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Saturday, June 1, 2013

How to use a McGuffey's, Part 1

Illustration from 5th McGuffey's
Here is a question that I received recently from a reader regarding the use of McGuffey readers:

I wanted to know if you could give me some tips on how you use your McGuffey readers. I have a set of them but do not know how to use them with the kids. It seems like a silly question but I have read through them a bit and I am confused about what to do with them. I guess I need an instruction manual. I appreciate any help you can give. I hate to see them just sit on my shelf. I would like to use them with the kids this fall.

First, let me say that I totally understand how this reader feels. I can remember thinking these books were really nifty, but I had no idea as to how to use them. They were written in a time when the methods of learning were universal and understood. We have lost these principles as educational philosophies have changed over the years (and not for the better).

It is sort of like the 25-pound sack of flour sitting in my baking cupboard. It takes the application of a recipe and other ingredients to produce the desired outcome.

The ingredients required for a batch of first-rate language arts is as follows:
  • Reading with narration (primarily oral, then written)
  • Copy work
  • Dictation
  • Sentence creation
  • Recitation
  • Original composition
This is how I tackle each lesson:

1. I read it for myself.  This is my favorite part. I love the lessons--I learn new things and become encouraged and blessed--I can't wait to share with my children! In this way I am familiar with the content of each lesson so that I can bring out the finer points that may be missed, etc., such as the moral of the story, or even some historical facts that may be needed to gain a better understanding of what is being read. It also helps me when I am either hearing or reading the narrations I require. If time is short, and the child is not competent enough to write out the narration, it can be "cartooned" by splitting a page in equal portions and have the child draw out the events in the lesson in sequence, to be labeled later.

2. I choose a section for copy work. For the younger set, it may only include the vocabulary words and a short section--perhaps a sentence to begin with, then a paragraph. I write these out as an example so that they have something to follow. Poems are copied in their entirety. Older children may be required to copy much more. This is the method used continually--the immersion and familiarity gained through this practice helps imprint language on the minds of children. 

I also like to assign a portion of God's Word which applies to each lesson, lots of times scripture will come to my mind as I am reading, but I also use the concordance to look up appropriate passages. 

3. I choose sections for dictation, sometimes from the speller. This is how proper spelling, punctuation and grammar are reinforced. 

4. Often the poems or portions of the lesson are read aloud to all as a practice for public reading and speaking, and I am requiring that many parts, or all, of the poems be memorized. 

5. I have the child either read and spell the vocabulary words (using Charlotte Mason's suggestion of "imprinting" the words in the child's mind), or assign them to be used in original sentences.  

6. There are times when an original composition will be suggested by the lesson, especially in the more advanced readers (3rd and 4th in the original series--1849 Mott Media, 5th and 6th in the revised--1855 and above). 

The Manual of Methods is the place to go to understand more closely some of the intent of the authors. Here is also a link to my other blog, McGuffey's World, which contains quotes from 19th century sources speaking as to the importance of copy work.

This is an amazingly simple way to teach language arts, and is also so inexpensive!  All that is required is a few good copy books and pencils. 

1836 copy book
Of course, you could create copy work pages by using a school font and a word processor, to encourage better handwriting. 

Here is just a little example of what treasures there are to be found (from the revised, 1879, 2nd reader):

Beautiful faces are they that wear 
The light of a pleasant spirit there; 
Beautiful hands are they that do 
Deeds that are noble good and true; 
Beautiful feet are they that go 
Swiftly to lighten another's woe.

Brushing up on basic grammar helps me--I keep a secretary's guide or two around the house as an aid when I am stumped. We also spent some time together this last year in the Harvey's Grammars, which helped everyone quite a lot. 

It also helps to teach the children how to set up a page--noting the number of the lesson and the date across the top of the page, then skipping a line to begin the work. Also, to have rules about the writing assignments, such as to respect the margin lines, and to keep things neat--no stray marks or doodling, and complete erasure of all mistakes. 

As a mother of many children, these books have helped me to simplify instruction without compromising on content. 

Here is a link to the Manual of Methods, which helped explain a lot for me.


  1. Hi Sherry,
    I am enjoying your posts about the McGuffy readers, and they are becoming more clear. Thank you for simplifing it more.

    I was thinking, about this blog, and maybe you could have a "Getting Started Section" for us Public Schooled kids, who need to be told what to do! :). Such as, what Journal Type do you use? Where do you write the assignment down for the child to know what to do? Do you have to go over the assignment(s) weekly, monthly, or daily? I really like how you outlined creating a lesson, but could you give an example of a lesson showing how you implemented all of these things?

    I am a Mom of 4 boys (ages 9 and under) with an autistic son. I would love any more help you could give. Thank you so much for your hard work. I appericate what you have shared so far!


  2. Dear Sarah,

    The Manual of Methods has a little more information, as does my Primer Helps (click on picture on my sidebar).

    I will try and post more a more detailed description.


  3. I realize this is an older post, but I found it by performing a search on the McGuffey Readers. I read parts 1 & 2 of How to Use a McGuffey's and found both parts to be very helpful. One question I have is this. Did you use any other type of language arts program with these, or was this strictly it for you? These McGuffey Readers have been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, not being used enough. For a while, one daughter was reading from one almost every day, and enjoyed it. She's been slow to learn to read, and the primer provided great help. Part of the reason we stopped using it as often is because she is working through a phonics based spelling workbook. She is probably learning more reading than spelling from this workbook. I'm not sure if I should attempt to do both the readers and the workbook, just the workbook, or just the readers. Do you have any advice to offer?

    Thanks so much. I'm adding your blog to my reading list, as I found it so helpful. :)

    1. Dear Lisa,

      I am currently using the McG's as the sum total for some of my children, but others either need more or want more, so I am also adding in something like Long's Language (also a product of the same era, you can get this either from Dollar Homeschool or from Google Books, at least I think it is on Google books). Pinneo Grammar is another, which my oldest daughter at home liked a lot. Harvey's is something I have taken my children at least part-way through. One of my more advanced children is also taking herself through a writing course from 7 Sisters which she is really enjoying.

      Truly, McG's are so superior to anything offered these days that a person could certainly teach the whole subject this way--you just might need one of those nifty grammar guides that secretaries or publishers use, ours is the Gregg Reference Manual, which should give you a great way to keep on track as far as all of the rules go! Even those who have taken all sorts of grammar in college often end up using one of these!