The First Textbooks: The McGuffey Reader

The First Textbooks: The McGuffey Reader
Anna Harrison: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: Four to five class periods


Anna Harrison, although growing up before there were very many public schools, nevertheless had an excellent education, educated her own ten children at home because they lived most of the children's growing-up years on the frontier (in Indiana!), and at one time founded a school in North Bend, Indiana. It would have been a great help in those years if Anna Harrison had been able to use one or more of the McGuffey Readers, which began to be published in 1836.  Perhaps, at some point, she did.  These readers became standard texts for children from 1836 well into the 20th century, and millions of children moving west in covered wagons probably took along at least one McGuffey reader.


Students will be asked to consider the design and content of an early reading textbook, will compare it to the books they use for reading today, and will have an opportunity to design lessons in the style of lessons in one or more readers.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.  Word processor.  Printer.  Disk or CD to save work.  A copy of one or more McGuffey readers from the school or local public library.


  1. Have a discussion with students about what school would be like if they did not have textbooks. How would you learn? How could your homework be completed at home?
  2. Introduce the McGuffey reader by displaying a volume to your class (they are available for purchase online or may be in the local library).  Give a brief history of the texts, and allow the students to thumb through the book.
  3. Ask students to compare the example of the McGuffey reader to one or more of the books they currently use in reading.  How are they the same? How are they different? It would be well to pay particular attention to the ways in which the stories in both the McGuffey reader and contemporary readers have "morals" or life lessons to take away from the reading, and the ways in which new words are introduced.
  4. Divide the class into small groups and allow students to choose a subject by drawing one out of a hat.  (Write as many subjects on separate pieces of paper as you can from an age-appropriate volume of  a McGuffey reader). 
  5. Ask each group to write at least one "story lesson" to be shared with the whole class. 
  6. When the stories are complete, ask all groups to trade stories and have all groups analyze the work in terms of interesting content, new vocabulary, point of the story, etc.
  7. All lessons can be assembled into a format where text and images are suitable for mass-production for other students to use.  If there are word processors available, students should complete final lessons using a word processor and save them to disk. If not, stories should be written on similar paper so that they may be collated into a single "volume."

  *If students to use a computer with pre-set formats, it will be easier to assemble the sections using a word-processor.  


**You may want to assign one person from each group to design the layout of the lessons—a group of ‘editors’ for the book.  Also, you will need a few students to ‘publish’ the reader.

Extending the Lesson:

When the new reader is completed, students may wish to share it with other classes at a similar level. The class may also want to be present to ‘teach’ the lessons in small groups with other students.

Sources & Resources:


              Sample pages of McGuffey Readers         

              McGuffey's Reader

             Picture of First McGuffey Reader

    This lesson was developed by Marian Maxfield, Kent State University.