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Why was Noah Webster's Blue-Backed Speller so popular? What were Noah Webster's ideas about spelling?
Noah Webster became well known upon the publication of his American Spelling Book (Webster, Noah, Jun., Esquire, printed at Boston, for Isaiah Thomas and Ebenezer T. Andrews, 1790), also referred to as the Blue-Backed Speller. The Blue-Backed Speller has never been out of print and its total sales have been estimated at more than 100 million copies. Webster's book, with its polysyllabic words broken into individual syllables and its accompanying precepts and fables, became a favorite. Revised many times by Webster, it taught generations of Americans how to read and how to spell. Both Webster's speller and his later dictionaries reflected his principle that spelling, grammar, and usage should be based upon the living, spoken language rather than on artificial rules. Webster's speller taught three things: dividing words into syllables, pronouncing words properly, and spelling correctly. He introduced some common-sense changes in spelling, for example, "musick" became "music," and "honour" became "honor." Webster was pragmatic enough to believe in gradual rather than sudden change in spelling. He did propose many new spellings that did not "take," but those that succeeded in becoming part of American speech represent the last successful attempt at spelling reform. The first print run of 5,000 copies of the Blue-Backed Speller sold in a matter of months. The success of the speller also made Webster the first American author to make a living from having written a book. Perhaps the feature for which the spellers are best remembered is their sentence examples that teach moral and spiritual truths. Webster's speller also diverged sharply from its predecessors in the way he grouped words into lists according to pronunciation rather than similarities in spelling. This proved revolutionary in elementary education as Webster understood that children love rhymes and that they learned and remembered groups of words that sounded alike more easily than words with unrelated sounds. All the words in his speller were in common use and of practical value. Webster's speller was also the first to show the teacher how to teach, by offering a simple and effective method for describing sounds for students to repeat easily and without error. He also classified sounds of individual vowels and vowel combinations and introduced a new "natural division" of words to coincide with the way people spoke. Webster never stopped improving his speller. He felt that his mission was to foster an American language that would be as independent (from British English) and as uniform as possible.