in reading achievement across the entire twentieth century. This chapter examines in more detail the magnitude and causes of the highly publicized test-score decline that spanned the decade from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. Results from the major standardized tests indicate that this test-score decline ended in the late 1970s, but debates flowing from the decline have shaped policy debates throughout the 1980s. The Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS), given to third through eighth graders, showed that students’ scores rose dramatically between 1977 and 1984.¹ The 1982 Stanford Achievement Test also showed general...

  9. PART THREE: Americans’ Reading Activities

    • 5 Literacy as a Consumer Activity
      (pp. 149-179)

      We now turn from the detailed analysis of reading abilities to evidence of the actual behavior of readers. This chapter reviews government statistics on the purchase of newspapers, magazines, and books over time. These data speak to two different sorts of questions. First, data collected from retailers establish trends for the entire society over time: How much did Americans spend on reading materials? How did expenditures on reading materials change during the Great Depression? How did they change when television became popular? All of these questions address what Americans did as a whole, on the average. Although we can control...

    • 6 Surveying American Readers
      (pp. 180-203)

      Historians interested in the reading habits of Americans from the 1880s to the 1920s have little systematic, nationwide data other than the government expenditure reports discussed in the previous chapter. Starting in the 1930s, however, educators, librarians, pollsters, and publishers have periodically asked Americans what types of publications they read and how often. This chapter moves from expenditure data to the actual reading activities reported in surveys. The determination of trends in reading habits is hampered by several difficulties, especially the lack of comparability from one survey to the next. Local studies vary in quality and are limited by their...

    • 7 Highbrow and Middlebrow Magazines in 1920
      (pp. 204-222)

      This chapter sketches the outlines of the reading public in 1920 and then analyzes some of the popular reading materials available to those readers. We aim to find out how difficult various publications were to read, and how they matched readers’ abilities. The bridge we build between readers and texts is very crude, but it is a bridge nonetheless. We chose 1920 because it is the earliest date for which we have not only circulation figures and best-seller lists but some rough idea of school-attainment rates among adults and a survey of reading habits in a large metropolitan area.


  10. PART FOUR: Literacy and Diversity in American History

    • 8 Autobiographies and the History of Reading: The Meaning of Literacy in Individual Lives
      (pp. 225-244)

      Even the frequent book readers of the elite reading public display an endless diversity of reading practices and purposes. Tb get closer to this diversity, we studied autobiographies, searching for testimony about the acquisition and uses of literacy. Frequent book readers tend to be highly educated, and people who write autobiographies fit the category; they tend to be either highly schooled or intensely self-taught. Nonetheless, they come from very diverse economic and cultural circumstances, and they demonstrate how individuals created their identities and what role reading played in the process.

      In chapter 2 of this volume Carl Kaestle suggested a...

    • 9 Gender, Advertising, and Mass-Circulation Magazines
      (pp. 245-271)

      In the autobiographies described in chapter 8 literacy is often portrayed as a tool of assimilation to mainstream culture, sometimes welcomed, sometimes resisted. Assimilation to mainstream culture can be seen as part of a larger process of cultural consolidation. In American history this process has proceeded at the level of both high culture and popular culture. The public schools, with some help from public libraries and print media, have long endorsed and dispensed a diluted version of Anglo-American high culture. Commercial popular culture has added to the consolidation process by producing a steady stream of news stories, advertisements, comics, and...

    • 10 Standardization and Diversity in American Print Culture, 1880 to the Present
      (pp. 272-294)

      Chapter 9 explored the commercial production of reading materials by examining the role of gender in the magazine industry. This chapter enlarges the canvas to include all sorts of diversity in books, magazines, and newspapers. It looks at the interplay of culture, marketing, education, and politics in fostering or reducing the diversity of printed materials in America.

      At any given time, literacy can serve both cultural diversity and cultural consolidation, but the mix between those functions shifts over time. The content of newspapers, magazines, and books does not predetermine how readers will use them, but the level of standardization in...

  11. Appendix
    (pp. 295-298)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 299-332)
  13. About the Authors
    (pp. 333-334)
  14. Index
    (pp. 335-338)