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Historical Literacy, factors affecting literacy rates

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After the interest in the 20/20 S/O thread, I thought I'd start a thread with what I have found through my years as a phonics tutor and researcher regarding historical literacy.


The largest studies for adult literacy are the census from 1870 to 1930 and the NAAL from 1985 to today (last survey done in 2003, they try for every 10 years.)





The census data were self reported but use the same methodology year after year and are useful for comparing year to year and state to state. Interestingly, according to Wayne E. Fuller's "One-Room Schools of the Middle West,"


Perhaps it was significant, too, that in 1900 the rural states of Nebraska and Iowa (the latter with the most one-room schools in the nation after Illinois) had the highest percentages of literate people ten years of age and older. Kansas, with a majority of its children in one-room schools, followed close behind. Thirty years later, Iowa--still largely rural and still leading all states except heavily urbanized Illinois in the largest number of one-room schools--continued to have the largest percentage of literate people in the nation. [He has charts from the Census to show this.]


For children's literacy, the NCES also has studies, here is the latest for 4th grade (they test 4th, 8th, and 12th grade)



For the best statistically sound historical study of reading, I use Rice's study of spelling as a proxy for reading. I read a PhD Thesis that showed that while a percentage of poor spellers are good readers, there are statistically no good spellers who are not good readers. (You might find some weird type of hyperlexia out there in the margins, but her study found no good spellers that were not good readers.)


From 1893 to 1896, Rice gave spelling tests to 33,000 children throughout the United States. His results were similar to the spelling results from Ayers in 1915. My spelling grade level test is based on Ayers, it includes a link to the study:



After the advent of Dick and Jane, the same study was done again with the exact same words and methodology. Spelling grade levels dropped approximately 1 - 1 1/2 grade levels at the lower elementary levels and 2 grade levels at the higher elementary levels. Unfortunately, this data is proprietary and the book is under copyright. For those interested in obtaining a copy of the book and comparing the results to Ayers, the book is "The New Iowa Spelling Scale" by Harry A. Greene, 1954.


My history of reading instruction page has links to some studies. The chart compares methods, not results, with 0 being pure sight reading everywhere and 10 being pure phonics everywhere.



Also, here are some good literacy graphs from my website:



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OK, now a few of my thoughts on the stats…


I have tutored since 1994 and have researched phonics and literacy on and off through the years since then. As an Air Force family, we move frequently. I am nosy about what books and methods the local schools are using (even before having children!) and have given out hundreds of reading grade level tests through the years, as well as tutoring scores of children.


I have found a failure rate of 50 – 60% in the schools that used 100% whole word methods (quite prevalent in the 1990s.) In the schools that used a combination of phonics and sight words, I found a failure rate of 30 – 40% (depends of amount and use of sight words and level of help/tutoring from parents, which is correlated to SES.) In the few schools that taught with less than a dozen sight words, I did not find a failure from students who had been in these schools the whole time, but found 1 failure in each of these 2 schools (1 private, 1 public) that had transferred in from schools that taught sight words.


The one-room school influence is interesting…after having a boy and still working on his phonics (and working with many remedial students who needed a lot of repetition), it may be that some children, boys especially, may fare better if they see basic phonics and spelling every year of school. This is easier to do with less stigma in a one-room school.


Poor students and minority students are least able to get help because of historical low literacy rates for blacks and ESL difficulties for other minorities. Also, well off students of any race are more likely to be able to afford tutoring. So, poor methods harm poor and minority students the most. Here are some interesting quotes and links from articles:



Black students in Fairfax County are consistently scoring lower on state standardized tests than African American children in Richmond, Norfolk and other comparatively poor Virginia districts, surprising Fairfax educators and forcing one of the nation's wealthiest school systems to acknowledge shortcomings that have been masked by its overall success.






Compare Fairfax County to the city of Richmond. The Richmond Public Schools are 90% high-poverty and 90% African-American. Starting in 2001, Richmond adopted the NIH reading reforms. Last spring, on the 3rd grade SOL tests in reading , 76% of children passed in Richmond, compared to 79% in Fairfax County.


That’s right. The reading scores for children in urban Richmond and wealthy Fairfax are almost the same.


As you can see in the graphs in my presentation, Richmond is going up dramatically, while Fairfax is going down. It is pretty clear that the next two years, reading scores in Richmond are going to pass those in Fairfax County.




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