A History of Education: The American Educational System, Colonial Period (New England Books)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 19th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

During the colonial period, students used a couple of different tools for learning. The first was the hornbook, which got its start in the mid-15th century in both Europe and America. It consisted of a wooden paddle that had lessons attached and was covered by a piece of transparent horn.

The paddle measured approximately 2 ¾” x 5”, and it came with an easy-to-hold handle. A leather thong was threaded through a hole in the handle so the student could carry it on their belt or around their neck.

The lessons consisted of different combinations of the alphabet, vowel and consonant combinations, the Lord’s Prayer, a form of a cross, and praise for the Trinity. They were handwritten on parchment, then attached to the wooden paddle. The smooth, transparent horn covering the lessons were to keep the child from getting them dirty.

As time went on, hornbooks were made from other materials, including ivory, various metals, leather, and cardboard. They text ranged from plain, whittled type, to carved, tooled, embossed, or engraved type.

The second staple in schools was the New England Primer, a textbook used by students in New England and other English settlements in North America. First printed in 1609 in Boston by Benjamin Harris, who had published a similar volume in London, its use extended into the 19th century, with over five million copies sold.

Since the Puritans believed an inability to read was Satan’s attempt to keep people from scriptures, the New England Primer combined the study of the alphabet with Bible reading. It introduced each letter in a religious context, then illustrated the phrase used with a woodcut. The book emphasized the fear of sin, God’s punishment, and that all people would have to face death. The primer also contained a catechism of religious questions and answers.

Here are some examples of alphabet rhymes that taught moral values as well as reading skills:

A In Adam’s Fall

We sinned all.

B Thy Life to Mend

This Book Attend.

C The Cat doth play

And after slay.

D A Dog will bite

A Thief at night.

E An Eagle’s flight

Is Out of sight.

F The Idle Fool

Is Whipt at School.

In addition, the Children’s Prayer that begins “Now I lay me down to sleep…” first appeared in the New England Primer.


Next week: The Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.



[1] Austin, Tammy L. (June 15, 2004). “The Hornbook.” History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/hornbook.html.

[2] O’Neill, Mary. (June 15, 2004). “The New England Primer.” History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/neprimer.html.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.