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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.