It has been said that The New England Primer was the most
influential textbook in history. This text, written by Benjamin Harris
in 1690, was used to teach reading. School in the 1700s was heavily
influenced by religion. The common belief was that the inability to
read was Satan’s way to keep people from reading the Bible.
Scenario: Imagine you walk into your third grade classroom and your reading/literature textbooks have been replaced with The New England Primer. What would you say to your administrator? Predict your students’ reactions. Decide what you would do for reading today.
I have attached the section on The New England Primer from my textbook.The New England Primer
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The New England Primer was used in colonial schools for
almost two centuries.
Slightly older children used The New England Primer. It
contained 88 pages, measured 3½ inches by 4½ inches
(Watras, 2008), and was constructed along the same
religious lines as the hornbook. It has been referred to as
“the little Bible of New England” (Meriwether, 1978, p.
19). Although different editions of the primer varied
somewhat in the 200 years of its publication (1690–1886),
it usually began with an alphabet and spelling guide,
followed by one of the things that made the primer
famous—24 little pictures, mostly biblical incidents, with alphabetical rhymes.
After the alphabetic rhymes came “The Dutiful Child’s Promise,” which required the young
student to promise as follows:
I will fear GOD, and honor the KING.
I will honor my Father and Mother.
I will Obey my Superiors.
I will Submit to my Elders.
The primer also included the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, a
listing of the books of the Bible, and a list of numbers from 1 to 100, using both Arabic and
Roman numerals. Another prominent feature was a poem, the exhortation of John Rogers to his
children, from John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, with a picture of the martyr burning at the stake as
his wife and children look on. The primer ended with a shortened version of the Puritan
catechism (Ford, 1962).
While the primer continued to reinforce religious concepts, by the time of the Revolution,
patriotic rhymes were substituted for some religious themes. For example, “the letter W referred
to George Washington brave who saved his country” and opposition to the monarch was
expressed as “kings and queens are gaudy things” (Watras, 2008, p. 212).
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