Colonial School Hornbook

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The families who settled in New England in the 1600 and 1700s wanted their children to be educated so they could read the Bible and participate in local town meetings.  Families did most of the teaching, but towns with 50 or more families had to, by law, provide a an elementary school, known then as a Dame School, for the children. 

The Dame School teacher was generally a woman who often taught from her home.  She taught boys and girls to read and write.  Each student had a hornbook.  The hornbook was a piece of wood shaped like a cutting board with a handle.  It had a transparent sheet of horn attached to the front to protect the lesson which was printed on parchment paper.  A strap of leather was attached to the handle, so students could hang the hornbook from their belt or wear it around their neck.  Each student was required to learn the alphabet, phonetic sound patterns, numbers, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Once you knew all of the information on the hornbook, you were done with Dame School.

After Dame School, girls stayed home to learn to cook and clean.  There were mothers who wanted their daughters to continue to learn, so they taught them at home.  Boys could go on to grammar school to learn Latin and to prepare for college, ministry, or law.  Families supported the schools with money, food, and firewood.  If your family couldn’t afford to help with the cost of school, you could still attend, but you had to sit in the back of the classroom.


This hornbook craft is definitely not a replica of the ones used in colonial times.  It’s the same shape and it has a lesson on both sides.  Side one includes the alphabet and some of the phonics patterns from the original hornbook.  It also has a story about the Pilgrims for your students to read.  The story was, of course, not part of the original hornbook.  The other side of the hornbook is a Mad Lib.  Also, obviously, not part of the original hornbook.

Your students can color their hornbooks, cut them out, and punch a hole in the handle.  They can attach a piece of yarn or ribbon and loop the hornbook around their belt.