The Royal Read­ers

The Compass - - OPINION - In

School primer

I started kinder­garten in 1962 in Cen­tral School at Twill­ingate. My teacher and prin­ci­pal were Doreen E. Bur­ton and Gor­don R. Martin, re­spec­tively. By then, the Royal Read­ers had long since dis­ap­peared from the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. My late par­ents, who had used them as part of their school­ing, told me and my sib­lings about the books. I of­ten won­dered if I would ever pos­sess my own per­sonal copy of at least one of them.

The se­ries of eight Royal Read­ers were pro­duced in Bri­tain by Thomas Nel­son and Sons and were part of the Royal School Se­ries. They were used in New­found­land and Labrador from the 1870s un­til about the mid1930s. Students — or “schol­ars,” as they were in­vari­ably known — pro­gressed from the in­fant reader to the school primer, fol­lowed by Royal Read­ers one through six. They cov­ered read­ing and spell­ing from the be­gin­ning of school to grad­u­a­tion. The stated aim of the se­ries was “to cul­ti­vate the love of read­ing by pre­sent­ing in­ter­est­ing sub­jects treated in an at­trac­tive style.”

The in­fant reader was com­prised of rhymes and sim­ple short sto­ries, ac­com­pa­nied by nu­mer­ous il­lus­tra­tions. There were also short script lessons and ad­di­tion and sub­trac­tion tables. Em­pha­sis was placed on sys­tem­atic drills on vowel sounds and con­so­nants.

Schol­ars learned let­ters and read­ing from the first level school primer, which was sim­i­lar to a prim­i­tive kinder­garten.

The first Royal Reader be­gins with sim­ple lessons, fo­cus­ing on mono­syl­labic and two-syl­la­ble words. The sec­ond reader in­cludes short se­lec­tions of po­etry and prose in­tended to de­velop read­ing in­ter­est and skills. Each story is ac­com­pa­nied by a pro­nun­ci­a­tion les­son, sim­ple def­i­ni­tions of new words, and ques­tions on the con­tent.

The third reader, which is slightly more ad­vanced, in­cludes more writ­ing ex­er­cises. The fourth reader in­cludes pho­netic ex­er­cises, model com­po­si­tions, dic­ta­tion ex­er­cises, and out­lines of British his­tory. The fifth reader ad­dresses health of the body, plants and their uses, as well as quotes from and sto­ries of great peo­ple.

The sixth book — which I now have the good for­tune to own — con­tains word lessons and pas­sages with sec­tions on great in­ven­tions, clas­si­fi­ca­tion of an­i­mals, use­ful knowl­edge, punc­tu­a­tion and phys­i­cal ge­og­ra­phy, as well as the British Con­sti­tu­tion.

The anony­mous au­thor of the prose se­lec­tion “The Bed of the At­lantic” writes: “In the north­ern part of the basin there stretches across the At­lantic from New­found­land to Ire­land a great sub­ma­rine plain, known in re­cent years as Tele­graph Plateau.”

To help the scholar, def­i­ni­tions are pro­vided for such words as as­cer­tained, gar­ni­ture and gos­samer. For those who de­sire elab­o­ra­tion of “Tele­graph Plateau,” it is de­fined this way: “So called be­cause on it were laid the sub­ma­rine tele­graph ca­bles be­tween Ire­land and Amer­ica in 1865 and 1866. Many other ca­bles now fol­low the same route.”

Ques­tions fol­low: of what does the end of the ocean con­sist? What part of the At­lantic has been sur­veyed? What plain stretches across the north­ern part of the basin? On what do the British Isles stand?

Longfel­low’s “The Light­house” en­gages the scholar’s love of po­etry: “The rocky ledge runs far into the sea, / And on its outer point, some miles away, / The light­house lifts its mas­sive ma­sonry– /A pil­lar of fire by night, of cloud by day …”

There are two ap­proaches to the vaunted Royal Read­ers. On the one hand, as Ray­mond Troke notes, “it seemed that ev­ery­thing had a moral les­son, and … ev­ery­thing was almighty gloomy … By the time you got out of Grade 5 you knew a lot about death and de­struc­tion and had a pow­er­ful vo­cab­u­lary to de­scribe your mis­eries.”

On the other hand, nov­el­ist Ber­nice Mor­gan says, “The first lit­er­a­ture I re­mem­ber con­sisted of Bi­ble sto­ries and won­der­ful English bal­lads and heroic po­ems, which my mother read to us from her old Royal Read­ers.”

Jessie Mif­flin re­calls: “There were in­ter­est­ing and ex­cit­ing tales in prose and verse in the old Royal Read­ers. We wept co­pi­ously over the death of lit­tle Nell, and ex­ulted over the es­cape of the skater who was pur­sued by wolves in Num­ber Four.”

In those days, the Royal Read­ers served a sim­ple util­i­tar­ian pur­pose. The re­al­ity was, as Mif­flin adds, “Ex­cept for our text­books, a dic­tio­nary, an at­las, and the Bi­ble and hymn book for the open­ing (school) ex­er­cises, there was no read­ing ma­te­rial in school — nor any­where else, for that mat­ter, ex­cept for the for­tu­nate few who had books at home.”

Bur­ton K. Janes lives Bay Roberts. His col­umn ap­pears in The Com­pass ev­ery week. He can be reached at bur­tonj@nfld.net

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