Noah Webster, the American lexicographer, was the first to write a dictionary of American English. He was also famous among his contemporaries for his schoolbooks, particularly his spelling books.
At a time when children learned to read, write, and spell through the oral spelling of the “alphabet method,” Webster’s American Spelling Book of 1787 (a revision of his first effort of 1783) became for forty years the text most used for teaching children to read. Webster sold its copyright in 1818 to devote himself to his two-volume An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828.
Aware that his old speller was losing ground to its competitors, Webster collaborated with a teacher named Aaron Ely to compose a radically new speller in 1829. Titled The Elementary Spelling Book and known as the “blue-back speller” from its colored covers, it became the country’s most popular book for teaching spelling in schools and at spelling bees until about 1900. Webster’s other schoolbooks, which included history, geography, and biology, were too innovative to be successful.
Webster also attempted to improve English spelling. His re-spellings of classes of words—exemplified by center (for the British centre), honor (honour), and music (musick)—were widely accepted because they appeared in his spellers and the popular McGuffey Readers. They distinguish American from British spelling to this day.
- Monaghan, E. J. (1983). A common heritage: Noah Webster’s blue-back speller. Hamden, CT: Archon Books.
- Rollins, R. M. (Ed.). (1989). The autobiographies of Noah Webster. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
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