Archive for April, 2016

Making Connections: The Library of Congress and the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky*

April 16, 2016 is National Librarian Day.

Making Connections: The Library of Congress and the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky*

Tom Sticht, International Consultant in Adult Education. 4/7/2016.

In 1977, Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress, was successful in getting the U. S. Congress to establish the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. The next year he invited me to serve as a member of the National Advisory Board of the Center for the Book. In 1979, as a Senior Associate at the U. S. National Institute of Education, I worked with John Cole, Director of the Center for the Book, to sponsor a conference on “The Textbook in American Education”. The conference was held in early May of 1979 in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress and a brief summary volume of the papers presented was subsequently published by the Library of Congress (Cole & Sticht, 1981).

The Textbook conference highlighted the role of functional contexts in the preparation of textbooks. In a paper entitled “Cultures and Textbooks,” Sylvia Scribner, also of the National Institute of Education, noted that “The instructional system in which the textbook and reader function is embedded in a larger social order which shapes the purposes and practice of instruction.  Until a comparative perspective forces us to look at education in other times and places, we may overlook the pervasive influence which social context exerts on uses of text.”

Functional Contexts in Textbooks for Rural Adult Illiterates

The importance of taking a comparative approach to understanding how social contexts influence the design and uses of textbooks is clearly illustrated in the early work of Cora Wilson Stewart, founder of the Moonlight Schools for illiterate adults in Kentucky.  Starting in 1915, Stewart published the first of a series of three textbooks for illiterate adults living in rural areas as compared to city dwellers.  Her textbook series was entitled “Country Life Readers” and in the “First Book” she explained her reasons for publishing books for country folks:

Quote: “There is an increasing demand for the education of adult illiterates who have somehow missed their opportunity in early life, and also for the better education of adults that have a very limited degree of learning. The city has provided for this need to some extent with evening schools, designed mainly for foreigners. All the textbooks for evening schools have, therefore, been prepared strictly for immigrants and city dwellers. Rural America is coming to realize that there exists a need for education among adults in the rural sections as much as among those in the cities. For this reason moonlight schools, rural evening schools, …demand textbooks which deal with the problems of rural life and which reflect rural life, and to meet this demand this book has been prepared” (Stewart, 1915). End quote



Clearly, Stewart understood the role of functional contexts as central influences on the design and uses of textbooks.  In her Country Life Readers she integrated the teaching of literacy with the teaching of content knowledge in farming, healthy living, civics, home economics, financial management, parenting and other important knowledge useful in the functional contexts of adults living on farms and in small, rural towns” (Stewart, 1920, p. 71).

The Importance of Families Reading Together

In 1908, E. B. Huey wrote a textbook chapter entitled  “Learning to Read at Home” in which he discussed the ways parents may help their children acquire the foundations for reading development.  He stated “The secret of it all lies in the parent’s reading aloud to and with the child. … at home there is scarcely a more commendable and useful practice than that of reading much of good things aloud to the children.” (Huey, 1908/1968, p. 332 & 334)

In her 1915 textbook, The Country Life Readers: First Book, Stewart passed on Huey’s advice about the importance of families reading together to the adults in the Moonlight Schools. She wrote several lines for the adult literacy students learning to read:

Quote: “I can read.

I can read a book.

I will read many good books.

We will read at home.”

End quote


Some 70 years later, Daniel Boorstin prepared a report about the future of the book, including textbooks, for the U.S. Congress. He discussed problems associated with illiteracy among adults and included a section on how adult illiteracy might be lessened if children were read to by their parents early in life. In a section called READING BEGINS AT HOME he echoes Huey and Stewart and states:

Quote: “The best way to motivate people to read is to encourage reading at home and early in life.  Book reading is greatest among children whose parents or guardians value reading both for pleasure and as a key to achievement.  More children would be reading—and would themselves become avid readers—if their parents were readers, talked about what they had read, and encouraged the family to read at home.” (Boorstin, 1984, pp. 12-13). End quote

But for many adults with literacy difficulties, reading to their children is not easy, if possible at all. In these cases, literacy training may be helpful in preparing adults with the literacy skills needed to read to their children. In the early 1990s I worked on a research project with Wider Opportunities for Women, a non-profit organization that provides women with literacy education and job training. In this project we followed the procedures of functional context education which Stewart followed in writing her Country Life Readers. We integrated the teaching of literacy into the content of training in nontraditional jobs for women in a number of cities across the nation.

At the end of the project, we found that even though there was no teaching of parenting in the programs, most of the mothers in the programs nevertheless exhibited changes in their parenting behavior. Of particular interest were he findings that the mothers read more to their children and they took their children to the library more often!


Fortunately, at the libraries, the mothers found knowledgeable and caring librarians to help them put their new literacy and parenting skills to good use finding books they could read for themselves and for reading to their children.

On Saturday, April 16th we celebrate National Librarian Day. So take a little time Saturday morning, go to your local library and thank the librarians who help make your community a better place to live. And, of course, take some time to enjoy a good read!

[NOTE: For additional information on adult literacy and libraries see the 2014 report: Adult Literacy through Libraries: an Action Agenda. Available online at:]



Boorstin, D. (1984). Books in our future: A report from the Librarian of Congress to the Congress. Washington, DC: Joint Committee on the Library, Congress of the United States.

Cole, J. & Sticht, T. (Eds.). (1981). The textbook in American society. Washington, DC: Center for the Book, Library of Congress.

Stewart, C. (1915). Country life readers: First book. New York: B. F. Johnson Publishing Company.

Van Fossen, S. & Sticht, T.  (1991, July). Teach the mother and reach the child. Washington, DC: Wider Opportunities for Women.
* This is a posting from the AAACE-NLA mailing list on April 8, 2016.
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April 8, 2016 at 12:42 pm Leave a comment



April 2016

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