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Most children learn to talk fairly easily. In contrast, learning to read and write is a laborious process. It is the ability to read and write which makes a person ‘literate’, with varying degrees of fluency.

The first 200 years after the introduction of the printing press saw a rapid growth in literacy, so that around a third of men in England (but fewer women) could read and write to some extent. There was then a huge increase in the nineteenth century, and by 1900 the majority of the population was literate. There were still a few pockets of illiteracy, mainly in large cities.

Arguments were already raging about methods of teaching reading, and whether children's understanding was good enough. In 1895, one of Her Majesty's ...

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