How to Use the McGuffey Readers, Part 2

McGuffey’s Pictorial Eclectic Primer

 *You can read part 1 here.

Some interesting questions have recently come up.
First, I would like to explain the differences between the two sets of McGuffey’s reprints that are now available.
The first is the “original” readers published by Mott Media. Can I say that I love these? They are printed with a sturdy binding, and the pages are thick for longevity and practical everyday use.
I believe it is their simplicity that make these books so endearing. The Primer begins with fairly crude pictures to accompany some basic words that are familiar to young readers. I was put off at first because things were not arranged according to phonics rules, but rather go from the simple to the complex. After using them for a while, I see the genius in McGuffey’s thinking. My daughter absolutely loved the lessons, since they didn’t seem “dumb” to her. We went very slowly, repeating each portion multiple times over several weeks. The results were quite remarkableas I now have an encouraged, excited reader/writer on my hands!
The other books are amazing to read as well. My eldest daughter went from barely reading to fluency using the first reader. Subjects covered varybut they are never trivial or boring. The Professor chose primarily to wisely deal with matters of the heart and morality–even including a story with an orphaned babe being taken in by an old gentleman bachelor! There are lessons with warnings dealing with laziness and the dangers of strong drink as well.
The vocabulary words presented in the first two readers are helpful. Again, there is no particular rhyme or reason to their inclusion, on the surface, but if they are used in oral reading and spelling, along with some basic copy work and dictation, their usefulness soon becomes apparent. It is almost magical to witness how these materials communicate with young fertile minds. I found that the hard work of learning was actually being accomplished by my children, and I only had to present the lessons and enjoy the process as I witnessed the wonderful transformations.
The advanced readers are very challenging reading. All of the readers are extremely Evangelical in nature; confession of sin, salvation through Jesus Christ, etc. are marvelously emphasized. This is continued in the 3rd and 4th books of the series, with apologetics for the Holy Bible also included. My daughter is working diligently through these and finds them replete with nourishment for the mind and soul!
The guide written by Ruth Beechick was very helpful to me, although I found that I had to adjust many of her thoughts and ideas to fit my children and our particular educational circumstances. If I had followed her suggestions verbatim, I would have become quite frustrated.
The originals are the only ones that can actually be attributed to McGuffey directly. The later versions, and there were many, were revised by different people, even his brother had a hand in some revisions.
Which brings us to the second set of McGuffey readers in publication today. These are commonly called the “revised” set, originally edited in 1879-1881 (there were revisions as late as the early 20th Century, which are hardly recognizable as McGuffey’s, but these are not currently in print, that I am aware of). I own two sets of these; one antique (actually printed in 1920), the other a more recent, and less refined, facsimile which I purchased new.
My antique set is so beautiful–the leather bindings are deeply engraved and detailed; the colors of the covers are darker and brighter. The text is slightly raised and one can see the fine lines of the illustrations, as opposed to the muddied ones in the facsimile. Needless to say, the children do not have access to these at all, although I keep them in a slipcover on my desk and refer to them when writing up my lessons.
The 1879 revised edition that was recently printed is the set that my children use. I love these also. It is true that these are the least directly Evangelistic, but they still contain references to God and have many passages from the Bible. The lessons are moral and very engaginga refreshing change from the meager offerings of these modern times.
The Primer not only uses simplicity, but also helps present the principles of phonics. For instance, the first lessons deal with short “a” words, the next lessons introduce short “o”, and so on. This may be somewhat easier for the 21st Century mind to deal with.
The illustrations throughout are delightful. I enjoy viewing them myselfso I know that my children take pleasure in them.
There are not any modern guides to these available, and I personally felt quite lost until I discovered The Eclectic Manual of Methodsthis book explains not only how the revised readers were meant to be used, but the arithmetics, grammars, etc. You can download this from the link above, and it can even be printed up and comb-bound. The Ray’s and McGuffey’s helps I sell on my blog (scroll down to find them on this page) contain a few suggestions that I fashioned after the ideas found in this manual.
Excerpt of a McGuffey Illustration
Since I am working on the plans for my own young learners, I am currently compiling a general guide to using the McGuffey’s series together in an eBook format. I have a few images and some helps in placebut I will include some scripture passage suggestions for the lessonsI hope you will pray for me so that I will be able to find the time to put these resources together for you all!
I am not sure which set of readers is the bestthey both have their merits. I am glad I have both! As of this writing, one could secure the original set, with speller and the Beechick guide, for between $70 – $109 (per set), before taxes and shipping.
The 1879 revised set can be purchased for about $69 (can you believe, Walmart sells these online, and they can be picked up in the store, for only $58.02 at the time of this posting! That’s an absolute steal for a K-12 reading a literature program!).
Dollar Homeschool has done a great job compiling all of the McGuffey’s Eclectic Series and putting them on CD. The cost, compared to purchasing the actual books, many of which can no longer be obtained or found, is economical (the readers, with speller and extra books, this includes the Manual of Methods is $39). You may need to factor in the cost of printing and binding, although there are some who use electronic reading devices as well (here is a link to a tutorial on how to print and bind old books).
I would like to leave you with a quote spoken originally by Dr. David Swing of Chicago and published originally in the book, A History of the McGuffey Readers by Henry Hobart Vail.
Much as you may have studied the languages or the sciences, that which most affected you was the moral lessons in the series of McGuffey. And yet the reading class was filed out only once a day to read for a few moments, and then we were all sent to our seats to spend two hours in learning how to bound New Hampshire or Connecticut, or how long it would take a greyhound to overtake a fox or a hare if the spring of each was so and so, and the poor fugitive had such and such a start. That was perhaps well, but we have forgotten how to bound Connecticut, and how to solve the equation of the field and thicket; but up out of the far-off years come all the blessed lessons in virtue and righteousness which those reading books taught; and when we now remember, how even these moral memories have faded, I cannot but wish the teachers had made us bound the States less, and solve fewer puzzles in ‘position’ and the ‘cube root’ and made us commit to memory the whole series of the McGuffey Eclectic Readers. The memory that comes from these far-away pages is full of the best wisdom of time or the timeless land. In these books we were indeed led by a schoolmaster, from beautiful maxims for children up to the best thoughts of a long line of sages, and poets, and naturalists. There we all first learned the awful weakness of the duel that took away a Hamilton; there we saw the grandeur of the Blind Preacher of William Wirt; there we saw the emptiness of the ambition of Alexander, and there we heard even the infidel say, “Socrates died like a philosopher, but Jesus Christ like a God.”

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  • pilgrims18

    I’m very much enjoying your blog it is giving me the warm fuzzes in a big way and the encouragement I have derived from you has been monumental :) I am really confused as to which kind of McGuffey I should buy. I can’t get two sets (but the antiques sound lovely ) right now I am being offered the Raymond and Dorothy Moore set of 4 , but for not a huge amount more I could get the antiques. I want to buy all your stuff to go with it and really see us using these – can you advise me of which way to go please? Thanks for everything you are sharing God bless x

    • Sherry

      Dear Pilgrims,

      I would like to be able to help you sort out your dilemma, but I need to know what you mean by “antiques.”

  • Angela Trivino

    Hi Sherry, I need help teaching Mcguffey’s primer to my 5 1/2 yr old daughter. She struggles with phonics in My Father’s World and Christian Light, so I pulled out my McGuffey. I made flash cards of the fist few lessons like: it, is, my, an, am, ox, so, I, in, Do, we, go…etc. She remembers only 4 of them. How can I make her learn? I feel like I am failing her.

    • Brittney Douglas

      Angela, I’m not sherry but I’m a full time teacher and I also “after school” my daughter, who’s going into 2nd. I really love the way All About Reading works for helping with words and sounds, and you could do it the same with the McGuffey series. The way it’s set up is to have phonogram (sound cards), and word cards, and you will use an index card box to sort them. You use dividers to sort (words separate from phonograms) by “review”, “mastered”, and “future lessons”. Keep working back through the review cards until she has mastered them and knows them immediately, without any hesitation. Once the words/phonograms have been mastered, file them under that section. You can also get their phonograms app for free on the App Store if you have an iPhone or iPad. You could also have her use multisensory methods such as building with letter tiles or magnetic letters, writing in a sand tray, with chalk or on a whiteboard, etc. Hope this helps!

      • Sherry Hayes

        This is great advice, thank you!