The Best Almost Free Language Arts Curriculum You’ll Ever Need

If you have more than one child and you are homeschooling, you know about Scattered Brain Syndrome. Since I have 15 children, I guess my brain is more scattered than the rest of civilization (an excuse I might use when apologizing for missing that doctor’s appointment on Monday…). This is why I was so very excited a number of years ago when I stumbled upon a language arts curriculum that solved so many of my problems!

Now, I know there are a kazillion language arts curricula out there, and they all promise a whole bunch. I’ve tried a few of these, including the ones where you don’t use a textbook at all, like the Charlotte Mason types (in true confession, if something is too open-ended my brain cells get stirred around like blueberries in a blender!). Most of them cost an arm, a leg and a few choice organs to buy.

But not the McGuffey’s. They have been around since 1835, and so they can be found just about anywhere, often for FREE!

I know, most things online that are free are also JUNK–but this is an exception to the rule. The McGuffey’s were the most used language arts curriculum for 130 years for a reason (estimated to have sold 120,000,000 copies, with a current rate of 30,000 copies a year).

They gained and held their popularity because of their excellence in all areas:

Interest.

Professor McGuffey knew children, and he knew the Lord (his first teaching position was at the age of 14!). The selections in his books grab the attention and feed the soul. As the books advance to higher levels, portions are taken from classic works such as Shakespeare, Homer, addresses to Congress, and the like. My children especially love the poetry selections.

Vocabulary.

The words start out simple and are repeated at the early levels. As the books progress the words become more and more advanced, allowing the student to build an amazing repertoire of words that will enable him to read and understand almost anything written (and won’t hurt when taking standardized tests, either!).

Grammar.

The grammar of these texts are far above the grammar of modern textbooks. The sentence structure is so advanced that the fourth to sixth readers are difficult for college-level students to decipher (this means your children will gain a definite advantage by using them).

As a bonus, the McGuffey’s don’t take a lot of time out of the day.

For me, it’s about ROI, or “Return On Investment.” If I am going to devote time and energy to something, it has to offer a lot in exchange. It only takes about 15 minutes out of my day to do some phonics and a short lesson with a beginning reader. Older children can do their lessons independently beginning with a half-hour and ending up with an hour or two a day.

Of course, there are ways to mine as much value out of these lessons as possible. I believe we have found what works best for us. Here it is in a nutshell:

  • Vocabulary lists.

We go over these and use them in different ways according to reading level. The beginners use them for sounding-out practice (McGuffey called this “spelling”) and to memorize sight words. The middle readers use these to learn spelling patterns, such as syllabication, prefixes, suffixes, and the like. Children at these two levels read their lists aloud to me and then copy them.

Older children use the lists to create original sentences to check for understanding (my children try to create the most clever sentences possible).

  • Copywork.

I have the children copy at least a portion of their lesson. I used to think this was an idea original to Charlotte Mason, but actually it was common practice during the McGuffey era to have children copy good prose and poetry. Here is a good description of “why” I found on the Ambleside Online site:

It is through transcription [copywork] that specific skills such as punctuation and mechanics (what a paragraph is, when to use capital letters) are picked up. Copywork done properly forces a child to slow down and absorb the punctuation details, notice capitalization, and internalize sparkling, well-written prose.

Fortunately, most of the books present the lessons with numbered paragraphs, so I tend to assign one or more paragraphs by indicating the correlating numbers.

  • Narration.

What is this? Here is a quick definition:

In simple terms, narration is telling back in your own words what you just read or heard.

(Found on Simply Charlotte Mason)

Again, we often think this is an idea original to Charlotte Mason, but in my research I have found this was widely practiced during her time. Here is another explanation of why this is important:

Just a few of the benefits of using narration as a means of self-education are attention, retention, expressive language, and higher level thinking. Charlotte Mason felt that narration was the means or engaging the learner in his own learning.

(Found on A Charlotte Mason Home)

Instead of making our precious read-aloud time so schoolish that it is painful, I use the McGuffey lessons. When the children are small, we first talk about what they have read, and then they are required to draw a simple picture about something in the lesson.

As they progress, we talk together, they write a simple sentence, and they draw a picture. Then they will be writing a half-page and increasing until they are eventually required to write an entire page.

  • Dictation.

I have to admit, this is something I don’t do on a consistent basis, and my children don’t seem to have missed it too much. However, I have found it is a good tool for children who might be having a trouble spelling correctly.

I simply take the copywork from the lesson and have the child study it. We go over any words or matters of punctuation that might be troublesome, and then I dictate the paragraph (or at least a sentence from the paragraph). If anything is incorrect, we go over it and the child erases and makes it right, no red ink required!

You don’t even need any workbooks!

You can either use a regular composition book (you may have to do some preparation for younger students) or the pages I created here for free download.

“How much time will this take?” you ask.

Well, it depends on how many children you have and their levels (follow this link to find out where your child fits). Beginning readers will need approximately 20 minutes of your time a day, with another 15 minutes or so of paper work on their own (but you can give them a break in-between the two).

As soon as you have independent readers, all that’s needed from you is to make some assignments and go over their written work briefly and leave them a note. I always enjoy doing this and try and make it as fun as possible.

By the way, there is little or no preparation required, no extra materials (other than writing materials and some phonics practice cards at the beginning), and no special knowledge (except for basic understanding of phonics, which you and your child can pick up for free using resources online such as this video using “pure phonics”or something as fun as Teach Your Monster to Read, and  a list of spelling rules).

It really is like putting language arts on “autopilot,” I’m not exaggerating! My kids have become great readers, writers, and speakers via this very simple system (with a little grammar and composition thrown in for good measure).

Some important notes:

Different versions.

If you are interested in buying physical copies, there are two sets currently in print. The first is made up of the original McGuffey readers authored by Professor McGuffey himself during the 1830’s (published by Mott Media, but also available from Christian Book.com).

The second is composed of revised editions which were compiled and edited after McGuffey’s death roughly during the 1880’s. They include a fifth and sixth reader, whereas the originals only include four. You can easily find this boxed set online, even from Walmart (I’m not kidding, check it out!).

I prefer to use the Primer, First, and Second from the original series, then move through the revised editions from there.

Grade levels.

These books were not formulated for modern grade levels. I have posted a test you can use to estimate where your child should begin.

Digital sources.

There are a number of choices here. Dollar Homeschool offers CD’s which include not only the readers but a host of books which made up what was called “Eclectic Education.” I have actually written introductions to these which are included (I do not receive any royalties from their sale).

There are also numerous sources for free downloads. Since these books are so dependent on formatting, the free Kindle versions are awful. However, Google Books offers a number of different versions, and they are easy to download and print (I have a tutorial on how to make them look and feel like a book here) or use with a reader on a device.

Here are some links to help you get started:

Early McGuffey First Reader  This is the 1885 version but closely mirrors the original.

Early McGuffey Second Reader 

Revised McGuffey Primer

McGuffey First Reader

Revised McGuffey Second Reader

Revised McGuffey Third Reader

Revised McGuffey Fourth Reader

Revised McGuffey Fifth Reader

Revised McGuffey Sixth Reader

Here are some more posts (and videos) for more help:

Video Intro to the McGuffey Readers

How to Place Your Child in the McGuffey Readers

McGuffey for Beginning Readers

McGuffey for Progressing Readers

If you’re already a fan of McGuffey and have a different way of using them with your children, feel free to share in the comments. We can all learn from each other!

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14 thoughts on “The Best Almost Free Language Arts Curriculum You’ll Ever Need

  1. McGuffeys….we love them!! My children just finished their last day of “school” on Friday and requested to please use mcguffeys again next year! They heard me discussing English programs and worried 🙂 (I was just looking for a grammar for the older ones). Yes, Walmart is where we found ours-crazy! Cheap composition book is right. One 25 cent notebook and English is done next year. You’re pages are even better! I love them. Well, we pretty much use them the same as you (except I don’t do dictation) but I also make little flash cards for the new readers sometimes with the vocabulary words to practice reading with. Sometimes:) because too much pushing really puts them backwards and frustrated!

    • It was great to read how much your kids love them, too! They really are like potent vitamins, but more like gummies that are chewy and delicious to eat 🙂

  2. I have both and am trying to figure out a system to use both simultaneously because I don’t want my kids to miss anything from these gems. I use the revised for my younger ones because I have an Android app the goes through the phonics and teaches the lessons for me. My boys LOVE this and it helps so much! I also found free videos on youtube (mcguffeyonlinetutor.com) to accompany all the lessons from the revised editions. My boys love watching these and they are so helpful in reinforcing the lessons, especially in the younger years when they are getting their phonics down. I dictate the word lists to them to teach spelling each day and a sentence or two. By the end of the week, they have the list memorized.

    • Great idea dictating the small word lists Bonny! I’ll have to write that down to use next year, it’s so simple and helpful, thanks!!

  3. Another home here that uses (and enjoys) McGuffey readers! My 7yo is using them to learn reading and for copy work, my 10yo is using them for reading practice, copy work and dictation…even my almost 5 yo will take the primer and try to sound out the words and copy the words! I love the moral messages behind the stories 🙂

    I also had a question I always meant to ask as well…when it comes to history/geography, do you follow a certain order chronologically or do you base it off what the children are interested in?

    • Good to know yet another McGuffey lover :). As for the history/geography it is like you said, either it’s what the children are interested in or it’s what I am interested in. Right now I have three girls super interested in everything Asian, so that’s where we are concentrated, but that changes with the “seasons” of learning. It also has to do with what we are currently reading aloud and enjoying together.

  4. Im wondering if you use anything else to teach them how to write an essay, or reports. I have 2 high schoolers and 2 elementary that I’m homeschooling. I guess I’m just wondering too if using the Mcguffy Readers is enough to teach all the aspects of writing. I feel like I’ve done a lot of copy work for my 10 yr. old and last year when I asked him to write on his own he had a hard time and then I started thinking he needed a writing program for this coming year. What are your thoughts? Thank you so much for your time and impute.

    • Yes, I do use something to specifically teach composition. I have found, like you, that my children have no problem with sentence structure, spelling (well, mostly), and vocabulary, but they needed help organizing their thoughts into something cohesive. They have story-writing down pat because of all the narration, but they needed to understand the structure of an essay. I used Kathryn Stout’s Comprehensive Composition as an outline and created a checklist with a rubric for my older girls (this included letter writing and news article writing). They really seemed to enjoy it. I think it was easier for me because I studied essay writing inside-and-out (that’s why I enjoy blogging so much). If I weren’t so comfortable, I think I would use 7 Sister’s products. I won a free copy of their poetry study for high school and my oldest daughter loved it. Their high school essay program looks good, too (and they only cost $8 for a download 🙂 )

  5. Thank you for writing this gem of an article. I have decided to use the McGuffey readers for all three of my kids now. I am just wondering, do the children do one lesson a week, or a couple a week?

    • Thank you, Kristin! I think it all depends. There have been time when my kids did two a week, but I have found that one is best, sometimes with the various assignments of copywork and dictation being strewn out over the whole week.

  6. My family and I love the McGuffey’s Readers. We have the Revised versions, and yes, we got them at Walmart.com! I didn’t know what to do with them a few years ago until I found the information you had on your other website (largefamilymothering); that dramatically changed our homeschool for the better, for which I am grateful! This is what we’ve done the past two years, using one lesson per week: Monday: Vocabulary, Tuesday: Copy-work, Wednesday: Dictation, and Thursday: Creative Writing (a story written off the theme of their lesson). Then, on Thursday evenings they “present” the lesson out loud to their father and he gives them a verbal spelling test. I love how this involves the whole family and helps my husband be a part of what their working so hard at during the week.
    All loving to read, I have a 9 year old in the middle of the 2nd Reader, a 10 year old beginning the 3rd Reader and an 11 year old nearing the end of the 3rd Reader (Revised Versions). I’m seeing my need to work narration in, however. Is this what takes the majority of their time in their lessons? (You mentioned the older ones taking 30 minutes – 2 hours per day). I’m having a hard time fathoming that, and wondering if that’s what seems to be missing from their work – they seem to fly through it, which leaves me questioning if they’re reaping all the benefits these have to offer. Thanks for your help!

    • I love what you have done with the McG’s–you are really squeezing every drop out! I especially like the idea of presenting the lessons to dad–genius! My children have been doing a single lesson in a day (one a week, the first day of the week), that’s why it takes so long 🙂 I think this next season I am going to string things out more, just like you do.

  7. Im starting the Mcguffey readers this year with all my children 8,10,14, and soon to be 16. Im wondering though what to do during the other days if their only doing language once a week. Is this enough for my high schoolers. Im going to have them do some other writing with history . Do you have them read from the reader everyday , but the written work once or twice?

    • Those are great questions, Julissa! I actually have high schoolers do one complete lesson in the McG’s on the first day of the week, then I give them a lesson in Harvey’s Grammar (and old book in the same series) on the other days of the week.

      Yes, we do a bit of writing in all the other “content” areas as well.

      I also insert some composition, I have formulated my own, but I think that Seven Sisters has some of the most affordable, no-nonsense curriculum for this (it is also self-teaching). Here is the link:

      http://7sistershomeschool.com/products-page/writing-3/

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