Click to hear Lexi discuss The New-England Primer.
The New-England Primer Improved
The New England Primer was perhaps America’s most famous schoolbook. “No introduction to reading achieved anything like the same universality in England, certainly none had the same influence. Estimated that there was an annual average sale of 25,000 copies over a period of 150 years, or total sales of 3 million copies.” Children learned to read from primers. “The predominant method of instruction involved children memorizing the names of letters and the sound of syllables. Fluidity of reading, not comprehension was the goal.” The book is small, well organized and portable. It includes spelling lists, prayers, morality tales and catechism. Children memorized much of the knowledge, but did not necessarily understand what they were learning. Primers also dispensed religious knowledge as one of its central purposes. One of the primer’s most special features is the pictorial alphabet. It includes twenty-four woodcuts and simple rhymes suitable for memorization by even the youngest children. “Rhymes describe biblical ‘history’ or natural verifiable events. The sequence of the alphabet rhymes recapitulates this devotional pattern of death, life and salvation.” Later versions focused on showing positive examples for children to follow. The need for text and matching illustrations was so that children could build their ideas on both of them. “What the Primer did give the child . . . was a map to a world larger than himself, adult confirmation of children’s natural predisposition to awe, and a wider spectrum of understanding and better selection of materials with which to express this awe.” The primer essentially heightened the child’s awareness of a level of existence beyond daily life.
Avery, Gillian. “Proceedings [Semiannual and Annual Meetings] Origins and English Predecessors of the New England Primer.” The Society Worchester, Mass (1999): 33-61. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Oct. 2012.
Schnorbus, Stephanie. “Calvin And Locke: Dueling Epistemologies In The New-England Primer, 1720-1790.” Early American Studies, An Interdisciplinary Journal 8.2 (2010): 250-287. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Oct. 2012.
New, Elisa. ““Both Great And Small”: Adult Proportion And Divine Scale In Edward Taylor’s Preface And The New-England Primer.” Early American Literature 28.2 (1993): 120-132. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Oct. 2012.