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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Learning to Read in Colonial Days ~ The New England Primer

by Roseanna M. White

As my kids and I have been studying early America in our school year, we've read many a novel set in 1700s and early 1800s that touch on children's education...and more than once the authors have quoted the New England Primer--the book that nearly all colonial children used to be taught to read. My kids thought it very strange to learn their letters like this, but it was an intriguing idea to them. And to me too!

There's much beyond the alphabet in the Primer, and we'll probably take a look at some more of it next month. But for today, we're going to learn our alphabet...Colonial style.

(As you can see from the title page above, this was still in the day when f was used as an s in the middle of a word.)

The primer introduced each letter beside a woodcut image, combining the letters and sounds with Bible teachings or moral principles.

In ADAM'S Fall 
We sinned all. 
Heaven to find; 
The Bible Mind. 
Christ crucify'd 
For sinners dy'd. 
The Deluge drown'd 
The Earth around. 
By Ravens fed. 
The judgment made 
FELIX afraid. 
As runs the Glass, 
Our Life doth pass. 
My Book and Heart 
Must never part. 
JOB feels the Rod,-- 
Yet blesses GOD. 
Proud Korah's troop 
Was swallowed up 
LOT fled to Zoar, 
Saw fiery Shower 
On Sodom pour. 
MOSES was he 
Who Israel's Host 
Led thro' the Sea 

N  NOAH did view 
The old world & new. 
O  Young OBADIAS, 
All were pious. 
P  PETER deny'd 
His Lord and cry'd. 
Q  Queen ESTHER sues 
And saves the Jews. 
R  Young pious RUTH, 
Left all for Truth. 
S  Young SAM'L dear, 
The Lord did fear. 
Learnt sin to fly. 
V  VASHTI for Pride 
Was set aside. 
W  Whales in the Sea, 
GOD's Voice obey. 
X  XERXES did die, 
And so must I. 
Y  While youth do chear 
Death may be near. 
Did climb the Tree 
Our Lord to see. 

What do you think of these early rhymes? Did you ever use rhymes to help you with your learning?

Roseana M. White pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two small children, editing and designing, and pretending her house will clean itself.


  1. This is so foreign to us, with our current teaching norms, but nobody can argue that it was ineffective. Standards for reading comprehension were generally much higher back then, and a student by 3rd grade was expected to be able to read and comprehend the Bible. I wonder how many of our 3rd graders today could do that? Of course, the King of England would have preferred our populace a little less well educated. ;)

    1. I know! I marvel rather regularly at how we have become a society where everyone has a degree...but so few people have the kind of education that our forefathers most valued. (For reference, my fourth grader has to read the Bible on her own every day. And she and my 1st grader are learning Ancient Greek, LOL.)

    2. For one thing, they studied history completely differently than we do today. They studied the "why" and the "results" of history. We make our students memorize names and dates. Not much thinking required for names and dates. But they had to *think* about history, why things happened and what the consequences were. Imagine. There were no multiple choice tests, either.

    3. Maybe that's why I always loved historical fiction as a means of learning history--virtually no focus on the name and dates, but lots of exploration into the meanings!

  2. I homeschooled our children for over 25 years I often used rhymes to help them learn. More than one of mine had to deal with ADD and the rhymes helped.
    I also used music a lot to help.
    I not only used historical fiction I used things like Around the World in 80 Days. A wonderful tool for things like teaching time zones, time tables, and transportation methods.
    Wishing you blessings as you teach your little ones.


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