McGuffey Reader Restoration

One of the reasons I steered clear of the McGuffey readers when my older two started homeschooling was that I found them unattractive. The landscape layout with all the wasted whitespace and the extra text box beside the vintage images never looked right to me. There are occasional mistakes in the text boxes, too. Who wants to print an unattractive reader that wastes paper, especially if there are errors in it?

The thing is, the McGuffey readers are actually worth using. I decided to try the primer this year, because I had a child in kindergarten who wanted to read. She didn’t care at all for the more phonics-based readers I had tried before, so I figured one of the classics like McGuffey or Treadwell was worth a shot. She loved the McGuffey reader! And so did her older sister, who used the grade 3 reader this year.

It made me wonder, if I had given a McGuffey reader to my third grader when she was in kindergarten and grade 1, maybe she would never have struggled with reading? She just found the phonics books too slow and boring, but wasn’t yet ready to tackle most of the Ambleside texts for the first year, or even the picture books that held her interest at the time.

(She came around in second grade, and in fact tested at a seventh grade reading comprehension level by the year’s end. So everything worked out just fine, and my faith in respecting a child’s own rhythms when it comes to teaching basic skills such as reading and math has grown stronger by watching her blossom. At the end of third grade, she can read pretty much anything she wants – including elementary sheet music! I have to remind myself every now and again, children will teach themselves if given the tools and encouragement. The less we mess with their potential, the better they seem to realize that potential.)

The McGuffey books do offer phonics instruction for the younger kids, but they tend to be richer in terms of vocabulary and the stories have more of a point to them – unlike some of the silly rhyming phonics readers I’ve encountered. They may look a little Dick and Jane, but the earlier stories discuss life in a rural setting. They talk about animal behaviour, not so different from  the way that Burgess does in his books for children. They show the interiors of period farmhouses, introducing our children to another time and place by showing and not telling about. They teach values such as sharing and kindness to others. These books really are worthy of our attention.

But there is no chart of the phonemes introduced each week, nor of the (Dolch) sight words as they are introduced. It’s not easy to see the progression of difficulty without actually reading the book one lesson at a time. The progressions are not as clear cut as those used in reading instruction series today, with their reading levels and strictly defined numbers of words to a sentence, sentences to a page, pages per story and so on. And yet, the progressions are there. If people could see them, I believe more of us would choose McGuffey for early reading instruction at the very least.

But these things are sorely lacking in restored editions of the McGuffey readers, so parents and educators cannot easily see what a treasure they are. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who ever passed up the opportunity to use these valuable books, simply because they looked as though they were just a jumbled collection of short texts.

So I’m hard at work restoring the first reader, the one I figure will be of most use to people who want to help their children or students learn to read. Included in the table of contents is a discreet listing of all the new phonemes introduced in each lesson. There will also be an overview included with each review lesson, to sum up the progression over a group of lessons. A separate sight words list will show when each of the Dolch sight words is introduced.

Images are being updated, in that I am improving the brightness and contrast as far as possible. New words and phonemes will again be listed on the actual image, not in an extra table beside it. And the vowels are marked for long and short sounds too, a feature which many of the newer editions omitted and that is unclear on a lot of the restored editions.

I am toying with the idea of using new images, as the old ones have not scanned well especially where there was a lot of black filled in. I may hunt down some period art to substitute for those illustrations that are unclear. I may also offer an edition with black line art to be coloured in by the student, or an updated edition with colour art that can be used onscreen. This latter will appeal to children who don’t necessarily care for vintage literature as much as Mom & Dad do!

© 2010 Kyla Matton. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions or comments! If you want to share this piece, please respect the copyright by quoting a brief excerpt and providing the permalink for this entry. Thanks!

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