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The Collation

Learning to write the alphabet

Learning to write the alphabet is one of the first stages of writing literacy. For early modern English children, this meant first learning to read the letters of the alphabet (printed in black letter) from a hornbook.

17th century hornbook

Hornbook. Folger Shakespeare Library STC 13813.5

They then learned to write the letters of the alphabet in one or both of the two main handwritten scripts, secretary and italic. For this, they relied on manuscript or printed copybooks or exemplars, usually supplemented by instruction from a writing master at a writing school, a private tutor or family member, or usher in a grammar school. 1

  1. See Herbert C. Schulz, “The Teaching of Handwriting in Tudor and Stuart Times,” The Huntington Library Quarterly (4), August 1943: 381-425.
  2. By the way, the aphorism on this leaf is from Cicero.
  3. Simran Thadani’s recently defended PhD dissertation, Penmanship in Print: English Copy-Books and their Makers, 1570-1763 (University of Pennsylvania, 2013), provides an account of the battle for authority between these two writing masters
  4. I’m sure there are many other instances that haven’t yet been recorded, and that if one searched all the examples of “pen trials” under “All notes,” other examples of letter-formation practice would be revealed.
  5. Despite the fact that the Common Core Standards no longer require elementary school students in the U.S. to learn cursive handwriting, many states are still opting to include it in the curriculum, and research highlights the many benefits of learning to write (in both print and cursive hands), in terms of cognitive development, motor skills, and reading comprehension. For a good general overview of the debate, see here and here, as well as the recent New York Times debate, “Is Cursive Dead?”


A wonderful, in-depth post on how children learned to read & write during the early modern era:

@PHrarebooks — May 13, 2013


I love the @FolgerResearch blog. It’s ace. Here’s Heather Wolfe on early modern (and modern!) folk learning to write:

@avoiding_bears — May 13, 2013


Delightful stuff!

Jeremiah Mills’s second attempt at the alphabet ends “r s t w _h_ y z” – perhaps a confusion of ‘aitch’ vs ‘ecks’? (Allowing for EModE pronunciation.) Which suggests in turn that Jeremiah was writing from dictation – probably his own..!

Sam Kaislaniemi — May 14, 2013


Folger Library on learning to write in early modern era. I write my “d”s in secretary style! Via @erik_kwakkel.

@bradamant — May 14, 2013


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