"The first object of the intelligent teacher is to awaken the attention of his pupil. This can be accomplished in no other way so well as by asking him questions...

In this book, the teacher is requested to try the conversational mode of communicating instruction, and of training the mind. Let him use the questions, furnished in this book, as the basis of this method; but let him, by no means, confine himself to these alone."

"Suggestions to Teachers," from the Eclectic Second Reader, by W.H. McGuffey, 1836

In 1836, William Holmes McGuffey, a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, published the first of a series of educational books designed to teach reading from the ground up. He would receive a thousand dollars for his work on the books, which would go on to sell a total of 122 million copies over the next 75 years.

At their most widespread point of usage, 37 states used McGuffey's readers, and 80% of American schoolchildren learned to read using the method developed by the "Schoolmaster to the Nation."

The course of study McGuffey put together consisted of a primer, a spelling book, and six "Readers."

The Primer - Contained a basic, well, primer on the alphabet. It displayed the alphabet, and how certain combinations of letters made certain sounds. A revised edition, released in the 1850s or early 1860s, added illustration. Also emphasizes clusters of letters as building blocks for words.

The Spelling Book - Contained more lessons in what we'd now call phonics, tables of diphthongs, and lists of spelling words.

The Readers - Each of the six Readers contained a series of passages for students to read. The early Readers include a list of new vocabulary words before each story, with pronunciation guides. By the third Reader, these lists are gone, and the emphasis shifts to articulation and pronunciation. The final three readers slowly add more advanced concepts such as reading verse, pauses and inflection.

In addition to containing practical lessons on spelling, McGuffey's passages and examples were chosen with the goal of providing moral instruction as well. They would provide obvious role models or cautionary tales designed to steer students to what McGuffey, a Presbyterian minister, saw as the correct moral path.

Through the sheer number of copies sold of McGuffey's Readers, and the length of time they remained in use, he may have had more influence upon American culture than any other educator in history. Philip Shriver, a historian associated with Miami University, credits the McGuffey Readers with popularizing "Mary Had a Little Lamb," "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," and even certain sayings - for example, "Where there's a will, there's a way."

Although McGuffey's Readers fell out of fashion in the early twentieth century, they still have a small following, even today, and can be found in use in some school districts in West Virginia and Virginia.


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