Hand-Held Alphabets, a "Grammatico-Allegorical Ballad" and Other Early Educational Books for Children

August 30, 2021 | Myrna

Comments (0)

Reading and writing are the core of most curriculums, but how students learn the basics varies. Historical children’s books can help us understand how education has changed over the centuries. Our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books at Lillian H. Smith Branch has interesting examples of educational books and teaching aids from the 14th century to present day.

The majority of the books mentioned in this post cannot be borrowed, although they can be read in the Osborne Collection reading room.

Hands holding opened box with old book with handle
A hornbook with alphabet and Lord's Prayer held in a storage casing at our Osborne Collection.

A hand-held alphabet

How does a child learn their ABCs when books are expensive and scarce? Starting in the 15th century, many young learners used hornbooks to memorize the alphabet.

Hornbooks took many forms. They often consisted of a sheet of paper or vellum mounted on a piece of wood, leather or bone. The term "hornbook" comes from the transparent sheet of horn from a sheep or goat used to protect the text of early hornbooks. In addition to the ABCs, many hornbooks included the Lord’s Prayer and basic numerals.

Some children would hang hornbooks on their belt, carrying the durable teaching tool around with them. The object also doubled as a toy. You could use a hornbook as a racquet to bounce a birdie or ball. A child's special talent for finding fun and games is timeless!

See a list of catalogued hornbooks held in our Osborne Collection.

Four hornbook specimens, three of the hornbooks are made of leather and one hornbook is made of ivory and letters of alphabet visible
These four hornbooks in the Osborne Collection date from the early 19th century.

Combining words and pictures

Today we use picture books to teach everything from potty-training to computer programming. But in 17th-century Europe, pairing words and pictures to teach children was a radical idea.

In 1658, education reformer Comenius created an innovative book that combined text and illustrations to teach Latin to German speakers. His book Orbis Sensualium Pictus is often described as one of the first children’s picture books. It was instantly popular and quickly translated into other European languages. 

Comenius believed that using multiple senses helped children learn. Orbis Sensualium Pictus has more than 150 illustrations with visuals designed to help learners. Young learners could see concepts written in their first language, Latin, and illustrated with a picture.

Page from Orbis Sensualium Pictus with English text reading "The Cat cryeth," "The Carter cryeth" and "The Chicken peepeth."

Grammar can be fun

Learning grammar rules can be a frustrating process for young students. In the 19th century, writers and publishers tried to make grammar fun with guides filled with rhymes and illustrations.

One of these guides we've digitized is Sir Hornbook, or, Childe Launcelot's Expedition: A Grammatico-Allegorical Ballad (1814). It attempted to teach grammar through entertainment and delight. Its author Thomas Love Peacock parodied Arthurian ballads in his rhyming grammar treatise. Peacock's verses also referenced earlier education aids, and his hero Sir Hornbook is named after the hand-held alphabet device. 

When Sir Hornbook was published, codified English grammar rules were still relatively new. Before the 18th century, grammar teaching in English-speaking countries focused on Latin grammar with little attention to English. Specific rules for English were written down in the 18th century with books like The English Grammar Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners by Lindley Murray. Books like Sir Hornbook helped teach these new rules to an increasingly literate population. 

Illustration from Sir Hornbook with an army holding shields with letter of the alphabet and a caption reading "The first that came was might A. The last was little Z."
Illustration from Sir Hornbook (1814) showing the hero's hornbook-shaped shield.

Learners write the book

Educational books designed to entertain were embraced in the 19th century, but the books' content was still dictated by adults. Enter the 1960s and a new radical idea. What if children created their own school books? In 1968, teacher Welvin Stroud challenged his sixth graders to create a reader based on their own interests. The James Brown Reader (1968) was born, written by students at Martin Luther King School. The book uses rhymes featuring funk icon James Brown to teach basic reading skills. 

Established at the height of the American Civil Rights movement, San Francisco's Martin Luther King School was a free school. The school focused creating an anti-racist alternative education environment.

Hear teacher Welvin Stroud discuss the Martin Luther King School and The James Brown Reader in this 1968 local news segment

Cover of The James Brown Reader
Welvin Stroud's sixth grade class collaborated to write The James Brown Reader (1968).

Further reading


Blog posts from TPL