Along with his groundbreaking work in Lexicography, Noah Webster also had tremendous influence on the development of American English through the series of books that are today called Spellers. Webster through the books should be simple and he gave an orderly presentation of words and the rules of spelling and pronunciation. He believed students learned most readily when he broke a complex problem into its component parts so that students could master one part before moving to the next. In this way Webster may have anticipated some of the insights currently associated with Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Webster said that children pass through distinctive learning phases in which they master increasingly complex or abstract tasks. Therefore, teachers must not try to teach a three-year-old how to read; they could not do it until age five. He organized his Speller accordingly, beginning with the alphabet and moving systematically through the different sounds of vowels and consonants, then syllables, then simple words, then more complex words, then sentences.
The Speller was originally titled The First Part of the Grammatical Institution of the English Language. Over the course of 385 editions in his lifetime, the title was changed in 1786 to The American Spelling Book, and again in 1829 to The Elementary Spelling Book. Most people called it the “Blue-Backed Speller” because of its blue cover, and for the next one hundred years, Webster’s book taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words. It was the most popular American book of its time and it was the first book ever published in significant numbers in the United States. By 1861, it was selling a million copies per year and throughout the years it sold up to a total of 100 million copies.
Webster’s “Blue-Backed Speller” taught children how to read, write, spell, and pronounce words for over 100 years.
For more information on the Blue-Backed Speller, read Orin Hargreaves’ article on Noah Webster and his work on the Speller.
To learn more about Noah Webster and his influence on American English, explore the rest of our exhibition, Emerging American Language in 1812.