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Everything Old is New Again!

  • Kim Wolf Contributing Writer
  • Updated Apr 05, 2010
Everything Old is New Again!

When I was around age 10, my sweet grandmother gave me one of my most treasured possessions: her McGuffey's Second Reader. Having grown up in the public/government school system, I was always amazed that my grandparents had to actually buy their school books. Wouldn't they laugh if they knew that I now homeschool and we, too, have to buy all of our children's books?

But when my grandma gave me her old, worn book, when she could still recite stories and poems that she had memorized from them as a child, I just knew something about them was special. That simple gift began a lifelong love for books, especially for collecting old books.

Once I began homeschooling I would find old books at antique shops, garage sales, or on the Internet. But I had little idea that some old books were being re-published—even whole sets—and I have since used these books time and time again. The two sets we will discuss here will be McGuffey's Eclectic Readers and Ray's Arithmetic.

McGuffey's Eclectic Readers

The first set I happened upon were the McGuffey's Readers. I couldn't believe my eyes! There, in the gift shop of a historic park, was a whole set of seven readers! And what they contained didn't disappoint me; the stories and the artwork are exactly as the antique volumes were. Little did I realize until I owned the whole set that those seven volumes do not actually follow grade years. The seventh reader could actually be considered college-level reading. But let's start from the beginning.

McGuffey's Eclectic Primer begins with display pages of the upper- and lowercase alphabet and continues on as a wonderful reader for beginners. If your child has already begun by using other reading programs (such as last month's Teach Your Children to Read in 100 Easy Lessons or Hooked on Phonics) this will be a great treat. The lessons start with up to six new words being introduced, each showing the common diacritical markings, as in long vowel, short vowel, and hard consonant markings. Lesson One begins with the simple, one-syllable words A cat and a rat. A rat and a cat. Lesson Five is a review and introduces the student to "slate work." This is a writing lesson that, of course, you are free to use or ignore. These writing exercises are written in cursive in a nineteenth-century style, so even if your little one has begun to use cursive writing, he still may need a little help deciphering some of the older script, like the open lowercase p or f. By the end of this little book your children will be reading lovely poems such as

When the stars, at set of sun,

Watch you from on high;

When the light of morn has come,

Think the Lord is nigh …

The First Reader is more of the same with the addition of two-syllable words and a little more emphasis on cursive ("script") penmanship. The Second Reader is a more progressive reading plan; it has a more detailed "Table of Vocals," which is a more detailed phonics table and punctuation mark definitions. This volume not only introduces three- and four-syllable words but is also the first reader to present each lesson in the form of stories. Each story not only uses the newly introduced words but also teaches lessons in poetry, family values, sibling relationships, forgiveness, animal stories, and overcoming fears in priceless prose such as "Afraid in the Dark," "The Broken Window," and "Kitty and Mousie." I can still hear my grandma reciting:

Two black eyes had little kitty,

Black as a crow;

And they spied the little mousie,

Long time ago …

Moving into the Third Reader, we broaden our range of phonics sounds by adding diphthongs and subvocals, along with "Exercises in Articulation," which include double vowel sounds and blends. This reader also introduces emphasis by using italics and capital letters. Punctuation is expanded by including marks and pauses such as hyphens (-), commas (,), semicolons (;), and colons (:), among others. Stories are more detailed and expansive, as this reader could carry children into sixth or seventh grade. Once again, these stories not only teach but also are a joy to read.

McGuffey's Fourth Reader, ideal for junior high level readers, draws readers deeper into phonics and develops the learner's articulation. This is reinforced through practice with inflection, illustrated at the top of the next column.

In this reader you will begin to find familiar stories and poems, including "Robinson Crusoe's House" by Daniel DeFoe and "Hugh Idle and Mr. Toil," adapted from a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. And just as the reading matures, you will find that the illustrations do as well, with pages featuring beautiful old engravings filled with fine detail.

The Fifth Reader brings a reader not only into upper junior high but also into senior high school level reading. With more complex phonics development, the reader will also learn more about inflections: circumflex, monotone, accent, emphasis, pitch, and poetic pauses. The Sixth Reader, high school and college level, jumps right in with articulation and dives further in with more on inflection, accent, emphasis, and reading verse. The Fifth and Sixth Readers are books that I simply enjoy "just reading." Here you will find many treasured old stories and poetry: "The Village Blacksmith" by Longfellow, "The Snowstorm" by Thomson; "Death of Little Nell" by Charles Dickens, Patrick Henry's Speech Before the Virginia Convention, sections of Shakespeare, the Bible, Washington Irving, Daniel Webster. These lessons will be well learned.

Ray's Arithmetic

Another happy find was the whole set of Ray's Arithmetic. This eight-volume set not only covers primary to "higher" math but also contains a parent-teacher guide, test examples, and two key books.

The parent-teacher guide, a new addition to the reproduced set, has great ideas and teaching schedules of sorts. Even if the publisher had stopped at the introduction, it would be worth having. You know, right off the bat, that you have a stellar teaching and learning aid when the introduction says:

While learning arithmetic, children develop their God-given, natural, biblical mode of thinking. Biblical thinking begins with the premises that God created everything and that basic truths of the creation are self-evident to us … With this mode of thinking and study, it is natural to view God's creation as orderly. Stars keep time more perfectly than clocks can ever manage, crystals teach solid geometry, musical tones … vibrate in the mathematical patterns that man discovers rather than creates. The heavens declare to us the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork.

Isn't that wonderful?

Also in the introduction you will find a chart that shows the suggested grade levels for each book: Primary = first and second grades; Intellectual = third and fourth grades; Practical = fifth and sixth grades; Higher = seventh and eighth grades. Another nice find is a suggested Scope and Sequence and Teaching Tips. My recommendation? "Suggestions" are always fine and appreciated, but remember, these are YOUR children and your school is YOUR school, so do what works best for you and yours.

As you may suspect, Ray's New Practical Arithmetic starts right out with Numbers and Figures. Every student must connect one object with the numeral 1 and the name "one." I was never a "sentence problem" kind of student, but the beginner "Oral Exercises" can be so much fun with the little ones. There is nothing like watching those little light bulbs click on! It has been my experience with other math programs that, in my humble opinion, they start the children on multiplication and division far too early. Even though this Primary book introduces multiplication and division, it's done in one of the simplest ways I have seen. But, once again, you know your children best. Use your own judgment as to when to dig deeper with your children.

Ray's New Intellectual Arithmetic begins with a review of addition and subtraction, including sentence problems, tables, and written problems. Since the book is recommended for third and fourth grades, it is a more appropriate time to work into multiplication and division. The tables are laid out perfectly, and this would be a good time to memorize them. You will not want for exercises; this book is replete with material.

From there we move on to fractions, tables, ratios, and percentages. The detail covered in this volume is something to be admired, and you will certainly understand how such a little book can easily be used for two years.

For grades 5 and 6 we move on to Ray's New Practical Arithmetic. This book takes students into the differences between the Arabic and Roman systems of notation and place value. After a review of addition and subtraction, we move into contractions of multiplication and division. From there we move into what my children always considered the "fun" side of math: money, measuring, time, miscellaneous tables, compound numbers, longitude, and time; then on into factors. This point would be a good stopping point for fifth grade so that in sixth grade we can move on to decimals, the metric system, percentages, interest, exchange of monies from different countries, insurance, taxes, ratio, and beginning geometry. These are very full years.

The last volume is Ray's New Higher Arithmetic, suggested for seventh and eighth grades. Here you will have the option of reviewing addition and subtraction or moving on to higher multiplication and division. Upon first glance at the table of contents, it would seem that there will be a lot of review; true on one hand, but not on the other. Once again there will be work on properties, fractions, decimals, ratio and percentage; but we will work at a much deeper level to include what are essentially introductions into accounting principles, taxes, stocks, profit and loss, commission, and algebra.

If you want to teach your children using the tried and true methods that worked so well for our forefathers and our grandparents, you will thoroughly enjoy using these wonderful reproduction books. There's truly nothing like them.


You will find both sets available through Christian Book Distributors (CBD) at or 1-800-247-4784. Books can be purchased in completed sets or separately.

Kim Wolf loves living in a small Ohio town with her husband of 21 years and their two teen daughters.  They have homeschooled since 1993 and are very active in the music ministry of their church.  She is a Miami County homeschool coordinator, a freelance writer, speaker, and Ohio coordinator for TOS.

Copyright 2007. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Fall 2007. Used with permission.