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The art or practice of writing words with the proper letters, according to common usage; spelling. That part of grammar which treats of the nature and properties of letters, and of the art of writing words correctly. — Webster, 1882

The wranglers can never agree among themselves, whether orthography shall conform to pronunciation, or pronunciation to orthography… – Samuel U. Berrian, The Grammar of English Grammars (New York: William Wood and Company, 1851), 160.

One of the subjects on which Laura Ingalls was tested in order to obtain a teaching certificate was orthography, or spelling. Orthography comes from the Greek orthós (meaning “correct”) and gráphein (meaning “to write”). Although orthography is often used in place of spelling, spelling is only a part of orthography. Simply put, orthography is the study of letters (vowels and consonants), their forms (whether capitals or lower case), syllables (one or more letters pronounced as a sound), words (whether primitive or derivative, simple or compounds, and spelling.

The 1883 Laws of the Common Schools of Dakota, or An Act to Establish and Provide for the Maintenance of a General and Uniform System of Common Schools and to Improve their Usefulness, listed only the subjects a teacher was to be tested on, not the content of the test itself. These subjects included orthography, reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, English language and grammar, and United States history (Section 16, page 10).

It is not known what words Laura was asked to spell, or whether the test was oral or written. Laura’s grade was 75% on her certificate dated December 10, 1883, earned prior to teaching the Bouchie School. Laura’s April 8, 1885, certificate earned prior to teaching the Wilkin School has faded to the point that her test scores are no longer legible.

I have a copy of the Kingsbury County, South Dakota, student examinations given in December 1892. This was a number of years after Laura had left school, of course, but I thought it would be interesting to show what sort of things the various classes were tested in, orthography-wise. There was no exam higher than 8th grade at the time, and grades 1-2 were not tested in orthography. You can see that orthography is more than just the spelling of words; it’s being able to write them correctly using the proper letter symbols, and also to use words correctly.

YEARS 3-4. (1) Write the names of five kinds of trees that bear fruit. (2) Write the names of five kinds of trees that are used for lumber. (3) make a list of trees that grow in this state. (4 and 5) Teacher select and pronounce ten words for pupils to spell. (Suggestions were words for various occupations, such as farmer, surgeon, blacksmith, etc.)

YEARS 5-6. (1) In a column write ten nouns that are masculine in form and in a second column write their feminine forms. (2) Use the feminine form of the following nouns in sentences: uncle, lad, actor, man, prince. (3) Teacher select and pronounce ten words for pupils to spell. (Suggestions were words pronounced alike but differing in meaning, often called homonyms.)

YEARS 7-8. (1) Write the words for which the following are abbreviations: A., B., Anon., Asst., Bl., C.O.D., Cwt., Dr., Esq., Gent., Jr. (2) Teacher pronounce the following words for pupils to spell: barometer, gasometer, electrometer, thermometer, diameter, chronometer, geography, photography, typography, chirography. (3) Define five of above words. (4) Use any of five above words in sentences.


orthography (LTP 25)