Monday, September 17, 2007

On the McGuffey Readers

Update, September 23: It turns out that part of this column was written while I was under a misconception. Basically, there are multiple editions of the McGuffey Readers available. I was reading about Mott Media's reprint of the original edition of 1836, which had four Readers; and mistaking it for the Revised Edition of 1879, which had Six; and drawing some invalid conclusions thereby. But aside from that little hiccup, the other 90% of this column is still good. More on this hiccup in the comments....

I've mentioned in previous posts that we've been using McGuffey's Eclectic Readers as a resource to help the Pillowfight Fairy learn to read.

For those of you who aren't familiar with them, the McGuffey Readers are a set of educational books that has been around in one form or another since 1836. They went through several revisions, the latest in 1879--about six years after the original author, William Holmes McGuffey, passed away.

They were commonly used to teach reading in the schools up until the 1960s. Eventually the schools phased them out, due to several reasons: the language is from the 19th century and includes some archaic features; the rise of Whole Word education at the expense of phonics necessitated a complete replacement of classroom educational materials; and changing educational tastes and conventions caused anything smacking of religion or unsettling ideas (like the inevitability of death) to be stricken from the classroom. But even as the books were being phased out of the schools, demand for them remained strong. There were many parents and educators still around who remembered how they had learned to read from these books, and wanted a set in their own personal libraries. And when the homeschooling movement came into being--and especially that segment of the movement that was motivated to homeschool by religious and moral concerns--continued demand for these books was assured. According to Wikipedia, the Readers still sell about 30,000 copies a year. To my knowledge, they have never been out of print.

Tonya and I managed to score the set that my parents picked up decades ago. In fact, I remember reading from these very books when I was a kid. I read them more from curiosity than anything else; I didn't find them particularly compelling at the time. After all, I was being taught in the local school; why did I need to read additional educational stuff at home? Nevertheless, my parents showed them to us and said they would be good to read, so I looked through them.

There are seven books in the series. The first is "McGuffey's Eclectic Primer", which instructs the beginning reader in basic phonics. Then there are six additional books, entitled "McGuffey's [Nth] Eclectic Reader", where N ranges from one to six. I just assumed as a kid (logically, but incorrectly) that the Primer was intended for Kindergarteners, and that the other six books were intended to be used by students of the corresponding grade level, from grades one through six.

Somehow I managed to retain this misunderstanding until about thirty minutes ago, thus providing evidence that I never actually read them.

But I remember, since I was a fourth grader at the time, picking up the Fourth Eclectic Reader, opening it up at random, and landing on the following poem:

Somebody's Darling.

Into a ward of the whitewashed halls,
Where the dead and dying lay,
Wounded by bayonets, shells, and balls,
Somebody's darling was borne one day;

Somebody's darling, so young and brave,
Wearing yet on his pale, sweet face,
Soon to be hid by the dust of the grave,
The lingering light of his boyhood's grace.

Matted and damp are the curls of gold,
Kissing the snow of that fair young brow;
Pale are the lips of the delicate mold--
Somebody's darling is dying now.

Back from his beautiful, blue-veined brow,
Brush all the wandering waves of gold;
Cross his hands on his bosom now;
Somebody's darling is still and cold.

Kiss him once for somebody's sake,
Murmer a prayer soft and low;
One bright curl from its fair mates take;
They were somebody's pride, you know;

Somebody's hand has rested there;
Was it a mother's, soft and white?
And have the lips of a sister fair
Been baptized in the waves of light?

God knows best! he was somebody's love:
Somebody's heart enshrined him there;
Somebody wafted his name above,
Night and morn, on the wings of prayer.

Somebody wept when he marched away,
Looking so handsome, brave and grand;
Somebody's kiss on his forehead lay;
Somebody clung to his parting hand.

Somebody's watching and waiting for him,
Yearning to hold him again to her heart;
And there he lies, whith his blue eyes dim,
And the smiling childlike lips apart.

Tenderly bury the fair young dead,
Pausing to drop on his grave a tear;
Carve on the wooden slab at his head,
"Somebody's darling slumbers here."

I remember being distinctly disturbed by this poem. And I thought to myself, "They don't make me read stuff like this at school."


So anyway, we were leafing through a catalog that we picked up at last weekend's homeschooling seminar, and they were advertising the various readers in the series. And something about them caught my eye. Here's how they were listed:

McGuffey Primer for Grades 1-2
This book begins with the alphabet, moves to simple one-syllable words....

McGuffey 1st Reader (Grades 3-4)
Most words in this reader are phonetically regular...

McGuffey 2nd Reader (Grades 4-5)
This book begins with one- and two-syllable words and progresses to more difficult words covering....

McGuffey 3rd Reader (Grades 6-8)
This book develops thinking skills and the richer vocabulary...

McGuffey 4th Reader (Grades 9-12)
This book develops advanced vocabulary and thinking skills and introduces
some of the greatest English authors including Webster, Jefferson, Shakespeare,
Johnson, and Schiller....
I note they weren't advertising the 5th or 6th readers in this catalog. I was thinking to myself: If the Fourth reader is for high schoolers, who are the Fifth and Sixth readers aimed at? Undergrads and Masters' candidates? ("And for my thesis, I read the Sixth reader and actually understood it.")

And what of the Pillowfight fairy? If these levels they've advertised in the catalog are accurate, then our little almost-five-year-old is reading on a third or fourth grade level. While I find this idea highly gratifying (she's got good genes, after all), I have to say I was a little skeptical.

So I decided to crack open the sixth reader and read the last lesson therein, to see for myself how good a student would have to be to work his or her way through the whole series. The last lesson consisted of a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge entitled Ode to Mt. Blanc. I won't include the full poem here--you can follow the link to read the whole thing--but here's a taste:

HAST thou a charm to stay the morning-star
In his deep course? So long he seems to pause
On thy bald awful head, O sovran Blanc!
The Arve and Arveiron at thy base
Rave ceaselessly; but thou, most awful Form!
Risest from forth thy silent sea of pines,
How silently! Around thee and above
Deep is the air and dark, substantial, black,
An ebon mass: methinks thou piercest it,
As with a wedge! But when I look again,
It is thine own calm home, thy crystal shrine,
Thy habitation from eternity!
O dread and silent Mount! I gazed upon thee,
Till thou, still present to the bodily sense,
Didst vanish from my thought: entranced in prayer
I worshipped the Invisible alone.


Thou dread ambassador from Earth to Heaven,
Great Hierarch! tell thou the silent sky,
And tell the stars, and tell yon rising sun, Earth,
with her thousand voices, praises God.

And I thought to myself: wow. Just wow. Magnificent!

And then I thought: No wonder they don't use this stuff in the schools anymore. No one could read it. And what a shame that is.

And then I had one last thought: Maybe my initial "misunderstanding" wasn't; that is, maybe we really have become a post-literate society. Maybe, just as I as a fourth grader was able to be moved as I read a poem from the Fourth Eclectic Reader, that all fourth graders a hundred years earlier were being so moved by the exact same passage; that we have, in the intervening years, lost so much of our culture and history that we don't even really know what a fourth grader should be able to read. We don't even truly understand what a fourth-grade reading level actually is anymore.

But any way you slice it, the Pillowfight Fairy still has great genes.


Anonymous said...

Your confusion comes from the two different series. The ones that you apparently own are the newer revised ones -- I think they have a maroon-colored spine. The ones in the catalog are the Original Eclectic Readers from Mott Media. There are more books in the former set, and just four in the latter. The numbers between the two sets cannot be compared as they are at competely different levels.

I think you've missed the point of these readers as I did too when I first bought them. (I own the originals, BTW.) Though my 10yo daughter can read the content in the 4th reader, I have her at the end of the 2nd reader. Why? Because after reading the accompanying Parent-Teacher Guide, I understood the intended use of these books.

My daughter reads the passages aloud focusing on inflection, articulation, expression, etc. We discuss vocabulary. We discuss poetry meter. We discuss themes. We make connections between the short passage and another piece of literature. One of her recent passages was a fable. The question posed in the Parent Guide was whether this fable had a correct ending, and then asked the student to identify several Bible verses that would support their view.

So it is much more than "My child has the ability to read X." The idea is helping them to build skills with shorter, more manageable pieces of literature. The emphasis is on quality, not quantity. Process, not product. This is so against the grain of our culture but perhaps this is why we, on the whole, are not as well-educated as former generations.

I hope this is helpful.

Timothy Power said...


Ok, I did a little looking around, and I understand a little better what happened. Mott Media has republished the original 1836 edition; you're using it with the teachers' guide written by Ruth Beechick in 1985 for use with Mott Media's edition. This version has the four original readers plus the primer; a pictorial primer; and the Progressive Speller written by Willaim McGuffey's brother, Alexander.

The books went through numerous editions. In the 1840's Alexander McGuffey created a fifth and sixth reader to add to the set. With each successive edition more and more of the original content was removed--including most of the Biblical passages.

However, looking through our set--which was of the last edition, the 1879 edition--there are still plenty of references to the sovereignty, power, and goodness of the Lord; plenty of literary passages that stress good moral development; and plenty of passages that deal with heavy topics, such as love, death, guilt, sadness--enough so that they'd never get used in a modern public schoolroom. And the passages are still of extremely high literary quality--again, I suspect higher than most of what gets read in the schools these days, particularly in the younger grades. After all, I think the passages I quoted in my post speak to this point very well.

So I do understand a little more now about why the catalog only listed four Eclectic Readers, and why the fourth one is listed as being appropriate for high schoolers. The books I'm looking at aren't the ones that are listed in the catalog. But I'm quite happy with them; they're entirely sufficient for the way we're educating our daughter.

Angela said...

I love this post! :-) You're right about the "dumbing down" in our public schools.

One comparison chart I read said that finishing the 6th reader was equivalent to reading at the college levels. So that sounds about right.

Blessings, Angela <><

alison said...

I realize this blog entry is more than a year old but I wanted to clarify the level confusion.

McGuffey readers were never meant to be associated with a particular grade. In the time period they were introduced, most boys and girls did not attend school regularly due to family duties particularly during planting /harvesting seasons - the students progressed at their own pace. I have read references stating that most students never made it beyond the 3rd reader (they were considered literate at that point) and that the 4th reader was equivalent to finishing elementary education, which would have been around 8th grade in those days. I agree with this comparison as my twins (age 8) are currently in the middle of the 4th reader and are functioning at a high 6th to 7th grade reading level. My 5.5 yr old son is just finishing up the first reader and is at high 2nd grade level. I don't think that the P-2 McGuffey readers are out of sync with today's levels, if you go by the original expectations
primer: K-1
first: 1-2
second: 3-4
third: 5-6
fourth: 7-8
The 5th and 6th were written after and were meant for those continuing beyond elementary. So they were meant for 9-college level.

The P-3 readers certainly are in line with the above grade levels but I must say that the 4-6 readers are definitely more intense and I could not see *typical* 5-12 graders (who have gone through new-age readers in school) understanding the passages without significant teacher assistance. I think this is where the watering down of our education system shows the most. The schools do an OK job of teaching the mechanics of learning to read in K-3 but do not focus enough on "reading to learn" and the higher level processing needed to understand literature such as those found in the McGuffeys. This should take place in the 4-6 grades. Advanced students (college bound, gifted track) would be able to handle it, but not the typical "c" to "b" student.

As for levels recommended by that one curriculum, I have not seen the material for that curriculum but I must say that my children would have been bored going through the readers at such a slow pace, especially the first 3 readers. it sounds like it might be about 1 lesson per week used all week? I found the stories to be too simplistic to challenge the mind. I would not want to hold back my children from the richer literature found in the later levels. I guess it depends upon the child and whether he/she is able to make the early connections without explicit instruction. My twins have come to a point where content of the stories and poems have caught up with their mental ability so we have slowed the pace in the 4th reader and are beginning to work on some of the higher level literary elements. This allows for more in depth reflection as well as more time for vocabulary development.

nomibird said...

I support Common Core as a teacher just because of what has been said of the dumbing down of education. Common Core seeks to rebuild that error and strengthen reading to learn.

Brian Kearsey said...

I read your post about the McGuffey Fourth Reader. I believe the late 1830's version of the series stopped at the 4th reader, and they later moved some of that material to the higher levels when they added them (and dropped many selections). To me it's clear that they reading material got watered down significantly by the 1920's version, which is still a higher caliber than what American schools served up as the decades went by. I don't check gmail often - feel free to email me at if you reply.