Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America
Literacy Instruction and Acquisition in a Cultural Context
Explores how people in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America acquired the ability to read and write
An experienced teacher of reading and writing and an award-winning historian, E. Jennifer Monaghan brings to vibrant life the process of learning to read and write in colonial America. Ranging throughout the colonies from New Hampshire to Georgia, she examines the instruction of girls and boys, Native Americans and enslaved Africans, the privileged and the poor, revealing the sometimes wrenching impact of literacy acquisition on the lives of learners.
For the most part, religious motives underlay reading instruction in colonial America, while secular motives led to writing instruction. Monaghan illuminates the history of these activities through a series of deeply researched and readable case studies. An Anglican missionary battles mosquitoes and loneliness to teach the New York Mohawks to write in their own tongue. Puritan fathers model scriptural reading for their children as they struggle with bereavement. Boys in writing schools, preparing for careers in counting houses, wield their quill pens in the difficult task of mastering a "good hand." Benjamin Franklin learns how to compose essays with no teacher but himself. Young orphans in Georgia write precocious letters to their benefactor, George Whitefield, while schools in South Carolina teach enslaved black children to read but never to write.
As she tells these stories, Monaghan clears new pathways in the analysis of colonial literacy. She pioneers in exploring the implications of the separation of reading and writing instruction, a topic that still resonates in today's classrooms.
Monaghan argues that major improvements occurred in literacy instruction and acquisition after about 1750, visible in rising rates of signature literacy. Spelling books were widely adopted as they key text for teaching young children to read; prosperity, commercialism, and a parental urge for gentility aided writing instruction, benefiting girls in particular. And a gentler vision of childhood arose, portraying children as more malleable than sinful. It promoted and even commercialized a new kind of children's book designed to amuse instead of convert, laying the groundwork for the "reading revolution" of the new republic.
"Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America is a very important book.. . . Literary specialists will especially be gratified, but all historians of early America will profit from this richly researched work."—Journal of American History
"This book fills a significant gap in the scholarship of early America as well as in the scholarship of the history of reading and writing . . . . It will become an essential reference text for any scholar or student of American book history, the history of pedagogy, and the history of literacy."—Patricia Crain, author of The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America
from The New England Primer to The Scarlet Letter
"Unique in its scope and in several of the questions being asked, this wide-ranging book will be important to early Americanists as well as to historians of reading."—David D. Hall, general editor of the five-volume
History of the Book in America
"While much has been written on the history of literacy, the subject of learning to read and write during America 's Colonial era has not received in-depth treatment. Monaghan (English, emerita, Brooklyn Coll., CUNY) seeks to remedy that situation with this truly impressive treatise, which has been exhaustively researched over the last 20 years. Following a chronological progression from 1620 through 1776, Monaghan offers a comprehensive analysis of Colonial literacy instruction that ranges throughout the Colonies and covers a broad variety of demographic groups and educational settings. She describes the separate motives behind the teaching of reading (largely meant to facilitate religious education) and of writing (which had more practical and secular purposes). In a refreshingly readable style for such a scholarly work, Monaghan studies the relationships between rates of literacy and other measures of Colonial culture, making rich use of primary sources to offer accessible and enlightening case histories. Illustrated with contemporary portraits and writing samples, this volume will no doubt become indispensable to those studying the history of literacy education. While covering the past, it is relevant to current debates about literacy. Highly recommended for academic libraries."—Library Journal
"One of the book's most engaging features is to take seriously reading instruction of Native Americans and African American slaves. . . . Monaghan convincingly shows that reading and writing were separate ideological domains. . . . Readers not primarily interested in book history or colonial America wills till find intriguing Monaghan's balanced and incisive analysis of the historical convergences of literacy and race.Journal of American History"—American Literature
"Monaghan's fascinating case studies come from a wide range of geographic locales and populations, including native Americans and the missionaries who worked with them, schoolteachers, schoolchildren, rich and poor families, slaves, and a host of wonderfully vivid characters, down to the inescapable Ben Franklin. . . . Given its impressive scope, clear argumentation, and plentiful and fascinating historical insights, Monaghan's study will be of great use in college classrooms, not only for the study of the history of books and reading but also for the social history of childhood, gender, and the family in the colonial United States."—North American Review
"E. Jennifer Monaghan's meticulous research, strong theoretical organization, and persuasive case studies provide evidence for the modernists' thesis while complicating the story."—The Historian