Literacy development is both cultural and individual, and it involves a complex set of interrelated variables, including individual experiences, acquisition of skills, and social and economic conditions.
Illiteracy is a problem that has bedeviled South Carolina for generations. While literacy rates among free white males during the colonial era are estimated to have been quite high, the situation did not persist into the nineteenth century. Historically, dismal support for public education in the state helped spawn a legacy of appalling rates of illiteracy. By 1880 more than three-quarters of the black population and almost one-quarter of the white population were completely illiterate. These rates enabled Ben Tillman and his followers to use literacy qualifications in the 1890s to effectively disenfranchise African American voters. During that same decade, forty-five percent of the state’s population over the age of ten could neither read nor write. Illiteracy levels declined somewhat in the early twentieth century, but rates were still high enough at the start of World War II to render thousands of eligible black and white males unfit for military service. In 1948 the state superintendent of education estimated that in South Carolina sixty-two percent of blacks and eighteen percent of whites remained totally or functionally illiterate. Great improvements were made in the ensuing decades, however, and at the start of the twenty-first century South Carolinians were better educated and more literate than at any other time in their history. Nevertheless, factors persisted that placed the state’s literacy rates near the bottom in the United States.
Literacy development is both cultural and individual, and it involves a complex set of interrelated variables, including individual experiences, acquisition of skills, and social and economic conditions. Like learning in general, literacy is not acquired by studying or following a sequence of rules. The National Literacy Act of 1991 and the National Assessment of Adult Literacy in 2002 broadly define literacy as an adult’s ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential. The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) measures literacy by looking at three scales: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. Each scale reflects real-life literacy tasks–for example, finding information in texts, such as newspapers articles; completing forms, such as a Social Security card application; and interpreting charts and graphs, such as a table of employee benefits. The NALS reported in 1998 that twenty-five percent of South Carolina’s population was at level 1 on the NALS literacy continuum (level 1 being the lowest of levels 1 through 5). Furthermore fifteen counties in South Carolina had seventy-five percent of the respective populations rated above level 1 literacy, while twelve counties had populations with thirty-seven percent or more rated at level 1 literacy. Level 1 skills include performances such as signing one’s name, identifying a country in a short article, locating the expiration date on a driver’s license, and totaling a bank deposit entry. It is important to emphasize that level 1 ratings do not equate with illiteracy; rather, they indicate adults who “do not have the full range of economic, social, and personal options open to Americans with higher levels of literacy skills.” In school achievement tests, a high percentage of elementary-and middle-grade students performed below standard. Drop-out rates continued to be an issue.
A complex issue such as illiteracy has required a broad range of solutions. South Carolina has enacted a variety of legislation to improve reading, early reading experiences, and family literacy instruction. The 1984 Education Improvement Act (EIA) introduced programs to foster superior performance, improve poor performance, and enhance student achievement. Since 1984 other reform legislation has included the Target 2000 School Reform for the Next Decade Act (1989), the Early Childhood Development and Academic Assistance Act (1993), the School-to-Work Transition Act (1994), and the Education Accountability Act (1998). In an effort to improve literacy in South Carolina, the State Department of Education in partnership with Governor Jim Hodges created the Governor’s Institute of Reading. In June 1999 Governor Hodges signed into law the “First Steps to School Readiness” initiative, which listed early-childhood and family literacy as primary goals. In December 1999 the first South Carolina Reading Summit brought literacy educators from all levels–elementary, college, and state department–together to explore how best to meet the literacy needs of children and teachers in South Carolina. In June 2002 the South Carolina Reads initiative set a three-dimensional approach to combat illiteracy: work with teachers to develop a knowledge base in literacy; work with the Early Childhood Office at the State Department of Education to implement an early literacy intervention program; and develop a model to facilitate family literacy. Initiatives such as these held the promise of “creating a culture of literacy in South Carolina.”
National Institute for Literacy. Literacy and Adult Education in the 104th Congress: A Legislative Guide. Washington, D.C.: National Institute for Literacy, 1995.
–––. The State of Literacy in America: Estimates at the Local, State, and National Levels. Washington, D.C.: National Institute for Literacy, 1998.
United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Division of Statistics on Education. Compendium of Statistics on Illiteracy. Paris: UNESCO, 1990.
United States. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. National Center for Educational Statistics. The NAEP 1998 Writing State Report for South Carolina. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1999.