Learning to read before spelling was standardized: 2. 16th and 17th-century sources and notes

Sir Thomas Elyot’s comments on elementary letter learning (1531):


Some transcription and notes of Henry Adis’ Fannaticks Primmer (1660):

A Fannaticks Primmer


Most educational texts were much more interested in the teaching of good manners and behaviour, and the more advanced skills of grammar and rhetoric, than in the basics of the alphabet, spelling, and reading. But you do occasionally encounter little snippets which are revealing about the details of early literacy teaching. The following comes from William Kempe, The Education of Children in Learning (London, 1588) signatures F2-F3 verso:

The Grammar which handleth diuers languages, as English, Latine, Greeke, Hebrewe, and such others: needeth not to be wholly taught in our owne language. For by a naturall vse we learne the inflexion of words together, with the varietie of their accidentall significations: as father, fathers, fatherhod, fatherles, fatherly, fatherlines. So likewise by the same vse is learned the framing of words together in speach, as he is a father, they are fathers. But yet by this vse wee haue not the perefect skill neither to make, nor to vnmake a word by his parts and parcels. Which facultie is called Prosodia, in pronouncing of letters, syllables, and words with the mouth: and Orthographia in writing of them with the hand, wherein I place the first degree of teaching. Therefore the artificiall precepts in this facultie, are the fower and twenty letters, and the table of the syllables. These the scholler shall learne perfectly, namely, to knowe the letters by their figures, to sound them aright by their proper names, and to ioyne them together, the vowels with vowels in diphthongs, & the consonants with vowels in other syllables. Next he shall proceede to practise the same in spelling and reading other mens workes, as the Catechisme and Primer. Wherein let him not learne by rote, spelling one sillable of a worde, and shufling vp the rest without distinct spelling. As if he had to learne this word mercifulnes, suffer him not, as some would, to go on thus: m-e-r, mer, c-i-f-u-l-n-e-s, mercifulnes. But according to the letters and syllables, which are as precepts in this behalfe, let him learne it by reason thus: m-e-r, mer: c-i, ci, merci: f-u-l, ful, merciful: n-e-s, nes, mercifulnes. For if he repeate the former syllables with euery other added vnto them, he shall haue all in perfect memorie when he commeth to the ende: whereas otherwise he may erre or forget. But because in the table of syllables commonly there are set forth no syllables that haue aboue two letters a peece, whereas they may haue three, fower, fiue, sixe, seauen, or eight a peece: if he knowe not the force of many letters in a syllable, he shal first learne the force of two alone, whereof one must be a vowell, then of the same two and the third added to them, and so the fourth: as in the foresayd word, the first syllable is of three letters m, e, r if he know not what m-e-r maketh, aske him first for m-e, he will answere me, as his table teacheth him: then for m-e-r, no doubt he will answere mer. The like is to be done in the two last syllables ful and nes. So strength a sillable of eight letters, being too hard for a childe to learne all at once, he may learne letter by letter thus: r-e, re; t-r-e, tre; s-t-r-e, stre; s-t-r-e-n, stren; s-t-r-e-n-g-t-h, strength. The like practise is it, when the maister nameth the letters and the scholler giueth their signification. And this is the readiest way to induce the true meaning of the letters and syllables, and consequently the pronouncing of euery word into the phantasie of the childe. For as Cato euen in his tender yeeres by searching the reason of those things that were taught him, did pro|fite wonderfully aboue his fellowes: so surely one word by reason thus exactly learned, will bring more fruit then twentie words rawlie passed ouer.

But here the scholler shall finde one hinderance and stumbling blocke, in that the practise both not alwaies agree with the precepts. For whereas he learned in his table t-i, ti, g-i, gi; he shall sometime in practise say t-i, si, g-i, ghi. As in these words saluation, giuen. And so in diuers other syllables, the letters haue otherwhiles a variable sound: otherwhiles no sound at all. Which difficultie, seeing it is not reformed by them that are learned, the childe must ouercome by continuall obseruation and custome. Yet the Printers might easely redresse that barbarous kind of printing ye for the, yt for that, &c. Where y very absurdly doth represent th, and tha, when as it farre differeth from the force and fashion of any of these letters. And therefore the childe in learning will eftsoone repugne agaynst this barbarisme, and say: yt, ye: yt, yt. These and such like difficulties are as rough ground in the way of the learner: which he cannot ouerstride, vnlesse the Maister do leade him as it were by the hand, supporting him agayne and agayne least he fall: which must needes bee tedious to them both for a while. Now, the scholler in learning euery word shall pronounce him with his true accent: as he may not say maiéstie but máiestie. Also after that he hath spelled his lesson, he shall reade the same, obseruing therein the poynts and distinctions of the sentence.

Now followeth the like practise in making words, first by imitation: as the scholler hauing learned that band is spelled with b-a-n-d, so he shall imitate to spell bond with b-o-n-d: as bold with b-o-l-d, so told with t-o-l-d: as seem with s-e-e-m, so seen with s-e-e-n. Lastly without imitation: as if ye aske him how he will spell this word or that word. Thus if he bee exercised in spelling and reading his lessons, and in spelling other words propounded vnto him, sometime by his teacher, sometime by his fellowes, when he shall haue ended his first booke the Catechisme, he wil be able to passe through the Primer commendably without spelling; some harde words here and there excepted.

About the end of this Booke, for the better confirming of all these things in memorie by Orthographie, let him learne to write. For Orthographie, which teacheth with what letters euery syllable and word must be written, and with what points the sentence and parts thereof must be distinguished, is a practise of the same knowledge, but expressed by the hand, as the former is by the toong. Which expressing and skill of the hand, belongeth properly to the Arte of Painting, and not vnto Grammar, so that the best Grammarian is not alwayes the fairest penman. Neuerthelesse, séeing it hath singular vse and commoditie in the exercise of Grammar, the Maister shall teach his Schollar to write by precepts of holding the Pen, of forming the letters in due proportion, of ioyning them aptly togethers: by practise, of drawing the Pen vpon the figures of shadowed letters, then of writing without shadowed letters by imitating a Copie, lastly, of writing without a Copie. In this exercise of writing, the Schollar shall spend but two or three houres in a day at the most, employing the rest of the time in reading, vntill he be about seauen yeares old. At which time, he shall procéede to the second degree of Schooling, which consisteth in learning the Grammar, and knowledge of other languages, and in this degrée are certaine fourmes, euery one whereof may occupie a yéere.

Kempe raises some key points in teaching reading, especially reading English. Firstly, that though children learn their own spoken language as part of a natural process, reading and writing need to be taught explicitly. Secondly, that English orthography is inconsistent, which means that a learner needs help from the teacher, but also simply to become accustomed by means of repeated exposure to the written language. Thirdly, that breaking words down into constituent sound-chunks is useful both in reading and spelling.

He recommends teaching spelling progressively, from explicit teaching (b-a-n-d) to inference (from b-a-n-d to b-o-n-d), and finally to the point where a student is asked to spell a word without a model to rely on.

What I think it really interesting is the middle stage, where the example chosen relies on similar words with only one differing sound, where the spelling of the other sounds is consistent between both words.

The final paragraph in the section above recommends that the child (having started schooling at age five) spends two or three hours each day at the most practicing holding the pen, forming letters and joining them, by ‘drawing the Pen upon the figures of shadowed letters’, then writing without shadowed letters by copying a model text, then lastly, by writing without a model.

The rest of the time, he says, should be spent reading, until at age seven the child will move on to more advanced schooling in grammar and the rest. The assumption must be here that Kempe believes the child should spend at least two or three hours just reading as part of elementary schooling.

[to be continued!]