ABCs and alphabets

A is for Alphabet, B is for Book!

Children in Britain have been learning to read in the same way for hundreds of years.

Hornbooks (15th to 18th century)

Hornbooks featuring letters of the alphabet were one of the very first tools children used to learn how to read. Hornbooks were not anything like the books we know today. They had no pages or pictures and were made from materials like wood, metal, bone, stone and parchment.

Hornbooks would have been very expensive and so only the wealthy would have been able to buy them. Made in the shape of a small paddle, a piece of paper printed with the day's lesson would be slotted into the hornbook and held by a handle. Hundreds of years ago, paper was a new and very expensive material, so all printed matter was extremely precious. To protect the paper from damage, it was covered by a very thin piece of horn, so giving it the name hornbook.

The alphabet would appear printed in capital and small letters and sometimes a short, common prayer from the Bible.

Battledore (18th to 19th century)

Image showing an old style book called a battledore

Battledore was the original name for the game we know today as badminton. Battledore is also the name given to the item pictured above, probably so called because it was a similar shape to the small, wooden paddle that was used to play the game.

Battledores were made from a very thin piece of cardboard that was folded into three. The alphabet would be printed in capital and small letters, along with lists of short words and sounds. As battledores were slightly larger than hornbooks, there was now room for amusing pictures and sometimes short stories to appear. Because they could be made cheaply and in great number, battledores quickly replaced hornbooks and could be purchased by anyone for a penny.

Primers, Readers and Spelling Books (19th century)

Image showing an early book called "the indestructable primer"

By the mid 1800s, paper was becoming cheaper to make and printing methods more advanced. All children were expected to go to school by this time to learn the three r's - reading, writing and arithmetic.

Primers, readers and spelling books were made specifically for Sunday schools and classrooms to help teach children how to read and write. These books contained the alphabet, numbers and common words; along with religious lessons and moral teachings. The book pictured is called "The Indestructible Primer" and is made from waxed paper to make it more hard-wearing for the classroom.

ABC Books (19th century to present day)

Image showing a Victorian ABC book

Early Victorians felt that books for children should be either religious or educational and that stories should have a moral in order to teach right from wrong. This began to change, and by the end of the 19th century books for children were written to be fun and amusing, as well as informative.

ABC books were brightly coloured and illustrated by the most popular artists of the time. Alphabet books are still written today and remain an important first book for young children.

Today's ABC books come in many different shapes and sizes, sometimes featuring pop-ups, flaps, noises and textures.

Why not... create an Abecedarius

Each word in an abecedarius follows in alphabetical order e.g. A Beautiful Cat Did Eat Four Grapefruits He Instantly Joked King Lion Must Never Open Parcels Queen Rabbit Sent To Uncle Vole When X-raying Yodelling Zebras!

Why not have a go at creating your own abecedarius!

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