Paradigm, No 12, December, 1993

 ‘Lo, It is my Ox!’:

Reading books and reading in New Zealand schools 1877-1900

 Hugh Price
24 Glasgow Street,
Kelburn, Wellington 5,
New Zealand


  Paradigm is grateful for the author and publisher’s generous permission to reprint&endash;with minor changes and additions&endash;this contribution to Reinterpreting the Educational Past (New Zealand Council for Educational Research, Educational Research Series no. 67, 1987), which opens up an area of textbook study likely to be entirely new to British members of the Colloquium. The NZCER is at Education House, 178-182 Willis Street, Wellington, New Zealand.

A few of the settlers who reached New Zealand before 1880 brought with them the reading books that were being used in schools in Great Britain. These were the Lesson Books which were published by the various religious societies for use in schools that used the monitorial system; and for good reasons (that are fully set out in Goldstrom’s The Social Content of Education) 1, the most widely used of these were the books published for the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland.

Irish National Readers still turn up occasionally in New Zealand secondhand bookshops (sometimes in editions published by William Collins). They appear to us to be grim didactic books that made no concessions to their young readers (the Fifth Book of Lessons includes chapters on Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, and Optics). 2 In tone and outlook they look back to the first half of the 19th century when they were planned and written.

However, from about 1867, a new and different kind of school reader appeared. The new books came from well-established commercial publishers in Great Britain, and chiefly from one firm, Thomas Nelson of Edinburgh. These new books had a precisely identifiable origin: the British ‘Revised Code’ of 1862. This ‘Revised Code’ had the practical effect of varying the payment of British teachers in accordance with the success of their pupils in passing, through annual examinations, from one standard to the next. As the class reader was also the book on which each child was examined, teachers felt a compelling need to find alternatives to the difficult Religious Society (and Irish National) books, and looked for easy books on which their pupils could succeed.

To meet this need, Thomas Nelson and Sons planned and published the Royal Readers. They were enormously successful, and this encouraged Nelson’s to publish series after series of similar readers in the last quarter of the nineteenth century: Royal Readers, Royal Readers Second Series, Royal Star Readers, Royal Crown Readers, and many more. It was these books that were exported to meet the needs of our schools after the passing of the New Zealand 1877 Education Act.

The many new-style series of books from Nelson’s all followed the same pattern&endash;each opened with two Primers, followed by one (or two) Infant Readers, followed by six Readers&endash;one for each of the six standards.

The Primers opened with some letter and letter-combination exercises, and then launched into texts written entirely in words of one and two letters! These extraordinary pieces of writing were needed because it was believed that reading had to be taught by first mastering the letters, then the letter combinations (ab, eb, ub, ob, and so on), and then one and two-letter words, before three-letter words could be learned. Then, when three-letter words (cat, vat, fat, dog, fox, and so on) could be read, the child could go on to four-letter words. Thus, the Victorian textbook writer created a learning gradient on the apparent rock of self-evident logic: first establish the basic units, then use them to build ever more complex structures.

The finely graded and structured reading was ingenious, but in the primers and infant readers it was excruciatingly boring to read, and difficult too, as the succession of two-letter words ‘I am on my ox. It is to go in, so am I. No, my ox is to go on. Am I by my ox?’ made meaningless tongue-twisters. Such humane objections did not deter the stern Victorian teachers. They believed that the child must move painstakingly through a series of steps, taking it on trust and the authority of the teacher) so that ultimate understanding would emerge. Teachers accepted that the early reading books could have little intrinsic appeal to their pupils.

It was widely held that positive education was completely the work of the school&endash;’In the child there is a temple in ruins, which it is the aim of schools to remodel in all its positive beauty’. There was no respect for the contribution of the pupil, whose interests and experiences counted for nothing.

Another matter that set the content of the reading books was a particular view of society. Most of the books used in New Zealand were written and published in Britain for use in council schools, and their authors and publishers knew that with these books they were extending literacy to the poor; so the books contained many stories and expositions that pointed to the merits of industrious, sober working people, who would not aspire to become more than that. Again and again the stories are moral tales that set out the virtues of thrift and passivity, and of meekly following the humble duties appropriate to their station in life: to be docile labourers, content with subsistence wages.

In fact, all decisions about public education in Britain were made by professional and middle-class people, and their thinking was never a response to any pressure from working people, whose children attended the new council schools. As a result, Nelson’s reading books promoted a sense of duty and non-questioning obedience to authority, with habits of diligence and industry.

In this way, the school readers used in Britain (and imported into New Zealand) were a lively and potent part of the British class system. Their role was equivocal: on one hand they were to teach working-class children to read and so to better themselves, while on the other hand they were to see to it that newly literate children were property resigned to a rigid class society ordained by God.

The outline of a typical story will illustrate the point: a merchant decided he needed a new clerk. He selected three respectful boys and told each to call at his office on succeeding days. On the first day the first boy was shown into a room that contained a cupboard, and was told to wait. He waited quietly all morning, but then yielded to curiosity and opened the cupboard&endash;and out poured a hundred balls that had been piled against the door. The lad tried to stuff them back, but he was caught and sent off. The next day, the second lad stood and faced the same cupboard and resisted temptation to open it until late in the day: when he found that it was filled with a thousand feathers that floated out and could not be pushed back. He, too, was dismissed. On the final day the third lad was led into the room and told to wait. He stood silent and still for twelve hours, when the merchant called him to his room and gave him the job. He remained with the merchant for fifty years, and when he was finally dismissed he was given a gold watch!

From the mid-1880s the Christchurch-based publishing bookselling and printing firm of Whitcombe and Tombs set out to publish primary school books. One of its first series was the Southern Cross Readers&endash;four handsomely produced books that were the centre of a stormy political fracas when trade unions worked to have them kept out of schools in retaliation for some harsh action by Whitcombes against some of their printers. 3 The Southern Cross books were followed in 1897 by Whitcombes Imperial Readers and these books were widely used until Whitcombes Pacific Readers were published in 1911.

All these New Zealand books followed the familiar pattern of Nelson’s successful series: without exception they opened with a study of the letters of the alphabet, then two-letter combinations, then simple sentences made from one and two-letter words (inevitably about an Ox&endash;how lucky that there was a two-letter animal!), then sentences of one-, two- and three-letter words, and so on. In the primer of the Royal Readers a little girl is confidently astride a placid-looking Ox: ‘Lo, I am on an Ox!’, while in Whitcombes Imperial Readers primer, which is printed in full colour, she is on an Ox, too.


As we might expect, the readers published in New Zealand were less class-structured than the books imported from Britain. They do not have the same patronizing feel of a middle-class author instructing his or her captive working-class pupils to know their place in society. The New Zealand books are closer to being miscellanies of stories and accounts of events collected to interest young readers.

From 1877 children in each school were graded into six standards. ‘Standard’ meant the ‘standard of work’ that must be attained to earn promotion into a higher class. These standards were clearly set out in regulations that were issued by the Department of Education and published in The New Zealand Gazette, using powers conferred by the Education Act. The chief task of the inspectors was to see that every child was classified at the right standard, and inspectors visited each school annually, and personally examined every child to determine whether or not he or she should advance to the next. In this way, inspectors manned a series of annual hurdles, and children who failed to take a hurdle were returned to their old class to try again a year later, sometimes because of weakness in one subject only.

A new set of six standards was published as a regulation in The New Zealand Gazette on 24 September, 1878. This notice gave the new standards the force of law, and obliged the parents of each child to procure one, and not more than one, reading book for each standard.This single reader became the centre of the child’s life for that year, because he or she had to gain 120 marks out of a possible 200 to pass from one standard to the next. There were other demands: pupils had to gain at least two-fifths of the possible score in each subject, and must have attended for at least 250 half-days since passing a previous standard. (As an added barrier to easy progress, no child who was ‘under-age’ could be advanced to a higher standard.) Here are the prescriptions for Standards I and II:

Standard I (Total 200 marks).

I. Reading Book 1, words grouped (40). Recitation of 10 lines of easy poetry (10) (Maximum 50 marks)

II. Spelling Common words of reading book (Maximum 30 marks)

III. Writing Small words round-hand on slates from copy (Maximum 30 marks)

IV. Arithmetic Addition, one line (Maximum 40 marks)

V. Addition table and multiplication tables to end (if five times) (Maximum 20 marks)

VI. - General knowledge of the subject-matter of the Reader (15). Recollection of a story or object lesson (maximum 30 marks).

Standard II (Yotal 200 marks)

I. Reading Book II, with expression (30) Recitation of 20 lines of easy poetry (10) (Maximum marks 40)

II. Spelling words from dictation (20). Meaning of words in Reader (10) (Maximum marks 30)

III. Writing Round-hand from dictation (20). Copybooks, letters or short words (10) (Maximum marks 30)

IV. Arithmetic Addition and subtraction. Read and write hundreds. (Maximum marks 50)

V. Oral subjects Addition and multiplication tables (15). Knowledge of subject-matter or Reader (15) (Maximum marks 30)

VI. Definitions of geography (10). Point out nouns (10) ( (Maximum marks 20).

There followed Standards III, IV, V and VI.

The central and crucial importance of the reading book is clear. In the prescriptions for Standard I, for example, Section I was all from the Reader (50 marks possible); Section II was from the Reader (30 marks; Section III comprised words from the Reader (30 marks); Section VI was, inspectors reported, wholly from the Reader (30 marks). Thus, 140 out of the total possible 200 marks were derived directly from that single small book.

Teachers were forbidden to require parents to buy a second reader, 4 so that each year’s instruction, except in arithmetic, amounted to almost total concentration on one book.

How did this arrangement work out in New Zealand classrooms? Fortunately we have a flood of information from the busy school inspectors who hurried from school to school carrying out the annual examination of every pupil, and writing reports that were published in the Appendices to The Journals of The House of Representatives (AJHR) each year. These reports open a window on Victorian classrooms.

As commentators on the teaching of reading, the inspectors were certainly not detached and disinterested observers, but hard-worked participants in the very thick of the struggle. As one reads their reports it becomes clear that they were a conservative force in education. They brought to the schools the very thing that settled the character of schooling: the annual examination of every pupil (based on just the class reader and the class arithmetic book) to decide whether or not each passed or failed.

The prescribed reading book might be central to the school’s work, but not every child had a copy:

In Picton, a place in constant communication with the outer world, the scholars, on examination day, when called on to read, had to resort to the wretched expedient of passing the same tattered volume from hand to hand, the proportion of books to scholars in one class being as six to seventeen. If this is the state of things in a seaport, it may easily be conjectured how the remoter schools fare. 5

Later, in the same report, we learn that in Marlborough that year 61 pupils presented themselves for the Standard VI examination, but only 32 passed.

Furthermore, for the whole twenty-two years, there were regular complaints from inspectors that the children were memorising the whole of the contents of their class reader. One inspector blamed parents:

I have found children who could not write a single letter or put down a figure on a slate, read, or pretend to do so, from No. V Royal Reader. That the children knew nothing of what they read is certain from replies given by them in response to my questions; but this is only one of many instance where the teachers forego their own notions of teaching in order to please foolish and over-anxious parents. So that ‘John’ and ‘Jane’ can gabble through a book, what matters it whether it is understood or not? ‘The master knows nothing of his business if John and Jane are not immediately drafted into a higher class!’ I hope the teachers whose children pretend to read out of Royal Readers Nos III and IV and yet can barely pass the requirements of Standard 1, will take this kindly warning.6

Another put it more briefly:

Weak points. . . Only one class reader is in use in many schools and consequently the subject matter is known by heart.7

And another:

. . . a total want of intelligence or expression. Although much of the fault lies with the teacher, I am persuaded that the prime cause of the defect is the use of a single set of reading books. In the lower classes, the lessons are automatically known by heart.8

One often-suggested remedy was that the children might use two books in a year:

I wish to advert here to the practice sometimes met with of keeping classes reading over and over again during a whole year the same little books until they can say them off by rote. The object of such a practice, of course, is to secure accurate reading at next examination; but I have observed that it utterly fails of its purpose, for the reason that the pupils, having become so familiar with the substance of the lessons that when once started they can go right on without requiring to consult the book. . . . 9

Teachers and children must have found that a fine line divided thorough preparation from simply learning the book by heart. The often-quoted phrase ‘. . . children read as well with the book shut as open’ is to be found on page 32 of AJHR (1889) E-1(b). As late as 1896 it seems that there was no improvement:

In the lower classes, especially in those of the larger schools, the rupils become so familiar with the lessons that they know them off y heart, and I have not infrequently asked the pupils to close the books and to proceed with the lesson. This they have done as accurately as though the open book were before them, and proud of themselves are they when they jo through from the beginning to the end without being prompted.10

A third recurring theme was the dreadful effect of mass simultaneous reading:

In the large schools, where of necessity there is a great deal of simultaneous reading, the process is often excruciating. It is a monotonous kind of screaming song without expression or intelligence.11

Sixteen years later inspectors were still complaining of simultaneous reading: ‘. . . a kind of screaming song like a town-crier’s recitative’.12

Indeed, the unison chanting in schools was counted as the familiar sound expected to come from a busy classroom&endash;the rhythmic baying of many voices as children ‘said’ their lessons&endash;with much the same inflexion for reading, dates or tables. John Wyand tells us that this is a most characteristic school sound&endash;with sometimes two different groups carrying on different sayings of lessons in the one room at the same time&endash;such daily antiphons were spaced out with dead silences. ‘To bring about a pin-dropping quiet . . . was a much admired achievement in a teacher.’ Little wonder that reading did not always lead to understanding:

It is a melancholy spectacle to see a class that has just managed to read mechanically through a lesson stand absolutely mute when a simple question is asked about the meaning of what has been read.13

This want of comprehension was complained of in at least half the reports, though when inspectors reported particular cases, it became clear that the questions they asked were deliberately obscure: ‘. . . for instance, few candidates could give any intelligent meaning to the inspector’s sentence, "An astrologer’s old quill to a sheepskin gave the story."‘ Small wonder!

A recurrent complaint was that teachers were still using the ancient alphabetic method (where a word is learned by repeating out loud the names of its letters):

A few teachers, however, still adhere to the old plan of drawing largely on a child’s faith as to ask to him to believe that tea-aitch-oh-you-gee-aitchtea says ‘thought’, or bee-a-bee-wy ‘baby’. Such teachers, when a child is unable to read a word, ask him to spell it.

But, in place of that, they should print the word on the blackboard, get the class to look at the word and pronounce it, and then impress the main sound on the class by presently changing the initial consonant, and by having the words so formed pronounced.14

and a year later: ‘. . . many teachers continue to teach reading by the alphabetic method alone’. 15 The suggestions from inspectors to improve matters can have been of little help. One prescribed good posture:

I wish teachers would always remember how great an aid to good teaching it is to stand well, with feet firmly in place and body well braced for effort.16

Over and over again teachers were told that more practice in formal grammar would lead to fluent intelligible reading; for example:

A senior boy who is unable to see at once the principal verb in a sentence, and to distinguish the enlargement of a subject from a co-ordinate sentence, or from a clause, or a participle from a finite verb cannot, in my opinion, read intelligently.17

Although inspectors often recommended that classes should use two reading books in a year (one bought by the school and held as a set year after year; the other bought by the parent), compliance could make matters worse, because many children then set to work to memorize both books to make sure of success in the inspector’s annual visitation. Several inspectors reported that, in the few classrooms where two books were used, teachers alternated a page from each from day to day, so that any idea of the story from either was lost.

Several inspectors reiterated the idea that expression was the key to good reading, and some made wild claims for it: ‘. . . if pupils take a week or a month to read one sentence correctly, much will have been gained’.18 To ‘good expression’ was often linked formal training in mouth and articulation exercises and exercises in the speaking of sentences, and so on.

One can guess the boredom and frustration of a Standard I class pupil who failed to convince an inspector that he had mastered the Standard One, and was therefore condemned to another whole year in the same single book&endash;say, Royal Reader I&endash;that he had already read over and over again (and had practically memorised) for a whole year. No wonder some children became difficult to manage, though inspectors developed ‘the gentle art of blaming the victim’:

it now appears to be generally understood that learning reading without intelligent apprehension of what is read is certain to produce pernicious effects on the character of the child!19

Indeed the spirit of the 1877-99 period can be summed up by two considered remarks by inspectors&endash;one about the limited instruction and practice that most children got ‘. . . from a single well-thumbed set of class books often almost got off by heart’ to the admission that:

. . . although only one book was used I was obliged at most schools to select the simplest passages, or the result was failure. . . 20

Inspectors’ comments scarcely changed between 1877 and 1899 (complaints of poor mumbling diction&endash;little understanding&endash;books learned by heart&endash;poor teaching), but the ice suddenly burst in 1899 with the passing of the Rev. J. A. Habens, Secretary for Education. By 1900 the scene is transformed, and inspectors are already looking back on ‘the last year of the old regime’.21 Standard passes are abolished and all children examined internally, until they come to a final ‘Proficiency’ examination at the end of the Standard VI class.

Throughout the years we have been considering, book publishers developed many series of carefully planned school readers. In comparison with earlier books these were success-oriented, and played an important part in the drive for universal literacy. It must be said that schoolteachers and school inspectors made limited and arid use of them, and they became the instruments by which many children failed to get from one standard to the next. The high failure rate ensured that not too many children advanced to overwhelm the meagre resources available for post-primary schooling.

Both publishers and teachers believed that reading books had a purpose beyond the teaching of reading: they must plant the idea of an orderly society in which social classes play roles allotted to them. Particularly in the books imported from Great Britain, the stories showed ways of thinking that the middle class thought appropriate for the working class: hard work, unquestioning obedience to authority, thrift. A belief that school reading books must present some social attitudes (and omit others) was to become fashionable again in the late 1970s and 1980s when pressure groups nudged publishers into multicultural content, and stories that show women and girls in a wide range of roles.

The teaching of reading in the late nineteenth century was built on two certainties: that there must be intervention and control by an authority outside the school (the inspectors) to check the advance of each child (and maintain standards from school to school) from one level to the next; and that learning to read is a difficult business that must proceed from the mastery of single units (letters) to two-letter combinations, to small words, and on to bigger words&endash;all in an orderly progression. Both of these certainties proved false, and education was to advance when each was swept away.


1. E. M. Goldstrom, The Social Content of Education 1808-1870 (Shannon, 1972).

2. This austere diet can be traced still further back. A member of the colloquium has sent us a note on the syllabus of a course of experimental philosophy, 1797. The course, given by Edward-Athenry Whyte, 75 Grafton Street, Dublin, was designed for pupils of the English Grammar School run by his father Samuel Whyte. In the prospectus (British Library shelf mark 1508/1214 (2)) three pages are given to Electricity, nearly three pages to Pneumatics, about two pages to Hydrostatics, and one page to the Chymical properties of different Airs.

3. Don McKay, ‘The school textbook controversy’ New Zealand Journal of Educational Research 2 (1975).

4. Said to be chiefly because of the expense. The price printed in Royal Reader I was only 4d, but this price could grow to 1/6d in a New Zealand country district. See The Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (henceforth AJHR (1883), E-1b., p. 12.

5. W. C. Hodgson, Inspector, Marlborough Education Board, AJHR (1888), E-1b., p. 24.

6. H. Hill, Inspector of Schools, Hawkes Bay Education Board, AJHR (1880), E-1b., p. 19.

7. Robert Lee, Inspector of Schools, Wellington Education Board, AJHR (1882), E-1b., p. 9.

8. Henry W. Hammond, Inspector of Schools, South Canterbury Education Board, AJHR (1882). E- 1 b., p. 40.

9. William Taylor, Inspector of Schools, Otago Education Board, AJHR (1882). E-1b., p. 81.

10. Henry W. Hammond, Inspector of Schools, South Canterbury Education Board, AJHR (1896). E- 1 b., p. 40.

11. Richard O’Sullivan, Inspector of Schools, Auckland Education Board, AJHR (1882), E-1b., p. 2.

12. W. H. Vereker-Bindon, Chief Inspector, and James Milne, Assistant Inspector, Wanganui Education Board, AJHR (1899). E- 1b., p. 12.

13. William Taylor, AJHR (1882), E-1b., p.31.

14. W. H. Vereker-Bindon, AJHR (1887). E- 1b., p. 8.

15. W. H. Vereker-Bindon, AJHR (1688), E- 1 b., p. 11.

16. Jas. Gibson, Inspector of Schools, South Canterbury Education Board, AJHR (1899), E-1b., p. 42.

17. W. H. Vereker-Bindon, AJHR (1887), E-1b., p. 8.

18. W. H. Vereker-Bindon, AJHR (1886), E- 1b., p. 15.

19. Richard O’Sullivan, AJHR (1879). H2. p. 72.

20. W. H. Vereker-Bindon, AJHR (1886). E- 1b., p. 15.

21. James Hendry and Geo. D. Braik, Inspectors of Schools, South Auckland Education Board, AJHR (1900), E- 1b., p. 42.

 For a follow-up to this paper, see Frances Austin, 'Lo, It is my Ox!': a further note (Paradigm, No. 13, May, 1994).


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