Dissertations and Theses @ UNI


Open Access Dissertation


Literacy--History; Reading--History;


The task of determining the standards of literacy in an historical epoch, the accurate assessment of children's ability to read, and the achievement of universal literacy are like the impossible endeavor of Tantalus in Greek mythology. As one comes closer to achieving one's goal, it changes and moves further away, forever just out of reach. So it is in trying to ascertain absolutes in the field of literacy. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to demonstrate that one definition of literacy is not possible because literacy standards depend upon historical context.

Prominent selected historians' studies of literacy were examined to develop conclusions about the progress if primary literacy were examined to develop conclusions about the progress of primary literacy instruction and assessment in the United States. This paper examined the means of measuring literacy, including populations assesses and standards utilized to declare someone literate.

The author reviewed literacy education and assessment through three chronological epochs: Signature period (1635-1783). Recitation Period (1783-1876), and Standardized Test Period (1876-1925). Each of the epochs was discussed in relation to predominant social factors, nature of literacy, standards used to assess literacy, population included in assessments, examiners' objectives and methods, and areas needing further research. The three epochs were selected for study because they encompassed primary literacy education in a relatively cohesive age group over a lengthy period of history. This research ends with the 1920s because historical perspective requires the passage of time. Without that perspective requires the passage of time. Without that perspective, contemporary issues and events cannot be viewed meaningfully.

During the periods covered by this study, young children were the universal focus of literacy education. These children were the the most susceptible to adult direction on what would be considered proper literacy.

The educational trend has been to increase the demands placed on primary literacy education. As children become more educated, the standards for being considered literate will increase, and like the task of Tantalus, remain forever just out of reach.

Year of Submission


Degree Name

Doctor of Education


Department of Educational Psychology and Foundations

First Advisor

Edward Rutkowski

Date Original


Object Description

1 PDF file (vii, 101 pages)



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