Noah Webster: Teaching Literacy Through Geography

In his essay “On the Education of Youth” (1788), Noah Webster — school teacher, textbook author, magazine editor, education reformer, and definer of American words — proclaims that ideal books should “call home the minds of youth and fix them upon the interests of their own country and . . . assist in forming attachments to it.”

He also recommends that books include “a selection of essays respecting the settlement and geography of America.” In order to correct what he found to be a lack of Americans’ knowledge of their own country — a lament not unheard of today — he proposes that “a tour through the United States ought now to be considered a necessary part of a liberal education.” Just as the case is now, however, a grand tour of the U.S. was not feasible for most 18th- and 19th-century American students.

The solution?

Geography as a way to teach students to read. Before he published “A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language” in 1806, the first American dictionary, Webster published several primers for schoolchildren that emphasized historical and geographical knowledge of the United States. Throughout "The American Spelling Book Containing the Rudiments of the English Language: For the Use of Schools in the United States" and his three-volume “Grammatical Institute of the English Language,” Webster encourages geography as a lens through which to understand language.

Webster used the geography of the United States to teach literacy. Students learned to read by pronouncing the names of U.S. cities and states, before which they had to say the words “The United States of America,” with the goal of a common national pronunciation.

Other producers of schoolbooks followed Webster’s lead, and having students recite and spell place names became the way in which generations of American students learned the English language.

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