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08.14.01 Willis, Larry Jordan, Advancing American Reading Achievement During the Great Depression, a PhD dissertation by Larry Jordan Willis, Peabody College, Nashville, Tennessee, 1939, re-published in 2010 by Howard Ray White, editor and publisher

Notes Concerning the Author

Larry Jordan Willis (1903-1984) was born in Upstate South Carolina to a farm family.  He received his B. A. degree in education at the University of South Carolina and his PhD in education at Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee.  The book recommended contains his PhD research and dissertation during his time as a PhD candidate at Peabody.  After completing his PhD, he was named Supervisor of Elementary Schools for the Nashville, Tennessee, City Schools and held that job for 24 years.  Afterward he was a professor of education and chairman of the Department of Education at Belmont College, also in Nashville.  He passed away in Nashville in 1981.  His daughter Judith is the wife of this reviewer, who knew Dr. Willis very well and always admired his gentleness and sure wit.


The title of the dissertation, which can still be checked out at the Joint University Library at Vanderbilt University, is “A Comparative Study of the Reading Achievements of white and Negro Children.”  Understandably, the editor, Howard Ray White, has expanded the title of Dr. Willis’s 1939 study to enable today’s readers to more quickly comprehend the content of this publication (paperback and Kindle e-book.  The subtitle chosen for the 2010 publication is,  A 1939 Comparative Study of the Reading Achievements of Seventh Grade White and African American Children in Segregated Nashville, Tennessee Schools.

The book, consisting of 73 pages, includes:

  • A 1939 survey of published studies on teaching children to read.
  • A revealing analysis of the 1939 classroom and home environments.
  • A detailed report on Dr. Willis’s innovative, ten-week, remedial reading program, utilizing then-new instruction techniques and modern statistical analysis, which significantly advanced reading performance of both races, their group average scores improving by at least 0.4 and as much as 0.7 grade years.

The eight conclusion stated by Dr. Willis at the end of his dissertation is as follows:

“As a result of a remedial program in reading, which was carried on over a period of ten weeks, both white and Negro children made significant gains as measured by the New Stanford Reading Tests and by the eye movement camera tests.  The white children made a greater gain than the Negro children.  The data contained in this study indicate clearly that remedial work is effective with children of both races.  The New Stanford Reading Test scores showed the mean gain of the white children to be 6.95 months and the mean gain for the Negro children to be 4.1 months.”

I must emphasize that result to ensure you recognize its significance.  In 10 weeks of personal reading instruction, during only part of each day, Dr. Willis produced a 7 month improvement in white skill level and a 4 month improvement in Negro skill level.  That is a tremendous gain, obtained in only 10 weeks. 

Furthermore, and this is important, the data in this study, indicates that African American seventh grade students were reading well in 1939.  At the start, before special remedial instruction began, the two white classes (112 students) read at a mean grade level of 6.43 and the two African American classes (112 students) read at a mean grade level of 5.47.  At the end of the ten weeks of remedial instruction, those two grade level means had risen to 7.13 and 5.88, meaning the African American students were only about one grade level behind the white students.  The Kuhlmann-Anderson Intelligence Test Score for the white students had a mean of 98.6, for the African American students, a mean of 92.25.  Both student groups were at working class schools.  But, we must remember that Nashville was “The Athens of the South” and African American education  was unusually strong in this Southern city.

After presenting Dr. Willis’s dissertation, editor White submits the following editorial commentary based on his 2010 perspective:

It is apparent that educators and society at large “have no access to comparisons of the effectiveness of education today versus long ago, when African American students were taught in separate schools by African American teachers.  And the most enlightening comparison useful to us, if we had access to it, would be the one concerning the most fundamental skill taught in schools: the skill to read well.  I hope this report, by opening a window into those long-ago days, will help people today, both in and outside of the academic community, reflect on what might have been lost by forcing integration and racial balance in American schools.  Although many students gained, did not a very large number of students suffer loss?  If losses are perceived, should we not attempt to fix such problems using clues available to us within this study?”

Moved by the results of tis study, White asks other questions as well.  Without a doubt, anyone reading this book will never look at the issue of educating whites and African Amerians quite the same.

Availability of this book

Go to Amazon and purchase the paperback book or the Kindle e-book.  You may also obtain the paperback book by sending an e-mail to