Chicken Dinners & Learning To Read With McGuffey

This is the first post of Textkit’s Kids channel.  We created this channel because many of us here at Textkit are also parents or are responsible for the education of young children. I thought of no better way to open up this channel than by writing about the most basic and wonderful skill to teach a child – learning to read. Also, I wanted to open up the Kids Channel with a blog post that helped better explain a bit more about myself and what part of the world I’m from which is the beautiful state of Ohio and Miami University which is the birthplace of Textkit.

If you’re like myself, it’s possible you have reflected on how best and when to educate your child in the Classics and specifically in learning Ancient Greek or Latin. For myself, I can’t even say right now if  reading Greek and Latin are activities my children should attempt at their young age.  I do know however that as a parent there’s plenty I can do to set my children down the correct path so that if they do choose to learn Ancient Greek or Latin, their studies will provide them with greater success and satisfaction.

One thing I have done which I do believe will better prepare them to learn to read difficult languages is teaching them to read with McGuffey’s Readers.  I’m a graduate of Miami University and I was raised not too far from Oxford,Ohio, so I have know about McGuffey Readers nearly all my life.  If you’re unfamiliar, between Miami University’s McGuffey Museum and the McGuffey Wiki you will find excellent comments and background on the life and works of William  McGuffey.

Click Image For Readable Hi Resolution

It’s worth pointing out here that McGuffey Readers are estimated to have been printed over 120 million copies and it is by far the best selling and most widely used textbook in the world. While I don’t know about McGuffey’s use and impact outside the United States, in America, generations of students learned to read with McGuffey Readers.

My children used the 1879 Revised Edition, which is available today for purchase as a hardback at  Amazon.
I point out it’s the revised version because a prior version of McGuffey Readers, first written in 1836, included frequent Calvanistic principles in the lessons that often referenced obedience to God and the path of salvation through Jesus.  The 1879 Revision sought to better secularize the work.  From our modern perspective 132 years later, the 1879 version is still very much a textbook that is a product of another time. You will find lessons that contain moralization, bedtime prayers and lessons that reflect a harder time in which parents die, life is short, and young children have toil and duty in their daily lives.  If you as a parent object to any of this, just know that I found these references to be infrequent and can be easily skipped.  For home use, there was no content I found particularly objectionable and there are too many positive stories of moral bravery and sacrifice and stories that gave me the chance to talk to my children about a different time and life in mid-western American history.

Why McGuffey’s For the Young Modern Reader

What I appreciate about McGuffey Readers are their directness and brevity.  These are rubber meets the road readers where a child is asked to read the lesson with little to no pictorial clues for context or aid.    I speculate this is due in part to the economics and technology of the mid-19th century in which William McGuffey lived and worked.  A time where instructional material needed to be published with concision due to the limited resources of schools and the greater costs of publishing. Again, this is only my speculation and I would certainly welcome any comments or feedback on the economics of early American textbooks.

There are three practical areas where the use of McGuffey Readers I feel benefits my children directy:

  • Lesson Structure
  • Directness
  • Goals

Lesson Structure

It’s very clear to me that Mr. McGuffey took great care in structuring his lessons. Lessons begin with the most basic of vowels and word forms and gradually progress to include more difficult vocabulary, reading comprehension and sentence structure.  Mr. McGuffey was the Professor of Languages at Miami University and with certainty he had language exposure to both Latin and Ancient Greek.  I see this exposure in his works where clearly the notion of weak and strong vowel sounds are presented in good order.

Lessons that make clear segregation of vowel sounds lets me as a parent explain to my child why it is helpful for him or her to identify if the vowel was weak or strong before making an attempt at pronunciation.  By adding my own simple reminders like, ‘it takes two consonants to protect a weak vowel’ and ‘when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking’, my kindergarten age children quickly learned to see the difference in sound and meaning between words like ‘dine’, ‘dinner’, ‘diner’.   Exposing my children at an early age, with the help of McGuffey Readers, to weak and strong vowels has led them to better spelling and pronunciation at a much earlier age and a bit clearer understanding morphology.

Directness

From our modern perspective of full color textbooks, McGuffey Readers are quite plain.  Boringly plain. They actually contain many wonderful black and white etching but all the modern reprints seem to reproduce these etchings in a very dark tone.  I’m not trying to impose a sense of austerity with my children, but I do believe that reading lessons require focus and efficiency and the lack of artwork is an aid to the reader because the child has fewer things on the page to be distracted with.

Less distraction means greater efficiency.  While not stated this way, I learned this lesson from my Ancient Greek Professor, Dr. Jack Dutra of Miami University.  Dr. Dutra was known for starting lessons exactly – and I mean exactly – on time and ending the lesson not a second before the end of class.  In between the start and end we went full force.  Asking a small child to focus is even more difficult.   Therefore, I feel the simple format and layout of McGuffey’s is helpful to a modern young mind that sees noise and distraction in the home at every turn.

Goals

This is my favorite aspect of McGuffey Readers. McGuffey’s First Reader is a 94 page book divided into 63 lessons.  This is a big, big goal for a young 5 year-old reader. It’s something that we worked on, together at bedtime, throughout the school year.  I inscribed into each of my child’s copy this short poem I wrote to help them better see that learning to read is a process:

Chicken Dinner
In a greasy spoon
Is what you earn
If you finish by June.

Yet despite the length of the book, it’s divided into lessons that range from as short as a single sentence to no more than 2 pages towards the end.  With lessons in place, the kids have clear goals for each night. They feel good at the end of a lesson because they know they accomplished something.  And, I have to say, my oldest son felt just like a rock-star when he completed the book.  It was a big goal for him and he met it while both having fun along the way and seeing too that a little work and challenge didn’t kill him after all.

Wrap Up

As I said, I’m not an educator nor do I study or investigate different methods of reading. I’m just a regular dad who found these books to be very helpful and I feel that their structure and lessons really helped my children to begin the process of critically looking at words to see forms and morphology which are skills required for the reading of Ancient Greek or Latin.

McGuffey House - Oxford Ohio

The McGuffey house photo taken in October 2010 in Oxford, Ohio. In 1836 Professor McGuffey of Miami University wrote the McGuffey Readers series in this house. I myself am a third generation graduate of Miami University and fittingly, 175 years and over 120 million copies later, I taught my children to read using his books.

Here I am on the back porch of the McGuffey House.

Oh, and the Chicken Dinner…

I’m from Ohio where chicken dinners are especially popular.  We had Nathan’s McGuffey Readers Reward at Troyer’s Dutch Heritage in the heart of Ohio Amish Country. If you enjoy country style chicken dinners, I apologize for the image below.

Chicken Dinner

Troyer's Chicken Dinner in June. A well earned reward for completing McGuffey's First Reader.

About Jeff Tirey

Jeff Tirey, Textkit Founder.
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6 Responses to Chicken Dinners & Learning To Read With McGuffey

  1. JAMES B. WESNER says:

    Somewhere in our home I have two Primary McGuffey Readers. They were my father’s, he learned to read with these books. Dad was born 8-25-1886, his Dad was a school teacher during my Dad’s time in school. Dad went through the 8th grade and completed it twice in 7 years, and did not go on to high school. Sometime in the near future I am going to find the readers and see what editions they are and when published. Would there be any monetary value to books this old? I would sell them, just would like to know.
    I have been to the home and museum in Oxford twice and both times it was closed. We were camping at Huston Woods those times. I am now 76 years old but I still would love to try visiting there again.

  2. Jeff Tirey says:

    Hi James,

    I’m glad you found this post and thanks for sharing your story. The older generations in my family too were educated with McGuffey’s. As for value, I don’t really know what the books are worth. I have a fair amount of experience in seeing textbooks from this period come up for auction and typically they are not worth too much – perhaps $20 – $30 dollars and condition is everything. Every vintage McGuffey I have come across are in really poor condition. I have the modern reprints from Amazon.com.

    Great to see you did some camping at Huston Woods. When I was a boy, I got a sunburn there that I’ll never forget!

    Regards,
    Jeff

  3. David A. Ridge says:

    Ah, Yes,
    I’m am wanting to acquire in digital format a copy of each of the original MuGuggy’s readers.
    By original I mean that I do not want to see the word “Revised” to apperar anywhere on or in any kind of title page and/or copyright page on or in the book/document.
    A major reasom why especially some home schoolers like the readers is because they also teach a morality from the Judeo-Christian basis in the day when Bible reading and Prayer was had even in the public school system.
    Well hang in there, Faire thee Well, and I, am,
    In Him,
    David A. Ridge. Omaha, Nebraska.

    • Jeff Tirey says:

      I have never seen the original version, but I would recommend you still take a look at the 1879 Revised edition. From the standpoint of an instructional aid it’s going to contain many improvements. Also too, A revised edition from 1879 is far different from any revision which would be made today for use in public schools. The books still includes much of what you seek. There are prayers, morals, and many easy to understand instructions that teach about the consequences of good and bad behavior. I would say about 20% of the lessons touch upon those subjects. Hope that helps.

    • Mark Toelke says:

      Hi David! Are you the David Ridge who used to work at the Greyhound center in Omaha?

  4. Kellie says:

    I came across the revised edition McGuffey readers on project Gutenberg’s website. We began reading the 1st reader halfway through kindergarten and completed it a few weeks ago. LOVE THEM! I printed the 1st reader with enlarged font and keep it on the bedside table in my daughters room. Every night before our read aloud story she reads me a lesson. They quickly evolve into short stories with sustinance, unlike many vowel controlled phonics readers on the market today. My daughter likes that there are reaccuring characters so that even though the story is new, it feels familiar. My reluctant reader now tells me ” Mommy I love to read”. I have to believe that’s impart to the McGuffey readers and not Dr. Seuss.

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