What’s the best way to teach or learn a language? In part one of this series about historic Spanish teaching and learning methods, we explored what phonographs, or modern technologies, have to do with language-learning classrooms. In the second part, we explored the “natural” or “Pestalozzian” method, which serves as a bridge between the “traditional” and “modern” methods of learning.

Next, we will begin a five-step exploration of education methods in the United States of America (USA) and, in some cases, the United Kingdom (UK) and their approaches, views, and methods for language instruction and learning. The five parts we will explore are:

  • Classical
  • Modern
  • Religious
  • Secular
  • Traditional

Our goal will be to determine if any of these labels have utility for language instruction and how these labels can help us sift through learning theory to make the best choices for our particular Spanish learning and instruction situations.

First, the same caveat from posts one and two: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of early primers, textbooks, readers, and similar resources in the world. While this series does not attempt to explore them all, it does attempt to survey early resources focused on the methods of teaching and learning languages and specifically the methods for native English-speakers. This myopic exploration most aligns with the goal we established in the first part of this series, namely how to lower the effective barrier in order to learn/teach another language, no matter how imperfect our teaching/learning scenario.

The Methods

While the number of global education methods is difficult to quantify and overlap exists between most methods, labeling can be helpful as we make teaching and learning choices. For our purposes, we also want to keep in mind that we are focusing on the foreign language teaching and learning techniques within these broader labels: classical, modern, religious, secular, and traditional. In this post, we will explore religious methods and their historic and current roles in foreign-language instruction.

Print from the Library of Congress:  Religious and Civil Liberty Established in Maryland, by James Barry


In examining teaching methods, “religious” may not seem like a method. However, until the 19th century, religion was often the primary consideration for instruction in many parts of the world. Pedagogy, or the nuances of teaching as a profession, was often secondary or not considered at all. Certainly, exceptions existed, but examination of the earliest examples of primers, or introductory readers and textbooks, reveals that education materials were designed primarily for religious instruction.

The King’s ABCs

The first extant, or known-to-exist, copy of what modern readers would consider a primer or early textbook is the The ABC both in Latyn & Englyshe, which was published at the direction of King Henry VIII, circa 1583, in London, England. You can view a full facsimile copy from the Internet Archive (original held at Cornell University) here.

The first thing you might notice about the primer is that English spelling had not yet been standardized. The second thing you might notice is that the text is short and entirely religiously focused. The final thing you might notice is something especially useful for our examination of historic language teaching and learning methods: Latin is included in the title and in the text. As the de facto religious language of many Christian churches, Latin was considered important; although, it is worth noting that the concept of state, free, or mandatory public schools did not exist at the time.

Therefore, many people received little or no formal education until mandatory schooling was codified in the UK and USA; however, institutions of higher learning where Latin and Greek were expected, as in the below cartoon about Oxford University, existed.

Cartoon entitled "Pro forma, or an examination in the public schools at Ox-d for a degree." Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003675467/.
The Protestant Tutor

Around 1670, a British citizen (as opposed to a member of the British royal family) named Benjamin Harris published a primer entitled the Protestant Tutor: Instructing Children to Spel and read English, and Grounding them in the True Protestant Religion, etc. You can view an outline of the book’s contents here. As evidenced by the title and content list, instruction remained focused on religion.

However, while this particular text was framed around Protestantism, as, according to the Catholic Education Agency, the Church of England supplanted Catholic schools during this period, Catholic schools with similar instructional purpose existed before and after. These parochial schools, connected to Rome and eventually Vatican City, maintained an even stronger emphasis on Latin. For those being educated in the UK, whether in Protestant or Catholic institutions, Latin and Greek instruction was common (Nietz, p. 76).

The New England Primer
Letters G-S, from THE NEW ENGLAND PRIMER (1721), Original at Library of Congress

Around 1690, Harris published the first extant primer in the USA: The New England Primer, which is an abridged copy of the Protestant Tutor (Smith). You can view the complete, reprinted contents of the 1777 edition here and a fascimile copy of the circa 1790 edition here. Noticeably absent from the abridged texts is foreign language. This is because foreign-language and other formal instruction in the USA was usually reserved for students who advanced beyond primary school (Stein-Smith), with Latin and Greek most commonly expected (UNC).

There are many editions of The New England Primer. However, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was supplanted by competing published works (CSU). The diversity of curriculum offerings increased exponentially (UP, ULS), and the important work of standardizing English spelling in the UK and the USA (as in pictured dictionaries) began (Kremmer). However, foreign-language instruction remained centered on the “classics,” meaning Latin and Greek, and was generally reserved for American high schools and beyond.

Pedagogy and Free Public Schools

Around the middle of the 19th century, the idea of free public schooling for all citizens was spreading (Stein-Smith), and “teachers seminaries,” or teacher preparatory schools, were popping up, mostly on the east coast of the United States (Stone). The same thing was happening in the UK (Trueman). The idea of teaching as a profession (and education as a right) was coalescing, and a body of literature, study, pedagogy, and discourse quickly sprang up.

Since religious schools predated this movement and religious instruction was, at first, permitted in public schools in the USA (Lupu, et al.) and continues, as of this writing, to be part of public education in the UK (Gov.uk), the progression of curriculum, and by extension, foreign-language requirements, in both types of schools became inextricably linked, often through laws, rules, and expanded definitions of “school aged” (i.e., advancing minimum mandatory attendance ages.)

Echoes of Latin and Greek

Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, the emphasis of education started to change (Carl, 2009). Therefore, we will return to some of the above history when we investigate “modern” education and related topics, but here we want to synthesize what religion’s impact on foreign-language instruction and learning has been. There are certainly other factors at play, some of which will be discussed later, but for our purposes, the lasting impact has namely been the endurance of preexisting instructional habits or “methods,” especially as influenced by Latin and Greek instruction.

By the time primers came into existence, Latin and Ancient Greek were not widely spoken by most people. This means that activities you might encounter in a modern language classroom, such as conversation activities and games, were not only unlikely but perhaps even viewed as counterproductive. Students might be asked to memorize and recite, but advanced pronunciation, dialectical variances, and other facets of learning and practicing a “living” language simply were not as important as exposure, usually to religious or philosophical texts, memorization, usually of long passages, and production or writing, often in Latin and Greek. Latin instruction, in particular, was often grammatically focused, as Latin is, at least from some perspectives, mechanically complex (Lehmann & Slocum).

Excelsior Grammar Tree. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2018694994/.

Further, since books and materials, such as incunabulum, were extremely expensive to produce and purchase (History.com Editors), only texts of religious, historical, or legal importance, at least to the people willing to purchase them, were circulated. This means that the materials students worked with, studied, and memorized were texts like the Bible; works by Cicero, Aristotle, Homer, etc.; and, in some circles, legal texts, such as court and jurisprudence documents.

Learning a foreign language was, therefore, a means to a specific end–unlocking valued texts and materials for study in their original languages. Instructors, then, focused their methods on grammatical study, dictation (i.e., copy what you hear), translation, and decoding, or the mechanics of language, so that students could in turn focus their energy on the works they were meant to dissect, again often for religious or academic reasons.

When students studied modern languages outside Latin and Greek, such as French, which was especially impactful in England (Hazelton, 2013), many of the same instructional habits and methods employed in Latin and Greek classrooms were used. As learning language was a tool for religious, academic, or legal purposes, language classrooms were left with the echoes of this widely employed grammatical and text-focused study well into the 20th century.

Religious Considerations Today

Religion’s impact on the language classroom today is less wide in scope, but religion may still be wildly impactful on language instruction and learning at a personal or organizationl level (Vatican). Deciding which language to study and how may be a question of what one wants to do with the learning.

If religious considerations are at play, learners might choose to introduce themselves to specific languages, such as Greek to study the Bible’s New Testament or Arabic to study the Quran. In such cases, a grammar, translation, and dictation-focused language classroom may be more useful for learners than conversation-focused ones.

Still other learners may choose to attend fast-tract language classrooms, such as those offered by the Mormon Church (Church of LDS, n.d.) or other organizations, in order to further proselytizing or missionary work. In such cases, students may focus on conversation methods and tools and may benefit from immersive experiences as opposed to grammatical and mechanical ones.

As regards Spanish specifically, religion may be a factor. Students may want to learn the language through a religious lens, for religious-related work, or to study Spanish-language religious texts. In other cases, students may simply want to learn Spanish for travel or business or may want to avoid religious-affiliation in language learning altogether. In any of these cases, answering the question of what students want to gain or do with Spanish and whether religion is a part of that will guide teachers and learners in curriculum and pedagogical, instructional, and learning decisions.


Religion has impacted language classrooms and continues to do so for many learners today. In the next posts in this series, we will examine the labels of classical, modern, secular, and traditional and explore how these labels can help us make decisions for language instruction and learning.

Does religion impact your learning? Are you choosing to study a specific language for religious reasons? Is it possible to completely secularize language learning in cultures where religion is important? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.


Dictionary Image 1: In Public Domain in the United States. Title page: A Compendious Dictionary for the English Language, by Noah Webster. 1806. [Photograph]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2006680048/.

Dictionary Image 2: No Known Rights Restrictions in USA/UK. Page 24: A new English dictionary on historical principles: founded mainly on the materials collected by the Philological Society. Vol. I (A-B). Oxford. 1888. Retrieved from Open Source Project of Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/oed01arch/.

Featured Image: No Known Rights Restrictions in the United States. (ca. 1870). Old School Teacher Sharpening Feather Pen? and Pupil. [Photograph]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004671734/.

Grammar Tree Image: No Known Rights Restrictions in the United States. (1876). Excelsior Grammar Tree. [Marshfield, Missouri: publisher not transcribed]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2018694994/.

New England Primer Image: No Known Rights Restrictions in the United States. Page of illustrated alphabet from New England Primer,: letters G through S. 1721. [Photograph]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2006675461/.

Parchment Image: No Known Rights Restrictions in the United States.
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Oxford University / Pro Reforma Image: No known rights restrictions in the United States. 1789. Pro forma, or an examination in the public schools at Ox-d for a degree. England: [London: Pub. by J. Bradshaw, Coventry St]. [Photograph]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003675467/.

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