Learning to read with Mrs Barbauld

Who can remember learning to read? Some of us may have memories of Kitty and Rover or Janet and John – but what was the first book specifically designed as a child’s reader?

If you were growing up in the 18th century (and not Dutch – although a previous blog post has that covered too!) you would likely be learning to read from your mother with the help of the revolutionary Lessons for Children by Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743-1825). The fact that we have some extremely important and rare early copies of this work in Special Collections was recently brought to our attention by Professors Paula R. Feldman (University of South Carolina) and William McCarthy (Iowa State University) who are currently co-editing the Collected Works of Anna Letitia Barbauld for Oxford University Press.


Mrs Barbauld is one of those Romantic writers who is, perhaps, still not a household name today. An innovative poet, essayist, literary critic and educator, she was a prominent and respected 18th century ‘woman of letters’ whose work addressed social and political issues; indeed, her criticism of Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars via her polemic poem Eighteen Hundred and Eleven resulted in the untimely end of her career as a poet. Her writings were subsequently largely neglected and misrepresented, but her importance and influence has been reassessed and championed in recent years by a growing number of academics.

The pioneering reading primer Lessons for Children was based on Mrs Barbauld’s method of teaching her own nephew and foster son, Charles, to read. Issued in four graded parts, she explained her rationale in the preface to the first volume – that “amidst the multitude of books professedly written for children, there is not one adapted to the comprehension of a child from two to three years old”.

Lessons was groundbreaking in addressing this gap. It was the first educational work aimed at the younger reader to move away from abstract and moral concepts; instead, as William McCarthy explains, her prose draws on imagery from the real world with:

vocabulary instead from sights and sounds, flora and fauna of the country village where she wrote … and the daily life of the child for whom she wrote.*

Learning is thus made effective by the introduction of ideas and actions relating only to the every day objects and activities that would have been familiar to the 18th century child, presented in a rhythmically hypnotic (to me, anyway) and reassuring style:

Bread is to eat, you must not throw it away.

Corn makes bread.

Corn grows in the fields.

Grass grows in the fields.

Cows eat grass, and sheep eat

grass, and horses eat grass.

Little boys do not eat grass:

no, they eat bread, and milk.

We are presented overall with a rather pleasant picture of a child discovering the world about him. As well as following the words on the page with a pin, Charles, it seems, spends a lot of time discovering the countryside, feeding chickens and playing with his pet cat (“Where is puss? Puss is got under the table. You cannot catch puss. Do not pull her by the tail, you hurt her”). Although not overly didactic in tone, there are fairly frequent corrections and admonishments like this, which leave us with the impression that Charles was as naughty as any three year old today. My favourite is Mrs Barbauld’s slightly tetchy response to his request for some wine (!):

I want some wine.

What, wine for little boys!

I never heard of such a

thing. No, you must not

have wine. Here is water.

Do not stand so near the fire.

Go on the other side.

Do not tread upon mamma’s apron.

Go away now, I am busy.

As the lessons progress, the vocabulary, ideas and concepts introduced become more complex. By the time Charles is four, for example, he is expected to know not only that a horse has four legs but that an animal with four legs is  “called a Quadruped. The cow is a quadruped: and the dog, and the lion, and all the beasts ..”.


Similarly, a lesson about the sun starts in familiar fashion (“I am very bright. I rise in the east … I look in at your window with my bright golden eye, and tell you when it is time to get up; and I say, Sluggard, get up …”) and then moves on to explore the very idea of being:

I have been in the sky a great while. Four years ago, there was no Charles; Charles was not alive then, but there was a Sun. I was in the sky before papa and mamma were alive, a great many long years ago …

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Originally published in four parts in 1778-79, Lessons went on to be hugely influential in the education of children. Reprinted many times, it was used for generations – although later editions tended to change the original prose by normalising the vocabulary and replacing older usages.

The earliest editions are now extremely rare. The copies here in Special Collections of three of the parts (for children from two to three years old, for three years old, and for three to four years old) are particularly important as unique survivors of what are probably the very first published states of the work. According to William McCarthy, they are variants from the few other 1778 copies still existing and – most crucially – lack any details of authorship or advertisements that link the publications to Mrs Barbauld; McCarthy conjectures that this may be because Barbauld was initially unsure of the reception of the volumes and wished to remain anonymous – as a famous poet and essayist, producing works of children’s literature could have been a serious career risk. Being the earliest print runs, our copies therefore represent most closely the Lessons as Barbauld wanted to have them published and shed new light on the early history of the work. They are subsequently now being used as the copy texts for the Collected works – including a faithful transcription of the page layout that was so crucial to Barbauld’s methodology. Her rejection of a small typeface in favour of clear and large type with large spaces, cleanly printed on good quality paper on one side only, can be quite clearly seen in the ‘Two to three years old’ part.

The University of Glasgow’s three parts of Lessons are bound together in one volume along with two slightly later readers by Mrs Trimmer (Easy lessons for young children (London, 1786) and The little spelling book for young children (2nd ed, 1786)). We are not quite sure exactly how, when or why the Library acquired this book, except that based on the evidence of printed catalogues, it was purchased at some point between 1791 and 1825. Pocket sized and small enough for the hands of a toddler, this literary goldmine was (to put it mildly) in a somewhat dilapidated state – scuffed and worn with deteriorated paper, a dessicated binding with detached boards, and a broken and split spine resulting in a text block that was in five pieces. The book had literally fallen apart. Given the volume’s precarious fragility, handling was extremely difficult without inflicting further damage, and the digitisation so obviously required to facilitate the Collected works project was highly problematical. Happily, Professor Feldman heroically stepped in on a Barbauldian mission of mercy and was able to secure for us a grant from the Painted Bunting Fund of the Tides Foundation to enable us to outsource the remedial conservation work so urgently needed. Over the summer of last year, it was expertly restored by Caroline Scharfenberg of Book and Archive Conservation Services Ltd. We are delighted that the book is now back with us, completely renovated and ready to use.

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If you are intrigued to learn more about the Barbauldian way of teaching, come up to Special Collections to examine these fascinating works for yourself …

Come into the Reading Room.

The Reading Room is a pleasant place.

It holds lots of books.

Ask the supervisor for Sp Coll RB 4587.

Look! Here is RB 4587.

Place it on a cushion and turn its pages with care.**

But whatever you do, please do not follow its words with a pin!


*quote from William McCarthy ‘How dissent made Anna Barbauld and what she made of dissent’ in Edited by Felicity James & Ian Inkster: Religious Dissent and the Aikin-Barbauld Circle, 1740-1860 [electronic resource] Cambridge University Press, 2011

**with profuse apologies to the ghost of Mrs Barbauld …

Our texts will feature in Volume two of Barbauld’s Collected Works (edited by Professors Paula Feldman and William McCarthy): Oxford University Press [in progress]. Detailed information on the background, publication and history of the works is to be incuded in the introduction.


Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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