Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Readers and Primers and Spellers--Oh MY!

Much to my delight, I have recently found myself in a glorious position to help survey and catalogue the Weinstein Collection of antique and vintage children's books at National Louis University in Skokie, Illinois.

So a few days ago I was doing what I typically do when facing shelf upon shelf of these splendid books--I stared with my mouth hanging open and my eyes sliding along the laden shelves--waiting for that moment when a book jumped out at me.

And so it did:

Graded School Series First Reader by T. W. Harvey
Van Antwerp,Bragg  & Co. 1875
I looked at the front cover.  I read the title.

I looked at the back cover, noting the unavoidable blemishes and damage of time--the water stains, the missing corner, the yellowed, cracking pages.

And  my mind told me "EXCELLENT!  An early edition of a McGuffey's Eclectic Reader!"

Yes, in spite of obvious visual evidence to the contrary, I thought this was an early McGuffey's Reader.

When I gingerly opened this treasure, the pages  still looked McGuffey-like enough stylistically to not trigger my brain.

In fact, it wasn't until I had closed the book, had slid it gingerly back onto the shelf and had toted my photo-filled iphone home that I realized the truth--this was no McGuffey's.

I knew McGuffey's Readers.  I had taught for years at a private school that used McGuffey's as part of the primary reading program.   While we eventually had to lay aside the McGuffey readers to accommodate the push for modern reading curricula, I still always kept a soft spot for the McGuffeys.

For those of you not in the know, this is a McGuffey's Eclectic Reader:


McGuffey's Eclectic Readers, written by William Holmes McGuffey, were the most well-known school readers, first published in 1836 and finally going out of print in 1960. (1)

McGuffey's Readers bridged the moral themes and some of the religious themes of its predecessors (namely The New England Primer) with contemporary stories that entertained as well as taught.

McGuffey's departed in style from other readers by presenting vocabulary and spelling lists as connected to stories, which gave students the opportunity to learn new words in context. (6)  This approach was perhaps one of the reasons for the longevity of McGuffey readers when other readers and primers that came before and after it seemed to fade away from use.

However, before there were McGuffey's readers, there was The New England Primer which has the honor of being the first U.S. printed school reader, first published in the United States in 1690. (2)


The New England Primer leaned heavily on the Bible for content and context, unsurprising considering the Puritan roots of Colonial America.

The New England Primer is noted for combining reading instruction with moral and religious themes that gave previously illiterate people the skills needed to read the Bible for themselves, rather than have to be at the mercy of others for spiritual comfort and learning. (3)

With The New England Primer  leading the way, and McGuffey's Eclectic Readers adding increasingly modern approaches to reading instruction (albeit still heavily religious and moralistic, not to mention skewed exclusively to  readers of a single  ethnic, cultural and religious background), the  path was laid for the next permutation of readers--The Graded-School Readers, by Thomas W. Harvey.

And thus we come full-circle, back to the reader at the start of this post.

Thomas W. Harvey started along the path of reading and book publishing at the age of 15, working as a print office apprentice. (7)  From here his professional life rose steadily--from attending a Teacher Seminary to founding a high school, becoming principal of that high school and then being elected as Commissioner of Common Schools.  It was in this last position that Thomas Harvey wrote a series of textbooks to be used in classrooms--several grammar and language books as well as a series of first readers and primers (7)--one of which I had stumbled across.  He published his first reader in 1877.  They stayed in print until 1927. (7)

Even from these small sample pages one can see the influence McGuffey's Readers must have had on Thomas Harvey as he wrote his own primers.   Also present in a number of stories are lessons in morality, although these lessons are presented a bit more subtly by Thomas Harvey than by either McGuffey or in the New England Primer.  Harvey's readers--like the New England Primer and McGuffey readers that came before--still reflected a uniformly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant perspective of course.   This might have been a non-issue in the United States in the 1800's and early 1900's--however it is telling that even now, 300 years later, children's books still fail--in quantity and even at times in quality-- to faithfully reflect the diversity of real life.

When I consider these three early readers, I find myself automatically comparing and contrasting them with textbooks and phonics programs I have used over the past  25 years I have  taught in  primary programs.   In the end, what we do today rests heavily on what has come before--teaching vocabulary and spelling in context, trying to present stories that have meaning and connection with student's lives, and above all nurturing the reading skills in our young students that will empower them to take charge of their own learning.   Just as the New England Primer over 300 years ago strove to enable people to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, don't we, in the end, teach children in order for them to break away and interpret the world for themselves?

Who knew that such history, power and influence could be hidden inside such a small book?


1. ttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Holmes_McGuffey

3.  http://familyphonics.com/ab/ab1/history.htm

4. http://venezky.stanford.edu/colonial/

5. https://www.rainbowresource.com/proddtl.php?id=025733

6. http://www.mcguffeyreaders.com/1836_original.htm

7. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=22786693

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