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:
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.
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!).
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:
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
These books were not formulated for modern grade levels. I have posted a test you can use to estimate where your child should begin.
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.
Here are some more posts (and videos) for more help: