Literacy In The Colonial Era Essay

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Literacy in the American colonies was a constant preoccupation of European settlers. Geographical location influenced access to instruction, but in most colonies, by the 1770s, White men had achieved nearly 90 percent signing rates, and White women’s signatures on deeds ranged from 50 to 85 percent. This entry looks at the development of literacy during this period, its methodology, and its missionary links.

Early Immigrants

The first English immigrants brought with them their own literacy, schoolbooks, and a printing press. In 1642, the Massachusetts colony passed a “Poor Law” decreeing that all heads of families and masters of apprentices should have the children under their roof taught to read as well as acquire a practical skill. Later, laws legislated that boys (but not girls) must also learn to write. In 1647, Massachusetts passed a schooling law requiring towns of over fifty families to support a schoolmaster to teach writing and reading to all who attended (in practice, boys). By 1712, legislators in all the New England colonies except Rhode Island had passed similar laws.

These seventeenth-century Congregationalist New Englanders agreed upon the purposes of literacy instruction. Reading was essential, mainly for religious reasons. In a culture that believed in infant depravity, it was crucial to teach children to read the Bible by themselves in hope of achieving their salvation. In contrast, writing (defined as penmanship, not composition) was vital for economic reasons: good handwriting was a practical asset for men from blacksmiths to ministers. The corresponding economic skill for women was sewing; elite girls were taught writing, but only as a genteel accomplishment.

Instruction After 1750

The town-supported schools of New England were exceptional. In the middle colonies, White children attended schools sponsored by various Protestant denominations, including Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Mennonites. In the South, poor families joined together to pay for a schoolmaster, and wealthier ones hired a male tutor.

Schooling continued to be denominational or private across the colonies, but around 1750, literacy instruction began to improve, thanks in part to a rapidly improving standard of living and an influx of imported goods. Minimal literacy standards were raised: Between 1748 and 1771, Virginia, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Massachusetts all revised their Poor Laws to require that poor girls as well as boys be taught to write.

Spelling books, which offered more explicit reading instruction than primers, were imported from England in the 1730s and reprinted on American presses, becoming the child’s introduction to reading. The most successful of these was Thomas Dilworth’s A New Guide to the English Tongue, first printed in England in 1740 and in America in 1747. After 1750, children could read a wider range of books: Genres expanded from religious and courtesy books to advice books and even the new children’s books being printed by the London printer John Newbery, designed to amuse children rather than convert them. Access to writing instruction improved: Imported stationery materials became widely available, and nonelite fathers, as part of their aspirations for gentility, paid for private writing instruction for their daughters.

Methodology And Texts For Literacy

Literacy was taught through the “alphabet method.” Reading, writing, and spelling all proceeded from the smallest units (letters) to the largest units (sentences). Children learned to recognize words by spelling them aloud, “M-A-N, man,” in cumulative syllables. In this oral approach, reading proceeded without writing. Indeed, writing instruction presumed a partial mastery of reading. This methodology was embodied in a series of imported Christian texts.

These began with the hornbook (a small paddle of wood with a page tacked onto it that showed the alphabet, a truncated syllabary, and the Lord’s Prayer); a primer; the Psalter (the prose version of the Psalms); the New Testament; and finally, the entire Bible. Different denominations offered their own locally printed primers, but the Congregationalist The New England Primer, in its second Boston edition in 1690, was popular everywhere.

Gender affected teachers as well as students. It was assumed that reading was easy to teach, so women, believed to have weak minds in weak bodies, were preferred for introductory reading instruction. In contrast, writing instruction was challenging and the province of writing masters who had, ideally, undergone lengthy apprenticeships. Whereas texts for reading instruction were easily obtained and relatively inexpensive, copybooks (books exhibiting different scripts) were owned only by writing masters, who used them to set copies for schoolboys. Only in the single-sex Quaker schools of Philadelphia was access to literacy instruction equal for both sexes.

Missionary Context

Native Americans’ introduction to alphabetical literacy occurred within the context of missionary efforts by European settlers. These varied by denomination but were all funded from England. On the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Thomas Mayhew, Jr., began converting the Wampanoags in 1642, and on mainland Massachusetts, another Congregationalist, minister John Eliot of Roxbury, began preaching to the Massachusett Indians in 1646. Both missions involved teaching literacy in the Indians’ native language, Massachusett.

With Indian assistance, John Eliot began to translate and publish, on the local press, texts in Massachusett, printing the entire Indian Bible in Massachusett by 1663. His primer appeared in 1669. Beginning in 1704, the Anglican, London-based Society for the Propagation of the Gospel attempted to convert the Mohawks of New York. Successive Anglican clergy preached to Mohawks near Albany, opened schools, and translated sections of the Book of Common Prayer (rather than the Bible) into Mohawk. Other missions involving literacy instruction include the Moravians among the Mahicans and Delawares, and, in English, instruction at Moor’s Indian Charity School, Connecticut, organized by Eleazar Wheelock.

Few Africans were able to acquire literacy unless they were taught by sympathetic slaveholders or, clandestinely, by literate slaves. However, from 1758 to 1776, London missionary organizations funded schools for young Africans in Philadelphia, New York City, Newport (Rhode Island), and Williamsburg (Virginia). Schoolmistresses taught at these schools rather than schoolmasters because writing instruction was never offered; writing was considered a dangerous skill for slaves. Other African children learned to read in Philadelphia, taught by the Quaker Anthony Benezet, and in Charles Town (South Carolina).


  1. Monaghan, E. J. (2005). Learning to read and write in colonial America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

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