The three Rs

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The three Rs (as in the letter R)[1] refers to the foundations of a basic skills-oriented education program in schools: reading, writing and arithmetic. It appeared in print as a space-filler in "The Lady's Magazine" for 1818, although it is widely quoted as arising from a phrase coined in a speech given by Sir William Curtis, Member of Parliament, in about 1795.[2] Though the three are used in Chapter 13, Book 1 of Aurelius Augustinus' Confessions, the literal translation is "For those first, where to read, and to write, and to count is being learned." (nam illas primas, ubi legere et scribere et numerare discitur) [3] Since its original creation, many others have used the term to describe other trifecta.

Origin and meaning[edit]

The phrase "the Three Rs" may perhaps have originated in a previous speech made by Sir William Curtis in 1795.[4][additional citation(s) needed]

An extended version of the three Rs is referred to by some in modern times as the "functional skills of literacy, numeracy and ICT" to be found in the modern English education system.[5]

There is an earlier reference to "reading, writing, and arithmetic" in St Augustine of Hippo's Confessions (c. 397-401):

Even now I have not yet discovered the reasons why I hated Greek literature when I was being taught it as a small boy. Latin I deeply loved, not at the stage of my primary teachers but at the secondary level taught by the teachers of literature called 'grammarians' (grammatici). The initial elements, where one learns the three Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic, I felt to be on less a burden and an infliction than the entire series of Greek classes.[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]

Other uses[edit]

More recent meanings of "the Three Rs" are:

See also[edit]


  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. ^
  4. ^ "the three Rs." The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. 2003, 1997. The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust
  5. ^ Functional Skills
  6. ^ Augustine of Hippo (2008). Confessions. Chadwick, Henry transl. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 14; I. xiii (20). 
  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. The American Spirit in Education: A Chronicle of Great Teachers, Volume 33. Googe Books. Yale University Press. Retrieved 30 July 2014.