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Durable Trifles

Carol Percy

University of Toronto

“Choose Your Verbs: the Role(s) of Games in Children’s Grammatical Instruction in Mid-nineteenth Century Britain”

     A foundational if tedious subject for children of a certain class, grammar epitomized the pedagogical challenge of combining instruction and amusement.  The first of Lindley Murray’s very popular grammars (1795) had been written to assuage the anxiety of female teachers.  Soon, acknowledging small children’s understandable response to the subject, Murray produced an abridgement, a “form  ... to preserve the larger work from being torn and defaced by the younger scholars” (1797). Perhaps it is remarkable that anything survives at all of children’s grammatical instruction.
     Informed by my knowledge of earlier examples of the genre, this paper focuses on some mid-nineteenth century grammar games for children. These include but are not limited to some produced by well-known women educational writers: Jane Marcet’s Game of Grammar (1842) and Julia Corner’s The Play Grammar (1848). I’m keen to consider the games as material artefacts, especially given the ongoing role of grammar as marking such social divisions as class and gender. Like many instructional games, A Journey to Lindley Murray’s (ca. 1851) incorporated a map; it was also a jigsaw puzzle.  Many of these games include, or consist entirely of, printed instructions, sometimes in the form of dialogues purporting to represent happy families or schoolchildren at play. To some extent this paper will consist of conventional analysis of printed text: indeed, the children represented in Jane Marcet’s Game of Grammar (1842) not unsurprisingly show “disappointment” to discover that their game is “nothing but a number of words printed on small pieces of pasteboard.”  By comparing and contrasting the rules I’ve been able to examine, I’ll consider the extent to which games might genuinely have engaged children in the subject and enhanced their understanding of it, two classic problems of the subject. I will also interpret the dialogues in a more literary framework: some of the social implications of linguistic hierarchies and rules can be inferred from representations of rule-based engagements between children and adults, males and females: the games that I have seen so far have much to say about the potential pedagogical power of females, particularly mothers. Yet a game is just a game: to what extent do the games’ authors make claims for connections between the game and the world beyond?

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