From A to Z: Reading Fundamentals

If you can read this, chances are you were exposed to alphabet books as a child. You must learn to walk before you can run, and mastering the alphabet is the first step in becoming a full-fledged reader. Educators have employed many different techniques over the centuries to help children achieve that goal.

Carved bone hornbook, ca. 1800. [zoom]

The earliest tools for alphabet study weren’t exactly books: hornbooks were sturdy, paddle-shaped alphabet charts meant to be carried around for frequent practice and consultation. Popular in England (and later America) from the mid-15th to the late 18th century, they were usually made of wood, with a printed alphabet on paper affixed to it under a very thin, transparent layer of horn for protection (hence the name). They could also be carved out of wood, ivory or (in this case) bone. In addition to letters and syllabaries, they might contain decorative designs (often crosses) and prayers -- why waste a chance to impress a little dogma onto that tabula rasa?

English battledore. Alnwick: W. Davison, ca. 1830. [zoom]
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Battledores replaced hornbooks as the alphabet tool of choice around the mid-18th century. Printed on sturdy paper or cardboard and folded to pocket-size, they provided more surface area than a hornbook so could include more text, such as stories or proverbs (i.e. more dogma), and letters in “promiscuous” (random) order to test recognition.

The Picture Alphabet: or, ABC in Rhyme. New Haven: S. Babcock, ca.1830. [zoom]
Woodbine-arbor, or, The Little Gardeners: A Story of a Happy Childhood. New Haven: S. Babcock, 1849. [zoom]
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Red Riding Hood. London: R. Carr, 1805-1814. [zoom]

Chapbooks -- tiny paper-bound booklets -- were among the first true children’s books. The format was used for various publications for adults and children, but their small size and liberal use of woodcut illustrations made them especially enticing to young readers. Contents were usually didactic stories, nursery rhymes, and educational texts.

Alphabet Books

So how does a child make the leap from being able to recognize and recite the ABCs and actually being able to read? Alphabet books give context to those abstract shapes and meaningless noises, linking a letter and its sound by featuring a word that begins with that letter. They also engage the child’s attention with attractive illustrations coupled with interesting facts, a short rhyme… or another dose of indoctrination.

Scripture Alphabet.” Book of Picture Alphabets. London (Paternoster Row): T. Nelson and Sons, ca. 1880. [zoom]

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John William Orr. My Own ABC of Quadrupeds. New York: Gates & Stedman, 1850s. [zoom]
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Walt Disney. Mickey Mouse Alphabet Book. Racine, Wis.: Whitman, 1936. [zoom]
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Easy Readers

Once she masters the alphabet, a child can use that understanding of letters and their sounds to read short words and simple sentences. The basic ingredients of books for beginning readers – also known as easy readers – have remained fairly constant: simple and limited vocabulary, short sentences, and illustrations that enhance understanding of the text. But the contents of these books have changed dramatically over the centuries.

Johann Amos Comenius. Joh. Amos Comenii Orbis Sensualium Picti Pars Prima. Nuremberg: Sumtibus J.A. Endt Haeredum, 1745-1746. [zoom]
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This Latin/German textbook, originally published in 1658, is known as the first “picture book” for children. The lavish copper-engraved illustrations of everything from household objects to “deformed and monstrous people” provide context for the Latin vocabulary.

William Holmes McGuffey. McGuffey’s Pictorial Eclectic Primer. New York: American Book Co., ca. 1867. [zoom]
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McGuffey, a Presbyterian preacher and educator, created the first set of graduated reading textbooks in 1838. Over the next several decades, they became standard curriculum throughout the U.S., popular for both their staggered, age-appropriate content and their Calvinist values.

William S. Gray and May Hill Arbuthnot. Fun with Dick and Jane. Illustrated by Eleanor Campbell and Keith Ward. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Co., ca. 1946. [zoom]

Considered cutting-edge in elementary instruction when they premiered in the 1930s, the Dick and Jane stories relied on short vocabulary lists, monotonous repetition and an absolute adherence to realism to focus young minds on the task of reading. Now, the depiction of such a bland suburban Caucasian mid-century family seems more like fantasy than a reflection of any modern child’s reality.

Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat. New York: Random House, 1957.
First edition. [zoom]
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Using only 236 words, Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) created an easy reader revolution. The story of a brother and sister – perhaps the anti-Dick and Jane? – who are surprised by an unexpected visit from a boisterous guest bent on having “fun that is funny” is everything that earlier readers were not: messy, chaotic, rebellious, and – oh yes, FUN.

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