Scenes of Learning: Reading, Writing, Spelling, Speaking
“I cannot but applaud your zeal for preserving the purity of oour language, both in its expressions and pronunciation.…” — Benjamin Franklin to Noah Webster, 1789
he material traces of education which survive from early Pennsylvania are perhaps the best evidence for reconstructing the learning processes of the classroom. Samplers, primers, hornbooks, battledores, and spellers allow us to conceive of pedagogical practices and to glimpse actual students at work.
For girls and women, embroidery and literacy were interconnected, and central, activities: by the seventeenth century the preparation of embroidered samplers had become a basic way of teaching letters. In Pennsylvania and other colonies, regional styles emerged, and some particularly important teacher-embroiderers, like the Quakers Ann Marsh and Rebekah Jones, influenced the patterns of dozens of students. Phebe Albertson’s sampler here, from the Chester County Historical Society, shows some of the delicate tree patterns found in other Chester County examples in this period, as well as band patterns common in earlier samplers.
The hornbook, a simple technology for beginning students, was used in homes and schools from the fifteenth century into the nineteenth. As this example from 1799 shows, it consists of a paddle-shaped piece of wood, to which is glued a sheet of paper with letters, numbers, and sometimes prayers on it. A transparent sheet of horn (from an animal) was glued over the paper, giving the “hornbook” its name. Franklin and other printers sold hornbooks along with other school supplies and books in their printing shops and advertised them regularly.
The battledore shown here demonstrates the pictorial method of teaching letters to children. Like hornbooks, battledores (the word’s etymology is uncertain, but it may derive from battle, meaning “to beat”) allowed children to learn to recognize the alphabet graphically; the accompanying verses were likely read aloud to them. Because they were printed on cardboard, they were often used until they simply fell apart. Pictorial methods of learning remained important even for older learners working on their Latin, as this page from a Latin primer, The Philadelphia Vocabulary, makes clear.
riting was taught only after reading had been mastered. Franklin argued for the importance of teaching of handwriting at the Academy of Philadelphia, and throughout the eighteenth century writing schools and private writing tutors flourished. As the samples here suggest, writers would practice a variety of different hands, each suited to a different purpose. As writing became a distinct discipline during this period, students began to learn a greater variety of handwriting styles.
hildren throughout this period learned to read syllabically and orally: after learning the letters, they would begin to pronounce letters in groups: for instance, “ab eb ib ob ub” in a primer or on a hornbook would be spoken, “Ai, Bee, ab; Ee, Be, eb,” and so on. Words were taught in the same way: “bad” would be practiced as “Be, Ai, Dee, bad.”
The publication success of Anthony Benezet’s Pennsylvania Spelling-Book (first edition, 1776) testifies to the impact of the Quaker teacher’s project of creating a simple and effective, if not radically new method for teaching spelling and reading. His textbook emphasized “short lessons, often repeated,” moving from question-and-answer sections to reading passages meant to underscore useful “religious and moral sentiments.”
Aspiring writers employed any blank paper for practice. The front pages of this well-worn copy of Benezet’s Spelling-Book were used by one Anna Thomas to write her name; over time, her technique improves visibly.
lthough a lifelong New Englander, Noah Webster spent much of 1786 and 1787 in Philadelphia, lecturing on the English language at the College of Philadelphia and teaching mathematics and English at the new Protestant Episcopal Academy. When attacked in a newspaper for choosing “to starve” as a lowly schoolteacher, Webster defended himself by arguing that “men of the best character and education” should be encouraged to teach, not dissuaded from it. He also met and corresponded with Franklin concerning their mutual interest in reforming English-language spelling. Franklin argued for a radical attempt to make spelling resemble American speech and composed an elaborate chart, shown here, of new spellings. Webster, however, was more cautious, and his relatively simple alterations to the spelling of common words would, thanks to enormous popularity of his readers and spellers, eventually become the norm.