McGuffey Reader 1: Utilizing Public Domain Materials To Teach Reading

Amelia wants to learn how to read, so we have been trying to help her. We never used any kind of curriculum for Henry and for Ameila, I was looking for one built on lists of words that started simply and grew progressively more difficult. Since I much prefer a phonics approach to a sight-word one, I wanted the word lists to start with a few basic sounds and slowly add more. I didn’t want a bunch of worksheets, drills, or scripted activities. There are probably countless reading programs that offer just what I want, though I find the process of sorting through them overwhelming and the content often disappointing. I did like many things about Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, but I wanted something that wasn’t so scripted or so removed (for Amelia) from actual books. Amelia likes things she can carry around, hold, and manipulate.

Since deciding to homeschool and working on developing much of our own curriculum, I have found Project Gutenberg,, and other public domain archives to be invaluable resources. At Project Gutenberg, I came across the McGuffey Readers and downloaded McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader. This series was used throughout the U.S. at the turn of the century to teach reading, writing, and language skills.

IMG_0172The thing I like most about this text is that it simply provides letters (or sounds), words, and illustrations in a carefully graded sequence and trusts the teacher and student will make use of them. The brief introduction to the text offers some guidance for teachers, but the text lends itself to a great variety of approaches.

How we use the Reader

First, we made a sound stick. Amelia wasn’t eager to use her finger to point to words and sounds, so I put a happy face on the end of a popsicle stick and it became our sound stick.

Before working with Amelia, I put the words from the lesson onto index cards or print the lists I made, then we spend time working through each of them. (Each lesson also includes new sounds, but I don’t make cards for those. We learn them in the context of the words.)

We usually try a few different things:

  • Sound Hops: We use the sound stick to stop at each letter, make the sound, and hop to the next one
  • Sound Slide: We slide the sound stick along the word and say the sounds as we touch them (it is like reading the word very slowly)
  • Read it: We read the word quickly

We spend as much time on each lesson as it takes for Amelia to be fairly confident in each of the words (usually a few days at least). Once she knows the words, we put them together into short sentences like those in the McGuffey book. I keep all of the words we have learned in a stack so we can incorporate words from previous lessons in our sentences.

I wanted to add something more tangible and that would give Amelia a sense of accomplishment, so once we finished lesson 4, I made a few short books for her using the words we had learned (though I did have to add one or two others). The word list is limited and the stories are not exactly stellar works of fiction, but Amelia seems to enjoy her books a great deal. I left space on each page for her to draw illustrations and the words are large enough for us to use our sound stick.

We have only been using the Reader lessons for a little while, but I have noticed quite a bit of progress since we started. They are fun, flexible, and they seem like a fairly authentic way to teach reading.


As I create and edit more files, I will add them to the list:

Word Lists for Lessons 1-4

I underlined the blends/digraphs/dipthongs to indicate that the two letters make one sound. There are plenty of extra cards in case you want to add any additional words. We included the names of everyone in our family.


Print the pages, cut them in half, and staple the pages together. Note that there are some blank lines where you can write in names. Each file will open as a .pdf.

McGuffey Story 1

McGuffey Story 2

McGuffey Story 3

McGuffey Story 4

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