The Rise of Literacy in Europe

Learning ABCs

Alphabet books, sometimes in the shape of horn books, as well as primers and other instructional books for children including catechisms and other religious books were the first texts used to teach children how to read and write. Their main intent was to make the children acquainted with the letters of the alphabet through various pedagogical techniques. The experience of learning to read at an early age differed across Europe, and the development of the genre of an ABC book demonstrates a great variety.

The hornbook originated in the 15th century. A sheet of paper containing the alphabet and a short text, often the Lord's Prayer, was glued onto a piece of horn so that the paper would not disintegrate with use. It combined a children’s toy with learning material. In different variations, sometimes made from wood and on occasions including numerals along with the alphabet, hornbooks were widespread as primers until the 19th century.

An ABC book might include further information, as this Portuguese primer Nova Escola para aprender a ler, escrever, e contar demonstrates. Besides instructions in reading, it provided pedagogical advice for parents and teachers as well as reflections on school management. In this ABC book, instructions for both counting and writing were included, accompanied by a calligraphic manual. Not always, and not in all social classes, was reading considered inseparable from writing, and therefore, many readers did not know how to write in early modern Europe.

The standard form of the ABC book was based on the recognition of sounds, which were associated with images. Such examples as Le quadrille des enfans, first published in 1779, were reprinted many times until the 19th century. The book contained four pages of copperplate engravings that were meant to be cut out as a set of cards and handled by children.

Some ABC books included easy reading matter accompanied by pictures, which became increasingly prominent in ABC books. The authors of ABC books were educators, poets, and graphic artists at the same time. The Latvian Bildu Ahbize by Gotthard Friedrich Stender was published in 1789. Every letter was accompanied by a rhyming couplet and a colored woodcut illustration made by the author in which the content of the poem was depicted.

Despite various changes, the main structure and content of ABC books has remained virtually unchanged up to now.