In the United States, literacy was long tied to questions of social class and gender. Just who could and should learn to read varied over time. So too did the methods used to educate young men and women. Just as changeable were the types of institutions and the materials utilized to teach young people between the eighteenth century and the present.

Here are a collection of sources that trace the evolution of literacy education from the seventeenth century. What are the differences between them? How might we account for change?

Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), physician, scientist, and social reformer, was an early proponent of educating women. In this address, Rush delineates what females should and should not study. What subjects are appropriate for women? What subjects are to be avoided? What does Rush see as the benefits of educating women? If a young woman were educated according to Rush’s ideas, what might her life be like?

Benjamin Rush, Thoughts on Female Education (1787)

The New England Primer

The New England Primer was the predominant schoolbook of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The text included lists of syllables found in English, poetry, a catechism, and instructive questions and answers. The illustrated alphabet, the primer’s most well known feature, taught children their letters and Bible lessons.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster (1758-1843) believed that the new American nation needed a culture distinctive from that of its English origins and that this new culture was best fostered by reading. Webster’s American Spelling Book (1783) codified American English “to diffuse an uniformity and purity of language in America . . . .” Webster published an American Grammar (1784) and the American Reader (1785), the latter designed to supplant the New England Primer, a school book used since the seventeenth century and heavy on religious themes. In this essay, Webster offers his thoughts on the goals of educating American children.

Noah Webster, On the Education of Youth in America (1788)

Elementary Spelling Book PDF

William McGuffy

Noah Webster’s American Reader was the principal text in American schools for the first quarter of the nineteenth century, until it was replaced by William McGuffey’s instructional readers. McGuffey (1800-1873) developed a series of textbooks that included a selection of reading material, illustrations, and exercises to accompany each lesson. His series of Eclectic Readers provided a step-by-step system of increasingly challenging material. Like the New England Primer that fostered Puritan moral values, and Webster’s Reader that encouraged patriotism, McGuffey’s texts reflected nineteenth-century middle-class morality, nationalism, and American independent spirit.

McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader PDF

Dick and Jane

In the twentieth century, Dick and Jane taught American children how to read while reinforcing traditional gender roles: Father worked and Mother hung laundry.