Over the weekend, a friend of mine was describing her work as a teacher in a local classical school. The literature class she taught for 2nd and 3rd graders particularly interested me.

I then asked her what type of reading materials her class used. She replied that their main textbooks were McGuffey readers, the primers used by many one-room public schools between the mid-19th and 20th centuries.

When I asked for her thoughts on the McGuffey texts, she replied that she liked them, but was continually amazed at the reading level they presented to the children. While her students were well able to handle them, the difficulty of the texts seemed a good deal above what we would consider 2nd grade reading material today.

Out of curiosity, I decided to test her instinct to see if the McGuffey readers of yore really were more challenging than the texts today’s students learn on.  

After locating a popular modern second grade reading text, The Superkids Hit Second Grade, I used Accelerated Reader’s text analyzer to measure the reading level of the book’s first lesson. It came in at 2.0 – right on target for a child just entering second grade. So far so good.

But running the first lesson of the Second Eclectic McGuffey reader which my friend’s 2nd graders were using didn’t make the modern text look so impressive. In fact, a student hitting 2nd grade using the second McGuffey textbook would be starting the year at a 3.7 reading level – the level of a 3rd grader in the seventh month of the school year!

In addition to the difference in reading levels, my friend also observed that the McGuffey readers were unafraid to convey moral lessons. Consider the first lesson, An Evening at Home, printed in 1879:

“It is winter. The cold wind whistles through the branches of the trees.

Mr. Brown has done his day’s work, and his children, Harry and Kate, have come home from school. They learned their lessons well to-day, and both feel happy

Tea is over. Mrs. Brown has put the little sitting room in order. The fire burns brightly. One lamp gives light enough for all. On the stool is a basket of fine apples. They seem to say, “Won’t you have one?”

Harry and Kate read a story in a new book. The father reads his newspaper, and the mother mends Harry’s stockings.

By and by, they will tell one another what they have been reading about, and will have a chat over the events of the day.

Harry and Kate’s bedtime will come first. I think I see them kiss their dear father and mother a sweet good night.

Do you not wish that every boy and girl could have a home like this?”


McGuffey Illustration
From McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Reader, L

The textbook unashamedly promotes such values as hard work, a traditional family, and obedient children.

By contrast, the first lesson in Superkids features two students racing to class to see who is the fastest runner. The most positive moral lesson one can find – if any – seems to involve getting along with others:

“Alf’s backpack went bump, bump, bump as he ran.

He spotted his pal Frits and ran up to him.

‘Let’s run to second grade,’ said Alf.

‘O.K.!’ said Frits. ‘Last kid to class is a rotten egg.’

Alf and Frits ran fast,

up the block,

                past the bus stop,

                                and up the steps.

                                                Zip! Zip! Zip!

At last, the pals got to class and skidded to a stop.

‘I win,’ panted Alf. ‘I am the fastest kid on the planet!’

‘O.K.,’ said Frits. ‘But I am the second fastest kid on the planet.’

‘And I am Ms. Blossom,’ said Ms. Blossom. ‘And my class is the best second grade on the planet!’”

Such a comparison should give us pause. Are the poor reading skills which seem to plague American students throughout elementary and high school the result of our failure to challenge students with difficult material even at early ages?

Furthermore, is it possible the decline in behavior we see in today’s schools is partially due to our failure to pass on time-tested virtues to our children through stories and examples?

Image Credit: Public Domain