An argument that is often raised among the head shaking admonishment brigade, is that there is a woeful level of literacy in society. The argument usually points to comments on social media as examples of falling literacy, or to emoji laden messages, or is writ large in speciously reasoned blog posts like this one.

The reality is held within these charts:

Literate

Literacy scoreLiteracy rates by school year

Yes, as you can see, for over 200 years the world’s literacy rate has been improving. If you go to the source article at Our World In Data you will be able to highlight the 1870-2010 trends. This shows that even quite well-educated nations have improved their literacy rates.

So what exactly are people complaining about? Well, let’s take some of the examples that are often proffered.

I recently reread a number of pulp novels from the sixties and seventies (with an occasional eighties and nineties thrown in for fun) – not literary fiction by any means, just thrillers the likes of which I grew up reading. What immediately struck me is how erudite the books were compared to modern fare. They were written at a much higher grade level than current popular fiction, because, bluntly, the average person was more literate, and the assumption was that folks wanted a little intellectual stimulation with their car chases and explosions – that words with more than a couple of syllables could be salted through a tome without fearing a slew of one star reviews written in Pidgin English bemoaning that the author was trying too hard or must have once seen a thesaurus. Source.

This is, of course, a personal opinion expressed by the blogger rather than hard data. You only have to look at the above charts to see that the average person they are referring to is actually more likely to be literate now than in the 1960’s. I think the blogger has leapt to the assertion that people are less literate now as an explanation for a style change that has occurred. Or just wants to whine about kids these days. Because what blogger doesn’t want to do that?

Now, why would a style change occur in the last 30 (or more*) years? Interestingly, some research suggested that the way we write changes the style of our writing. With the rise of word processors and computers, writers measurably changed their styles.

But has anything else has changed in that time period that could have impacted writing styles? I’m not sure if these are familiar to people or not, but television, gaming, internet, media, are all more popular now than they were 30 years ago. I.e. books now have to compete with more entertainment than ever. So stylistic changes will occur to capture and keep an audience’s attention, lest it strays from the latest literary masterpiece about a dog caring for its cat with terminal cancer to a YouTube video about how white nationalism is okay now for some reason (because of post-modern cultural marxism apparently).

Has reading and writing (literacy) actually changed much, though? It is one thing to say that people have passed the minimum standard level, but it is quite another thing to suggest high levels of literacy are being achieved by more/less people.

Studies on this were actually hard to come by. Yet there is certainly concern about reading and writing proficiency for high-school and university level students:

Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.

Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. Source.

Given the last sentence in that quote, it is probably more accurate to say that the standards are changing. We now expect more of our literacy because more people are schooled and meeting basic literacy standards. For example, in the USA Master’s degrees are now as common as Bachelor’s degrees were in the 1960’s. People are expecting more of education and setting different standards than were held previously.

As an article on The Conversation concluded on this topic:

In 1997 academic Paul Brock gave an enlightening address to educators in which he carefully recounted the ways each generation has bemoaned the falling literacy standards of the younger generation whilst laying the blame at the feet of modern educational methods.

Apparently, we’ve been doing this since literacy first became a thing back with the Sumerians some 5,000 years ago.

The problem is not that literacy standards are falling, it is that literacy demands are changing – and we are not keeping up.

Schools have their role to play, and they can up their game in order to keep up with the times. But employers must also realise that workplace literacy is their core work, not a supplementary remedial program, and plan their businesses accordingly. Source.

In other words, declining literacy standards are a perennial myth that people love to complain about. Styles have changed. Literacy demands have changed. But that doesn’t mean things are going backwards. Much like kids these days arguments, we can expect to see these same points raised again and again with no evidence to support their claims. Because if there is one thing that never gets old, it is complaining about how things are different now than the good old days.

*The blogger’s larger post talks about a change occurring in the more recent 20-30 year period, despite referencing books from the 1960-70’s. You’ll also notice more links to evidence in my post… just saying.

 

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3 thoughts on “How literate are we?

  1. The times they are a-changing – thanks to the emerging ranks of people who can read, like stories, and can push the literati out of the way! Viva la revolution! Oh, and keep reading …

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, that’s something I didn’t really comment upon, but a good point. So many of the comparisons that are drawn with past times are with the elite educated people writing for similarly elite educated people and with modern writing aimed at a large audience. A fair comparison for modern thrillers wouldn’t be Robinson Crusoe but drunken sea shanties.

      Liked by 2 people

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