How to Use Noah Webster’s Speller to Teach Spelling, Handwriting, Grammar, and Vocabulary

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Noah Webster graduated from Yale College in 1778, at age 20, and commenced teaching in several small American schools. He came to dislike these schools due to their being overcrowded, poorly staffed, and poorly equipped. His speller (published in 1783), grammar (published in 1784), and reader (published in 1785) were a result of his dissatisfaction with the school textbooks which at that time were primarily obtained from England. His goal in writing these textbooks was to make a clean break with the “English” language and make American textbooks for American children. He believed that a native language must be determined by popular usage.

Webster drew on his own experiences as an elementary school teacher when he wrote his speller, and he made a special effort to arrange the textbook in as simple a way as possible so that it could be easily taught to students. You will notice as you use the speller that it is organized beginning with the alphabet, moving on to syllables, simple words, complex words, and finally to sentences.

Over all its editions, in over 200 years, it is believed that 70 million copies of the speller have been printed. Using this little book, students learned all of the English language arts: phonics, spelling, handwriting, grammar, and vocabulary. The preface reads, “This little book is so constructed as to condense into the smallest compass a complete system of elements for teaching the language; and however small such a book may appear, it may be considered as the most important class book, not of a religious character, which the youth of our country are destined to use.” Judging from the large number of great writers produced in the nineteenth century, this book must have been adequate to teach these subjects well. With a little improvisation, Webster’s speller can be just as useful to us. Of course, if your situation is such that you need your child to learn the English language arts on his own by using workbooks, then Webster’s speller is not for you. But if you do choose to use Webster’s speller, you won’t need to buy separate workbooks for each grade and for every subject. The little speller can be used for all grades and all ages. There are enough words and sentences in Webster to last a long time. If your student learns to spell all the words and diagram all the sentences in Webster, let me know. I would like to meet that student.

The beauty of Noah Webster’s speller is in his sentences. Here is a sampling:

“God will impart grace to the humble penitent.”
“Examine the Scriptures daily and carefully, and set an example of good works.”
“To revere a father is to regard him with fear mingled with respect and affection.”
“Before you rise in the morning or retire at night, give thanks to God for his mercies, and implore the continuance of his protection.”
“Strong drink leads to the debasement both of the mind and the body.”

There are many ways you can use the speller to teach all of the language arts to your child. I will describe for you how our family uses the speller. You may discover or invent other ways.

Webster’s speller begins with two sections entitled “Analysis of Sounds in the English Language” and “Key to the Pronunciation.” Even though Webster meant for his speller to be used to teach children how to read (phonics), we recommend that you use one of the more modern phonics curricula to teach reading. Webster’s analysis of the sounds of the consonants is fairly easy to understand and is similar to what you have learned from such phonics programs as Alphaphonics or Spaulding, and though his descriptions of the sounds of the vowels may not have been confusing to people in the 19th century, they will be confusing to those of us who are used to 20th century phonics programs. Webster differentiates seven sounds for the letter “A”, five sounds for “E”, four sounds for “I”, eight sounds for “O”, and four sounds for “U”. Twentieth century phonics programs simplify this to only two or three sounds for each vowel. Spaulding and others have three sounds for “A” (fat, fate, father), two sounds for “E” (wet, we), two sounds for “I” (fin, find), three sounds for “O” (tot, tote, too), and three sounds for “U” (putt, repute, put). Because of these differences, we recommend that you not use Webster’s speller to teach reading (phonics).

We begin using Webster’s speller in our family when the child is age ten. By this age the child is able to read, to understand the rules of spelling, and to grasp the grammatical concepts of subject, verb and direct object. We give each child a three-ring notebook filled with paper and subject dividers. This will be his lifelong English language arts notebook. The student can have separate sections for spelling rules, punctuation, capitalization, sentence diagramming, grammar, etc. You will need to purchase a book which explains spelling rules and sentence diagramming. A good English handbook such as Bob Jones English Handbook may be adequate. You can often find English handbooks at old book stores or on Ebay.

On pages 15-16 Webster shows the student how to form the letters of the alphabet: Roman, Italic, Old English and Script. A section of the child’s notebook can be labeled “Formation of Letters.”

I begin on page 20 (Lesson 12) by dictating to the child the first ten words.The words are in word families (cab, dab, nab, etc.). We are not teaching reading (decoding) using Webster, but spelling (encoding). As you dictate these words you will explain to the child why the words are spelled the way they are.The spelling rules in the back of Webster plus your English handbook will help you with this. I continue dictating ten words a day until I have used all of Webster’s one syllable, short vowel words. The child can add spelling rules to his notebook as he learns them.

As the child writes these ten words from dictation you will show him the proper way to form the letters in cursive. Some children will need more instruction in this area than others, and some children will be completely familiar with handwriting from their previous phonics instruction. Communicate to the child that whatever is entered in the notebook should be written neatly. After the ten words are dictated you can dictate a sentence to the child. At the beginning you will need to make up the sentences, as Webster does not have simple sentences with only a subject and a verb.You will be teaching English grammar using these dictated sentences, and that is where the English handbook comes in again. The first sentence you dictate will be on the order of, “Mary ran.” It is at this point that you will begin to teach what a noun is, what a verb is, and what the subject and predicate are. You can also introduce some capitalization and punctuation rules here (pages 168-169 Webster). The section of the notebook on grammar can be divided into a single page for each part of speech: noun, verb, etc. At the beginning, the only thing the child will have on his noun page will be the definition: A noun names a person, place, thing, quality or idea. The child will add more about nouns as you teach him. The same will be true with his verb page and the other parts of speech.

Now you show the child how to diagram the sentence, “Mary ran.”

I dictate three sentences per day, and the child will diagram all three sentences. After a few days of simple subject/verb only sentences of your own, you will begin to use Webster’s more difficult sentences. Move on only after the student has mastered each concept.

At some point the student will be ready for long vowel words. Long vowel words begin at Lesson 17-20 and again at Lesson 33. Introduce two syllable words only when the student is ready for them. On pages 159-164 of Webster you will find the spelling rules. At some point you will introduce these rules and dictate words from these pages (or choose your own words).

Also included in Webster on pages 139-146 are paragraphs to dictate; on pages 146-152 are words spelled alike and words pronounced alike (along with the definitions and lots of sentences); on page 165, Roman numerals; on pages 166-168, words and phrases from foreign languages and abbreviations.

Use Noah Webster’s speller as the basic text and supplement with an English handbook. Your child will compile his own notebook while he learns spelling, handwriting, grammar, and vocabulary. You will eliminate the need to buy a multitude of graded workbooks for each of these subjects and for each grade level. You will be there watching and guiding your child’s growth in knowledge and understanding, and perhaps learning a few things yourself along the way.

You can download a copy of Noah Webster’s speller at Don Potter’s web site.


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