Literacy begins at home

Victoria Neumark finds evidence of a mother's love engaging with modern methods in a fascinating account of 18th-century family learning

Reading Lessons from the 18th century: mothers, children and texts By Evelyn Arizpe and Morag Styles with Shirley Brice Heath Pied Piper pound;30, Pounds 20 pbk To order:

Like charity, teaching children to read traditionally began in the home. In England, medieval samplers and hornbooks, slates and boards, were used in informal nursery education and home schoolrooms for many centuries. Their content followed a set pattern of alphabets and moral rhymes. Between 1600 and 1800 - the great age of commerce and politeness - literacy expanded and the kinds of texts available became more varied and aids to teaching diversified. Reading changed, too, from a largely public act whereby heads of households read religious texts to family and servants or friends read fiction aloud, to a private affair - journals, letters and commonplace books testified to a growth in literary introspection.

The goals associated with teaching reading became more ambitious; alongside future functionality (legal documents, prayer books, technical information) lessons also sought to further children's creativity, to enter into thoughts, feelings, modes of expression. More simply, as Tennyson put it in The Princess: "Knowledge is now no more a fountain sealed".

Between 1600 and 1750, literacy in England increased rapidly; as this book says, estimates suggest literacy rose from 25 per cent of the adult male population to 60 per cent and from 25 to 40 per cent of the female population. These figures are speculative because of uneven geographical distribution - 66 per cent of adult females in London read by 1720, for example - but the trend is indisputable. By 1800 every town had a printer and a bookshop. London had 122 circulating libraries and there were 268 in the provinces.

Meanwhile, newspapers and theatres also rapidly gained in popularity and publishing, so the stakes were higher for the more educated strata in society: the polite gentleman or woman had to demonstrate ever more sophisticated reading and writing skills. Merely sounding out letters, as at a village "dame school", which was what most of the population got for a year or two, was now insufficient.

For Isaac Watts, who published The Art of Reading and Writing in English in 1721, reading well meant making sense of what was read. In 1744 John Newbery (motto: "Trade and Plumb-Cake for ever. Huzza!") published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, widely acclaimed to be the first book just for children. Full of illustrations, colourfully bound and with accompanying book-related toys, it was the Harry Potter of its day, not to mention the Mr Men, Bob the Builder and Roald Dahl. It also signalled a switch from beating children into learning to tempting them, a shift forcefully marked by the publication of Emile by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1762.

How did this broad picture play out in the home? In this book, Arizpe and Styles reveal a key source of information: an exquisite collection of home reading aids made by an 18th-century mother and country vicar's wife, Jane Johnson (1706-1759), dating precisely to the time of Newbery's publication, when Jane's first children were born. She had five children; one died in infancy, the others learned to read at home. In 1982 her flash cards, mobiles, alphabet grids, blocks, games, paper chains, lists of homonyms and synonyms, all intricately cut, glued, sewn and lettered by Jane herself, were found in a hatbox.

In 1994, US academic Shirley Brice Heath began to analyse this treasure.

Coincidentally, Cambridge lecturers Morag Styles and Victor Watson were uncovering letters, diaries and albums by Jane and her children. I first came across Jane's work (TES May 22, 1998) when Styles and Watson were still on the trail of her chef d'oeuvre, A Very Pretty Story, never commercially published but now in the Bodleian Library. Together these papers form a fascinating record of the relationships and aspirations embedded in a mother teaching her children to read, explored in this book.

So, what reading lessons can we learn from the 18th century? A Very Pretty Story is a moral tale written to entertain and edify Jane's two oldest children. It is shot through with wit and sharp social observation, keenly alive to social injustice and pretension. Although no professional author, Jane was a diligent reader (every member of her family spent an estimated two hours a day reading) and a direct communicator. Her methods are not dissimilar to those used today, despite the linguistic and social changes.

She knew, as Arizpe and Styles put it, that "learning to read requires frivolity, storytelling and diversion as well as diligence, rigour and repetition". All her home-made resources set learning to read in the contexts of conversation, storytelling, rhyme and moral lessons. Most of all, though, they are coloured by unabashed maternal love.

Then as now, that appears the best fertiliser for young minds. Jane concluded one of her letters to her young son Robert at school, shortly before she died, with the touching wish, "Oh! Robert. Live for ever!"

Robert, in his turn, became a successful clergyman, father of seven children and avid reader and writer. As an adult he notes in his journal, amid reflections on landscape and travel, "Nothing can amuse after leaving those we love." Reading flourishes under such care.

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