Webster's Speller Slave Narratives Summary

Webster's Speller does not include instructions in its use, and there is no teacher's manual. This is because it is actually very simple to use and teachers using it mainly attended one-room schools, where they would have seen it taught repeatedly. It is so simple that in generally gets only a sentence or two in histories of the time. The best explanation of the use of Spellers comes from the education sections of the Slave Narratives.

Note and Warning: All quotes except the first quote from Noah Webster are from former slaves. The narratives are written to show their pronunciation and use their actual words. Some of the words used to describe the former slaves are currently not acceptable to use. The interviews were done between 1936 and 1938. Also, while this main portion is appropriate for children to read, the full quotes at the end contain violent and troubling passages that you may want to screen or paraphrase if using this product with children.

A Speller was used to teach both reading and spelling; learning your ABCs meant learn to read and spell.

Noah Webster himself explains this in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. The entry for spelling-book reads, "n. A book for teaching children to spell and read."

Molly Brown, when asked about her education, replied, “Course I learned to write…. What kind of books did we have? I read and spelled out of the Blue Back Speller.” [8]

Hemmett Dell explains, “After the war he [his former master] took me by the old brass lamp wid twisted wick – it was made round – and lernt me outer the Blue Back Speller and Rithmetic. The spelling book had readin’ in it.” [11]

“Gate-eye” Fisher explains about learning his ABC’s, “My mother, Caroline, stayed in the house nearly all the time and took care of Missy’s children, and when they come home from school she’d hear them learn their A B C’s. That’s how come I can read and write. My ma taught me, out of an old Blue Back Speller.” [13]

Frank Larkin relates, “After the war, old boss brought me to Arkansas when I was bout twelve years old. Biggest education I got, sit down with my old boss and he'd make me learn the alphabet. In those times they used the old Blue Back Speller.” [28]

Other Spelling Books were also used, although Noah Webster’s was the most popular. Bert Mayfield said, “My old Mistus Mag taught me how to read from an old national spelling book, but I did not learn to write.” [46]

For a complete look at more passages that explain this reading and spelling process, see the full quotes 8, 11, 13, 21, 22, 26, 28, 29, 30, 31, 38, 46, 50, 51, and 57.

As we saw from “Gate-eye” Fisher, Webster’s Speller was so easy to use and learn from that slaves taught themselves, sometimes with the help of children.

Callie Donalson states, “Ma young mistress learnt me to read. I never got to go to school much. Whut my young mistress learnt me was me A B C’s and how to call words.” [12]

G. W. Hawkins, who was a slave for only 4 months, says, “I never went to school. I just got an old blue back speller and taught myself how to read and write with what I picked up here and there from people I watched. “ [17]

William Jackson: “I went to school one day in my life. My third master’s children learned me my ABC’s in slavery times. I’m not educated but I can read. Read the Bible and something like that.” [22]

Mary Anngady: “She was plenty good to all of the slaves. Her daughter Sallie taught me my A B C’s in Webster’s Blue Back Spelling Book. When I learned to Spell B-a-k-er, Baker, I thought that was something. The next word I felt proud to spell was s-h-a-d-y, shady, the next l-a-d-y, lady. I would spell them out loud as I picked up chips in the yard to build a fire with. My missus Bettie gave me a blue back spelling book.” [50]

For a complete look at more passages that talk about teaching themselves with a Speller, see the full quotes 6, 12, 13, 17, 22, 27, 35, 50, and 54.

They taught themselves even though penalties for reading and writing were severe. (See full quotes at end for details on penalties.)

As Adeline Blakely explains, there could also be consequences for those teaching slaves to read and write, “When I was little I wanted to learn, learn all I could, but there was a law against teaching a slave to read and write. One woman—she was from the North did it anyway. But when folks can read and write it’s going to be found out. It was made pretty hard for that woman.” [7]

But, as Mrs. Cora Gillem relates, the main punishment fell on the slaves, “Master Tom taught his slaves to read. They say Uncle Tom was the best reader, white or black, for miles. That was what got him in trouble. Slaves was not allowed to read. “ [14]

Anna King: “No mam, I never did go to school. You better not go to school. You better not ever be caught with a book in your hand. Some of ‘em slipped off and got a little learnin’. They’d get the old Blue Back book out. Heap ef ‘em got a little learnin’, but I didn’t.” [25]

For a complete look at more passages that talk about punishment for reading and writing, see the full quotes 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 14, 16, 19, 20, 25, 33, 34, 44, 45, 49, and 56.

Power of reading and writing

Joseph Holmes: “Ole Miss taught de niggers how to read an’ write an’ some of ‘em got to be too good at it, ‘case dey learned how to write too many passes so’s de pattyrollers wouldn’t cotch ‘em, an’ on dem ‘ccasions was de onlyes times dat I ever seed one of our niggers punished.” [1]

Benjamin Russell: “We were taught to read, but it was against the law to teach a slave to write. The Legislature passed an act to that effect. A number of cases in which the slaves could write, the slave would forge a pass and thereby get away to a free territory. They had a time getting them back.” [52]

Fire to learn to read—literal and figurative

Reverend W. E. Northcross: “At this time I did not know “A” from “B” but I met a man who could read a little. This man liked me and promised to teach me how to read, provided I would keep it secret.…I secured a blue-back speller and went out on the mountain every Sunday to meet this gentleman, to be taught. I would stay on the mountain all day Sunday without food. I continued this way for a year and succeeded well. I hired my own time and with my blue-back speller went to the mountain to have this man teach me.” [4]

Solomon Lambert explains how he became educated after the war, “Two or three of us colored folks paid Mr. Lowe $1.00 a month to teach us at night. We learned to read and calculate better. I learned to write. We stuck to it right smart while.” [27]

Omelia Thomas: My daddy learned to read and write after the emancipation. They wouldn’t allow him to go to school in slavery time. After the war, he got a Blue Back Speller and would make a bowl of fire and at night he would study—sometimes until daybreak. Then he found an old man that would help him and he studied under him for a while. He never went to any regular school, but he went to night school a little. Most of what he got, he got himself.” [33]

Lorenza Ezell: “I ain’t never been to school but I jus’ picked up readin’. With some my first money I ever earn I buy me a old blue-back Webster. I carry that book wherever I goes. When I plows down a row I stop at de edn to rest and den I overlook de lesson.” [54]

Jenny Proctor: “None of us was ‘lowed to see a book or try to learn. Dey say we git smarted den dey was if we learn anything, but we slips around and gits hold of dat Webster’s old blue back speller and we hides it ‘til way in de night and den we lights a little pine torch, and studies dat spellin’ book. We learn it too. I can read some now and write a little too. [56]

Power of Webster—to 12th grade level, Bible next (The Bibles of the time were written at the 12th grade reading level.)

Rev. Ellis Jefson: “In 1872 I went to school 2 ½ miles to Arkansas Post to a white teacher. I went four months. Her name was Mrs. Rolling. My white folks started me and I could spell to ‘Baker’ in the Blue Back Speller before I started to school. That is the only book I ever had at school. I learned to read in the Bible next.” [21]

Ella Johnson: ”She sent me to school….I would read and spell without opening my book. They would have them blue-back spellers and McGuffy’s reader. They got more education then than they do now. “ [23]

Dinah Perry: “My daddy learned me to spell ‘lady’ and ‘baker’ and ‘shady’ fere I went to school. I learned all my ABC’s too. I got out of the first reader the second day. I could just read it right on through. I could spell and just stand at the head of the class till the teacher sent me to the foot all the time.” [31]

William Sherman: “The slaves were not allowed to study. The white children studied a large "Blue Back" Webster Speller and when one had thoroughly learned its contents he was considered to be educated.” [37]

Addie Vinson: “It was a long time atter de war was done over ‘for schools for Niggers was sot up, and den when Nigger chillum did git to go to school dey warn’t ‘lowed to use de old blue-back spellin’ book ‘cause white folkses said it larn’t ‘em too much.” [44]

Webster's Speller is still a powerful method for teaching reading. 40L volunteers have successfully taught many students with this method. To learn how to use Webster's Speller today, see 40L's how to tutor page for use with remedial students, and 40L's well taught phonics student page for a student who has learned to read with phonics and no sight word lists.

The complete quotes with page numbers and volume references are available in the PDF file below.