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Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America

Literacy Instruction and Acquisition in a Cultural Context

E Jennifer Monaghan

Publication Year: 2005

An experienced teacher of reading and writing and an award-winning historian, E. Jennifer Monaghan brings to vibrant life the process of learning to read and write in colonial America. Ranging throughout the colonies from New Hampshire to Georgia, she examines the instruction of girls and boys, Native Americans and enslaved Africans, the privileged and the poor, revealing the sometimes wrenching impact of literacy acquisition on the lives of learners. For the most part, religious motives underlay reading instruction in colonial America, while secular motives led to writing instruction. Monaghan illuminates the history of these activities through a series of deeply researched and readable case studies. An Anglican missionary battles mosquitoes and loneliness to teach the New York Mohawks to write in their own tongue. Puritan fathers model scriptural reading for their children as they struggle with bereavement. Boys in writing schools, preparing for careers in counting houses, wield their quill pens in the difficult task of mastering a "good hand." Benjamin Franklin learns how to compose essays with no teacher but himself. Young orphans in Georgia write precocious letters to their benefactor, George Whitefield, while schools in South Carolina teach enslaved black children to read but never to write. As she tells these stories, Monaghan clears new pathways in the analysis of colonial literacy. She pioneers in exploring the implications of the separation of reading and writing instruction, a topic that still resonates in today's classrooms. Monaghan argues that major improvements occurred in literacy instruction and acquisition after about 1750, visible in rising rates of signature literacy. Spelling books were widely adopted as they key text for teaching young children to read; prosperity, commercialism, and a parental urge for gentility aided writing instruction, benefiting girls in particular. And a gentler vision of childhood arose, portraying children as more malleable than sinful. It promoted and even commercialized a new kind of children's book designed to amuse instead of convert, laying the groundwork for the "reading revolution" of the new republic.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

For assistance with this book, I am much indebted to the librarians at the libraries and historical societies that I visited for my research. My largest debt is to the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), particularly to John Hench and Nancy Burkett, to Georgia Barnhill, Joanne Chaison, Thomas Knoles, Caroline Sloat, and Marie Lamoureux. (Additional thanks to Therasa Tremblay, Laura Wasowicz, and ...

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pp. 1-8

The passion and heat generated in the United States over the past decades on the issue of reading methodology (all too often oversimplified as a phonics versus whole-language debate) show that we are still looking for the best way to teach children to read and write. At least we all agree on one thing: the importance of literacy acquisition. Virtually all other aspects of education in this letter-filled ...

Part I. The Ordinary Road

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pp. 11-16

Religious turmoil in England in the early seventeenth century drove thousands of dissenters across the Atlantic Ocean, seeking a better life in the region they would name New England. The first arrivals, who have come to be called “Pilgrims,” had been so dismayed by the practices of their church, the Church of England, that they sought to separate from their mother church altogether. These “Separatists” reached the coast of New ...


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1. Literacy and the Law in Orthodox New England

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pp. 19-45

What pains the town clerks took.Week after week, in books brought specially over the seas, recorders in fledgling New England townships recorded court decisions, land transactions, town votes, earmarks, and the town’s births, marriages, and deaths. Other men, or sometimes the same men, transcribed the laws enacted and the criminal trials conducted in each particular colony. For the conscientious, the ...

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2. Literacy and the Indians of Massachusetts Bay

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pp. 46-80

No trackless wilderness had confronted the first Europeans to reach the northeastern shores of the great American continent in the early sixteenth century. Instead, they had come upon a land already inhabited by hundreds of thousands of native Americans. Extending hundreds of miles inland from the eastern coast as far as the region around the Saint Lawrence (where Iroquoian-speakers lived), innumerable ...

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3. Books Read by Children at Home and at School

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pp. 81-111

In a letter to the New England Corporation dated September 1655, the Commissioners of the United Colonies of New England listed the goods they wished to have sent to them for John Eliot’s work among the Indians. Along with their requests for locks and canvas, scythes and nails was one for the least expensive of all the items they were ordering: hornbooks and “old Common primers” worth ...

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4. Death and Literacy in Two Devout Boston Families

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pp. 112-140

At noon in Boston, on a January Sabbath in 1690, Samuel Sewall informed his young son Sam that their nine-year-old relative, Richard Dummer, had just died of smallpox. Sam’s father told him that he needed to prepare for death and that he should “endeavour really to pray when he said over the Lord’s Prayer.” Eleven-year- old Sam, munching an apple, “seem’d not much to mind.” When, however, ...


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5. The Literacy Mission of the S.P.G.

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pp. 143-165

The most important evangelical organization in provincial America was the London-based Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, known by its initials as the S.P.G. This was not a descendant of the old organization that had sent hornbooks and scythes to the Commissioners of the United Colonies of New England in the seventeenth century for the missions of John Eliot and Thomas Mayhew ...

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6. Literacy and the Mohawks

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pp. 166-188

The frontispiece to the third edition of the Mohawk Book of Common Prayer, printed in London after the American Revolution, in 1787, is a fitting metaphor for how British rulers viewed their relationship to their Mohawk subjects, who were by then living in Canada. The scene is set in the interior of a church. At the back, a window reveals clouds in the sky. At the right, but still in the background, ...

Part II. Decades of Transition, 1730 to 1750

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pp. 191-196

As the evidence presented in Part I suggests, the “ordinary Road” of literacy instruction— the hornbook, primer, Psalter, New Testament, and the entire Bible—was followed by Congregationalists and Anglicans alike. Of all the settings and organizations discussed so far, only the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in its mission to the Mohawks failed to offer the full course of reading instruction culminating in the Bible. Everywhere ...

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7. Schools, Schoolteachers, and Schoolchildren

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pp. 197-212

By 1730, Benjamin Franklin had long since finished his formal education, and his experiences form a backdrop to those of the other learners discussed in this chapter. Born in 1706, the same year as Cotton Mather’s younger son Samuel, Franklin had served only part of his apprenticeship as a printer with his half-brother James before he smuggled himself out of his home town, Boston, to escape from the ...

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8. The Rise of the Spelling Book

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pp. 213-232

The use of a spelling book in Christopher Dock’s little German-language schools was a sign of changing times. By 1750, the spelling book was emerging as an introductory reading instructional text that had already appeared in classrooms across the American colonies; by 1760 it was firmly established, and by 1770 it was an indispensable text. It would continue to be so for the following four decades. ...

Part III. New Paths to Literacy Acquisition, 1750 to 1776

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pp. 235-240

Different American colonies, originally wholly disparate in their designs and aims, were drawing closer together, linked in their political, economic, and social structures by their common emulation of British models. This process accelerated after 1750, and from about the middle of the century it is possible to perceive a growing consensus among the American elite on the materials suitable for their children’s literacy development. ...

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9. Literacy Instruction and the Enslaved

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pp. 241-272

In the fall of 1745, Joseph Hildreth of the New York Charity School, appointed its schoolmaster a year earlier, reported that he had other pupils than the forty poor white children who were attending his school in the daytime: “12 Negroes” who did not attend his regular school but came in the evenings to learn how to sing psalms. A few years later, Hildreth noted that he had fifteen Negroes in the ...

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10. Writing Instruction

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pp. 273-301

The notion that the ability to write was an essential part of what it meant to be free is not easily inferred from historical discussions of writing. In eighteen-thcentury America, writing was lauded for its extraordinary benefits in equipping the novice to participate in society rather than for its value to the writer. Indeed, as I argue in this chapter, there was an inherent contradiction between the formal ...

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11. The New World of Children’s Books

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pp. 302-332

A depiction of a penman serves as the frontispiece for a little American book for children titled The History of the Holy Jesus, first published in 1745: it is a woodcut ostensibly depicting the anonymous author. Like the masters of Boston’s three writing schools, he sports a wig, but in other respects his portrayal is as far removed from the formidable appearance of, say, John Tileston as possible. His wig, it is ...

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12. Literacy in Three Families of the 1770s

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pp. 333-358

In Boston in 1772, twelve-year-old Anna Green Winslow wrote in her journal: “My aunt Storer lent me 3 of cousin Charles’ books to read, viz.—the puzzeling cap, the female Oraters & the history of Gaffer too-shoes.” Two of these imported publications, The Puzzling Cap and The History of Goody Two-Shoes (as Anna must have meant), were products of the Newbery house.1 ...

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pp. 359-362

The American Revolution directly affected a book trade that had been heavily dependent on importation. One immediate impact was that it sharply curtailed the importation of the new “pretty books” for children. In general, the booksellers and printers who were the most enthusiastic boosters of books published by John Newbery had only recently immigrated to America, bringing with them fashionable ...

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pp. 363-378

The first purpose of this book has been to identify what kind of literacy was taught, when, where, how, to whom, and why. In addressing these questions, this study has offered a series of vignettes on literacy instruction and acquisition in a range of contexts, from native American to immigrant European, from the impoverished to the elite, from the enslaved to the free, at home and at school. Some practical questions may now be answered. What was a child’s age when ...

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Afterword: The Lessons

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pp. 379-382

The colonial approach to reading and writing instruction has been discarded today, and rightly so, for children lost much by having their writing instruction deferred for so long. The late introduction of writing instruction was a legacy that persisted for centuries after the initial rationale (the difficulty of manipulating and sharpening a quill pen, the cost of paper and ink) had vanished.1 Even throughout most ...

APPENDIX 1: Signature Literacy in Colonial America, the United States, and the AtlanticWorld, 1650 to 1810

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pp. 383-385

APPENDIX 2: The Alphabet Method of Reading Instruction

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pp. 386-387

APPENDIX 3: Production of American Imprints, 1695 to 1790

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pp. 388-391

APPENDIX 4: American Imprints versus English Exports, 1710 to 1780

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pp. 392


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pp. 393-460


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pp. 461-491

E-ISBN-13: 9781613761373
E-ISBN-10: 1613761376
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558494862
Print-ISBN-10: 1558494863

Page Count: 512
Publication Year: 2005

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Literacy -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Books and reading -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Books and reading -- United States -- History -- 17th century.
  • Literacy -- United States -- History -- 17th century.
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