Cover: The Psychology of Literacy, from Harvard University PressCover: The Psychology of Literacy in E-DITION

The Psychology of Literacy

Available from De Gruyter »

Product Details


$65.00 • £54.95 • €60.00

ISBN 9780674433014

Publication Date: 10/28/1981

335 pages


Harvard University Press has partnered with De Gruyter to make available for sale worldwide virtually all in-copyright HUP books that had become unavailable since their original publication. The 2,800 titles in the “e-ditions” program can be purchased individually as PDF eBooks or as hardcover reprint (“print-on-demand”) editions via the “Available from De Gruyter” link above. They are also available to institutions in ten separate subject-area packages that reflect the entire spectrum of the Press’s catalog. More about the E-ditions Program »

What are the intrinsic differences between the literate and the illiterate mind? Beginning perhaps with Plato, there is a long history of speculation about the power of the written word to amplify human mental capacities. In The Psychology of Literacy, Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole go beyond speculation by exploring a unique natural experiment.

The Vai, a small West African group, developed their own system of writing early in the nineteenth century. Although the script flourishes today in everyday use, no body of written literature exists and about half of those literate in Vai have never had formal schooling. Given this situation, Scribner and Cole were able to test more than 1,000 subjects over a four-year period to measure the mental leverage of literates over non-literates. Some of their results are startling. For example, literates showed little or no superiority over non-literates in tests of memory, conceptual agility, and deductive reasoning; superiority was shown within a circumference of skills closely related to successful reading and writing. Scribner and Cole conclude that the mental derivatives of literacy are not automatic. Much depends upon how the act of writing is embedded in the culture and the purposes for which it is used.

The Psychology of Literacy promises to stand for a long time as a model for cross-cultural research and as a mile stone in the study of literacy and its effects.

Awards & Accolades

  • 1982 Melville J. Herskovits Award, African Studies Association
The Digital Loeb Classical Library [logo and text on gray background]

Recent News

Black lives matter. Black voices matter. A statement from HUP »

From Our Blog

Jacket: Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound, by Daphne A. Brooks, from Harvard University Press

“Everything I Wanted”: Black Women Listeners and the High Fidelity Culture of Taste-Making

Daphne A. Brooks, author of Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound, praises Hulu’s High Fidelity series, whose main characters are creative, intelligent Black women who are passionate about music and confident in their tastes and opinions. Where are the other shows like it?