Long before there was research on how children learn to read, in 1836 William McGuffey created the first set of readers for American children. His series begins with a book of mostly one syllable words used in 55 stories, all of which teach a lesson on how to be good. The second book of 85 lessons teaches history, biology, botany, table manners and respectful behavior using words a bit longer and harder to read. Four more books in the series teach grammar and public speaking, using stories from Shakespeare and the Bible. The first two books were much more widely read than the last four.
One of the stories concerns George Washington cutting down a cherry tree and confessing the truth to his father—perhaps the source of that myth. Another story emphasized being kind to horses. Another teaches respect for the flag.
McGuffey’s Readers, as they became known, were used in schools in the western and southern U.S. throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The original stories, based on a European Christian ethical code, gradually changed in later editions to teach lessons not connected to any specific religion. Millions of Americans were influenced by these books, and could quote from them later in life. Henry Ford was one of those. He was so indebted that he distributed thousands of the readers at his own expense.
Reading specialists today would find fault with McGuffey Readers. The first book introduces words in no particular sequence. Lesson one introduces three short vowel words, but by lesson 11, a digraph is used, and lesson 12 introduces words with long vowels. The sound of letters is not emphasized. Often the teacher would read the lesson aloud, and then the student would spell a word, name its letters, and then pronounce the word correctly. Many words were memorized as sight words rather than as words that could be sounded out.
A selection from the first book follows. Notice the use of three-syllable words, long vowels, “head” which doesn’t follow phonics rules, and the digraph “wh,” as well as one-syllable, short-vowel words.
“I like to see a lit-tle dog,
And pat him on the head;
So pret-ti-ly he wags his tail
When-ev-er he is fed.”
However, to McGuffey’s credit, reading specialists would point out that the lessons in McGuffey Readers become progressively harder to read; these readers were one of the first texts to be created that way. New words are listed at the beginning of each lesson and words from past lessons are repeated.
Perhaps as many as 120 million copies of McGuffey Readers were printed, making them one of the most influential books ever printed. They can still be purchased in some book stores and online. Since the copyright on these books has long expired, and since there were many editions with changes from the originals, what is available today under the name McGuffey Readers varies. The books are still being used to teach reading, especially in home school situations in the U.S.
For a free, online, early twentieth century version of the first reader, go to http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14640.