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Learning to Read

By Marie-Hélène Vendette, under the supervision of Dominique Marquis, PhD, Laboratoire d'histoire et de patrimoine de Montréal, UQÀM

Literacy

Literacy is a difficult phenomenon to analyze, on the one hand because it is hard to find documents on the subject, and on the other hand because the definition of the word "literacy" has changed over the centuries. For example, in the 19th century, someone who could not sign his or her name was called illiterate. Today, those who have not completed primary school are considered to be illiterate. So the concept of literacy has evolved, although it has always been related to the degree of learning considered adequate to live in society.

In the early 17th century, about one-quarter of the population settled in New France was literate. The colonists knew the basics of reading and writing, but because living conditions in the colony were so harsh, they had to concentrate on staying alive rather than acquiring and transmitting this knowledge. Thus, by about 1700, the literacy rate had fallen sharply; only one person in seven could sign his or her name.

The situation didn't improve until the middle of the 19th century when industrialization and urban development began creating new expectations with regard to education. City dwellers had better access to schools, and jobs in administration and finance, of which there were more in the city, demanded a higher level of education. It was becoming more necessary to know how to read and write in order to find a good job.

During this period, the literacy rate varied widely and was influenced by several factors. At the top of the list were one's position on the social ladder and religious denomination. Getting an education was encouraged among the well-to-do, and, unlike Catholics who looked to their priests for an interpretation of the Bible, Protestants were urged to form their own ideas on the holy scriptures.

The language spoken also affected literacy rates. Anglophones, who were largely Protestant, generally had more education than Francophones, who were often Roman Catholic. However, the gap between the two linguistic groups started shrinking after 1850. Finally, more men than women knew how to read and write.

In Canada, the balance had tipped by about 1870, when more than 50 per cent of the population was considered literate. This advance was mainly due to the development of a school system and to the growing regard for education.

The School System

Prior to the mid-19th century, the Canadian government had tried to establish a universal school system but failed; schools across the country were run either by religious groups or private interests. For the most part, schooling was reserved for the elite. Despite efforts by religious groups to make education more accessible to everyone, fewer than one-third of Canadian children attended school in 1832.

During the 1840s in British North America, the government succeeded in establishing a network of schools throughout its territory. In French-speaking Quebec, this network was placed under the direction of the Department of Public Instruction, which was dominated by the Catholic Church. The control over education by the clergy would last right up until the 1960s.

The building of a network of schools across the country was rife with complications: financial and administrative problems, the division of the system into two religious denominations, lack of qualified teachers, high absenteeism rates among children who worked on the family farm or in factories, etc. There was no point in building schools if you didn't encourage people to attend them. But not everyone considered education a necessity. So various laws were passed, not without controversy, to encourage school attendance.

In Quebec, for example, the Manufacturers Act, adopted in 1885, prohibited boys under 12 years of age and girls under 14 from working. Three years later, the premier, Honoré Mercier, set up night schools aimed at providing education to young, illiterate workers, but the program was not successful. There was progress, however, and about 50 years later, in 1943, a law was enacted requiring children between the ages of 6 and 14 years to attend school. Finally, the Department of Education was created in 1964. These and other measures were intended to make education a priority and to extend public supervision of the school system.

Learning to Read

Teaching methods changed in step with the ideologies and pedagogical theories of the era. Some methods for teaching reading, for example, concentrated at the start on the letters of the alphabet and gradually progressed to sounds, syllables and phrases. Other methods did the opposite: they started out by teaching phrases and worked back to the letters.

In addition to dispensing an education to young people, schools had to develop their desire to read. To that end, in 1856 the Quebec Department of Public Instruction began giving away "books as prizes". It founded a program by which top students were awarded books at the end of the school year. These prizes allowed children who probably had no books at home to discover the world of reading through something other than catechisms teaching the precepts of the Catholic Church or practical almanacs filled with useful information (on the phases of the moon, tides, religious holidays, public leaders, etc.).

In Quebec, books for children were rare before 1920. In general children read books that were primarily written for adults, but considered appropriate for young readers. When it came to school textbooks and children's literature, provincial authorities were determined to transmit their nationalist values, rather than to simply import books from the United States, England and France. In 1920, Quebec introduced a program by which French-speaking authors of books for children received support from the government and the Catholic Church. In English-speaking Canada, by contrast, children's writers had to rely on foreign publishers to publish their books right up until the 1960s.

Children's literature in Quebec got its start with the magazine L'Oiseau Bleu (1921-1940). Quebec's first novel for children, Les aventures de Perrine et Charlot, came out in 1923. It was written by Marie-Claire Daveluy. Twenty years later, the province's first French-language serial comic was launched, Hérauts (1944-1964). These early novels and magazines were marked by a moralistic and often patriotic tone, and featured historical heroes and model children.

The arrival of television (1952) helped democratize children's literature by presenting stories written by authors who covered new territory and introduced new ideas. In their work, children went on adventures around the world! Children's books in Quebec abandoned their moralistic and patriotic tone, becoming more entertaining and open to new realities.

REFERENCES

Print sources:

AUBIN, Paul. "Les manuels scolaires en Nouvelle-France, dans la Province de Québec et au Bas-Canada." In Histoire du livre et de l'imprimé au Canada : des débuts à 1840. Vol. I, edited by P. Fleming, G. Gallichan and Y. Lamonde. Montreal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2004. pp. 271-274.

LAJEUNESSE, Marcel. L'éducation au Québec, 19e-20e siècles. Québec City: Boréal Express, 1971.

LAMONDE, Yvan and Michel VERRETTE. "L'alphabétisation et la culture de l'imprimé." In Histoire du livre et de l'imprimé au Canada : de 1840 à 1918. Vol. II, edited by P. Fleming, Y. Lamonde and F. A. Black. Montreal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2005, pp. 475-483.

LANDRY, François. "Les livres de prix au Québec." In Histoire du livre et de l'imprimé au Canada : de 1918 à 1980. Vol. III, edited by C. Gerson and J. Michon. Montreal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2007, pp. 88-91.

MCGRATH, Leslie. "Les imprimés pour les jeunes." In Histoire du livre et de l'imprimé au Canada : de 1840 à 1918. Vol. II, edited by P. Fleming, Y. Lamonde and F. A. Black. Montreal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2005, pp. 423-430.

VERRETTE, Michel. "L'alphabétisation." In Histoire du livre et de l'imprimé au Canada : des débuts à 1840. Vol. I, edited by P. Fleming, G. Gallichan and Y. Lamonde. Montreal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2004, pp. 175-182.

VERRETTE, Michel. "L'alphabétisation et l'illettrisme." In Histoire du livre et de l'imprimé au Canada : de 1918 à 1980. Vol. III, edited by C. Gerson and J. Michon. Montreal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2007, pp. 478-485.

On-line sources:

"Une école pour tous : l'éducation à Montréal d'hier à aujourd'hui." Bibliothèque virtuelle du patrimoine documentaire communautaire canadien francophone. http://bv.cdeacf.ca/EA_HTML/2005_04_0516.htm (20 June 2007).

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