The three Rs

The three Rs (as in the letter R)[1] are basic skills taught in schools: reading, writing and arithmetic. The phrase appeared in print as a space-filler in "The Lady's Magazine" for 1818; while it is sometimes attributed to a speech given by Sir William Curtis in about 1795, the publication 'The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction' casts doubt on this.[2] The skills themselves are alluded to in St. Augustine's Confessions: nam illas primas, ubi legere et scribere et numerare discitur 'for those first, where to read, and to write, and ciphering is being learned.' [3]. Ciphering translates differently and can be defined as transposing, arguing, reckoning, a secretive method of writing, or numerating. Since its original creation, many others have used the term to describe other triples.

Origin and meaningEdit

The phrase "the Three Rs" may have originated in a speech made by Sir William Curtis in 1795, but this origination is disputed in the publication The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Volume 5.[4][5] An extended modern version of the three Rs consists of the "functional skills of literacy, numeracy and ICT".[6]


The phrase 'the three Rs' is used because each word in the phrase has a strong R phoneme (sound) at the beginning. The term is ironic, since someone with rudimentary language education would know that two of the original words do not actually begin with the letter R. The third R was more probably Reckoning, not as is more usually stated 'Rithmetic. Reckoning was a Victorian term for mental arithmetic and had been in use as such since the 14th century.[citation needed] The educationalist Louis P. Bénézet preferred "to read", "to reason", "to recite", adding, "by reciting I did not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or of the textbook. I meant speaking the English language."[7]

In the United States, during the 17th century, the curriculum in the common (elementary) schools of the New England colonies was summed up as the "four Rs" - Reading, 'Riting, "Rithmetic", and Religion.[8][failed verification]

Other usesEdit

More recent meanings of "the Three Rs" are:

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Obsolete Skill Set: The 3 Rs — Literacy and Letteracy in the Media Ages
  2. ^ The Mirror of Literature Amusement and Instruction, Volume 5 by John Timbs, J. Limbered, 1825
  3. ^ Chapter 13, Book 1,
  4. ^ "the three Rs." The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. 2003, 1997. The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust
  5. ^ The Mirror of Literature Amusement and Instruction, Volume 5 by John Timbs, J. Limbered, 1825
  6. ^ Functional Skills
  7. ^ L. P. Benezet, "The Teaching of Arithmetic I, II, III: The Story of an Experiment," Journal of the National Education Association, Volume 24(8): 241-244 (November 1935)
  8. ^ Slosson, Edwin Emory (1921). The American Spirit in Education: A Chronicle of Great Teachers, Volume 33. Googe Books. Yale University Press. p. 305. Retrieved 30 July 2014.