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We know that there were changes in literacy expectations in the period that has often been called ‘the great transformation’, that is, during the move from a primarily agrarian to a primarily industrial and urban economy (Lockridge 1981; Salaman 1981). Moreover, the time-span needed to work through this transformation cannot be underestimated: it took the whole of the nineteenth century for the modern industrial state to be developed in Britain and America, but the literacy rates did not accompany this change in a simple unilinear progression.

Looking at such changes historically can have its dangers for when literacy is considered as a necessary catalyst for social change or development, implicit comparisons are often made based on a single social and historical standpoint (Goody 1977). Scholars taking a third-world or global perspective therefore are critical of many current writings on literacy (Akinnaso 1982; Scollon and Scollon 1982). Furthermore, cross-cultural comparisons of literacy development too often start from an exclusively Western standpoint (Finnegan 1981), and result in many contradictory views and hard-to-maintain dichotomies between forms of language, forms of historical development and the consequences of social change.

Initially, literacy had value in social and recreational areas of life: only gradually did it enter the economic lives of ordinary people in ways that could determine their prospects in life. Robert Altick (1957), in his pioneering study of the mass-reading public, has given many examples of how work and literacy were intermingled in earlier times. For example, a competent reader might be engaged to read to other workers while they worked, in the same way that music is piped into contemporary workplaces.

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