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Historical Textbooks

image The New England Primer, or, An Easy and Pleasant Guide to the Art of Reading: Adorned with Cuts: To Which Is Added the Catechism. Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, [after 1836].

Harvard's historical textbook collections reflect the evolution of reading instruction in Europe and the United States. In England beginning in the 15th century, linguistic changes, such as the great vowel shift, complicated the ways in which reading was taught. In late 18th-century Germany, France, and England, children learned by rote, using repetition to memorize the sounds of letters and syllables. In pre- and post-Colonial America, textbooks guided teachers who, in general, were inadequately trained to teach children to read. 19th and early 20th century textbooks reflect advances in pedagogy and, after 1900, the influence of scientific investigations on how nonreaders learn to read.

Historical textbooks reveal the wide range of materials used to teach reading to children of various levels of ability. Hornbooks and battledores, ABC books, and spellers taught children letters of the alphabet, numbers, and syllables. Grammars introduced children to the more complicated formal structures of language. Primers and readers provided passages for reading instruction that often included religious and sociopolitical themes.

Selections from Harvard

Published Materials

From the Monroe C. Gutman Library, published materials on reading instruction in the Reading collection include primers, spellers, grammars, and readers. Most of the works are in English from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries; selections from Europe include works primarily from the 19th century in French and German, and some works in Spanish, Italian, and other European languages.


Reading instruction