kitchen table math, the sequel: Horace Mann on letters and spelling

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Horace Mann on letters and spelling

I came across the original source of Horace Mann's characterization of letters (and words!) as "skeleton-shaped, bloodless, ghostly apparitions":

Delivered before the American Institute of Instruction, August, 1841
by Horace Mann, Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education
Common School Journal, Volumes 3-4 | p. 9-16; 25-32
My subject is Spelling-Books, and the manner in which they should be prepared and used for teaching the Alphabet, Orthography, and Pronunciation of the English language. I ought to say, of the English languages, for we have two English languages; one according to which we write, another according to which we speak.
I need not occupy any time, to prove that the ability to spell with uniform correctness, is a rare possession amongst our people. It has not unfrequently been suggested that intelligence in the people is so necessary for the preservation of a republican government, that no person should be allowed to vote who could not both read and write. If, however, the suggestion means that no person should be allowed to vote, but such as could write without failures in spelling, I tremble at the almost universal disfranchisement. Our republic would be changed to an oligarchy at once.


The advantages of teaching children, by beginning with whole words, are many. Nothing has to be untaught which has been once well taught. What is to be learned is affiliated to what is already known. The course of the pupil is constantly progressive. The acquisition of the language, even from its elements, becomes an intelligible process. The knowledge of new things is introduced through the knowledge of familiar things. At the age of three or four years, every child has command of a considerable vocabulary consisting of the names of persons, of animals, articles of dress, food, furniture, & c. The sounds of these names are familiar to the ear and to the organs of speech, and the ideas they represent are familiar to the mind. All that remains to be done, therefore, is to lead the eye to a like familiarity with their printed signs. But the alphabet, on the other hand, is wholly foreign to a child's existing knowledge. Having no relation to any thing known, it must be acquired entirely without collateral aids. In learning words, too, the child becomes accustomed to the form of the letters, and this acquaintance will assist him greatly in acquiring the alphabet, when the time for learning that shall arrive. I do not see, indeed, why a child should not learn to read as easily as he learns to talk, if taught in a similar manner.


If we would know how to please children, we must know the sources of their pleasure. ... The principal sources are brilliant and variegated colrs, impressive forms, diversified motions, substances that can be lifted and weighed, and all whose dimensions, therefore, can be examined.


In regard to all the other sources of pleasure, -- beauty, motion, music, memory, -- the alphabetic column presents an utter blank. There stands in silence and death, the stiff, perpendicular row of characters, lank, stark, immovable, without form or comeliness, and, as to signification, wholly void. They are skelton-shaped, bloodless, ghostly apparitions; and hence it is no wonder that the children look and feel so deathlike when compelled to face them. .... Now, it is upon this emptiness, blankness, silence, and death, that we compel children to fasten their eyes. To say nothing of the odor and fungousness of spelling-book paper, who can wonder at the energy of repulsion exerted upon quick-minded children by this exercise?
Apparently mimeograph paper sniffing was after Mann's time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow. There's nothing new under the sun.