McGuffey Readers Review

Reading Apps

With their classic texts, incremental approach, extensive instruction and thorough coverage, McGuffey readers can still be an effective and values-oriented way of helping homeschooling students hone their reading and comprehension skills…even over a century after their initial publication.

What We Like

Highly affordable
Can be used through high school
Rigorous reading practice
Traditional values
Teaches more than just reading
Introduces students to classic literature and
authors from a young age
Old school illustrations are kind of cool
Gradual, incremental approach to learning

But watch out for

Some texts and vocabulary may not be readily
familiar to students…or parents
Not every child will be a fan of look and feel
Not the easiest to figure out

What Are McGuffey Readers?

McGuffey Readers are a series of reading primers originally published in 1881 by educator William Holmes McGuffy.

The series aims to help students develop their reading skill and fluency through the use of direct instruction, various classic texts, ample repetition and an incremental teaching style. 

Many different editions of McGuffey Readers have appeared over the decades and, although the series has fallen out of use in public schooling, the series still remains fairly popular among more traditionally-minded homeschools and some private schools. 

What Ages or Grades Are McGuffey Readers Intended For?

Determining the appropriate age or grade level for McGuffy Readers can be a bit trickier than with most modern day programs. 

Once a staple of the American one-room schoolhouse, the series was originally intended for students in grades 1-6, with the titles of the series (First Reader, Second Reader, etc) roughly correlating to their intended grade level. 

Due to the changing nature of educational standards, pedagogical approaches, literature and the English language, the series doesn’t really correlate to these grades anymore. 

The books can be a little more advanced than what is typically given to 6-12 year olds, with classic texts and vocabulary that we feel can be challenging for many younger students.

This can be particularly true at the upper levels of the series (4th, 5th and 6th readers), where students might see texts by Dickens, Emerson, Longfellow, Byron and others, authors whose works might be more at home in middle and high school (depending on the student, their background and skill, of course).

Based on their approximate lexile score, however, we feel that the following can be used as a very rough idea for placement:

1st Reader (Revised)1st grade, 2nd grade
2nd Reader (Revised)3rd grade, 4th grade
3rd Reader (Revised)5th grade
4th Reader (Revised)5th grade, 6th grade
5th Reader (Revised)Middle School (7th-9th)
6th Reader (Revised)High school (9th-12th)

On the whole, although the series is probably not the most ideal for remedial or struggling readers, it can be an interesting choice for more precocious or advanced students, particularly those whose homeschools lean a bit more towards traditional teaching methods. 

Series Look and Style

As might be expected of a series of books originally printed in the 19th century, McGuffey readers have a classic, old-school look and feel to them. 

The books are available in fairly vintage-looking hardcover and softcover editions and they vary in length – depending on their intended level, the books can be around 100-500 pages or so long. 

The books are printed in black and white and contain mostly text, although they do periodically include hand drawn illustrations from the late 19th – early 20th century. 

picture of illustration found in mcguffey readers showing vintage look and feel

These illustrations can be pretty cool to look at, although they aren’t perhaps quite as thrilling for kids as the full-color illustrations and designs included in modern reading programs such as Jolly Phonics or the Good and the Beautiful may be. 

On the whole, the texts included in the series tend to lean to the more traditional, providing classic stories, excerpts and poems for reading practice. 

These stories often touch on a variety of traditional values and morals that were commonly taught when these books were printed, such as perseverance, duty, respect, hard work and so on, and at times (and depending on the edition) reflect the Protestant faith and influence of the author through occasional references to scripture, prayer, good deeds and God. 

picture from mcguffey readers showing how it teaches faith and traditional values

While perhaps one of the contributing reasons as to why the series eventually fell out of favor in public schools during the latter half of the 20th century, the integration of traditional morality and faith in the texts can be something that classical and Christian homeschools might find appealing. 

As the McGuffey readers are filled with older texts of different kinds, parents do, of course, need to be careful as, at times, the included vocabulary, sentence structure and word usage can be a little confusing to students.

picture of a text in mcguffey readers showing classic sentence structure and unusual verbiage

It also means that parents will need to supplement more modern texts into a year’s learning in order to give students a more well-rounded and appropriate reading experience. 

It should be noted that there are quite a few editions of McGuffey readers out there to choose from.

There are, for example, revised editions with slightly easier to read/updated language and fewer direct references to Christianity and faith, as well as Charlotte Mason inspired versions, with added copywork, narration suggestions and direct guidance for using the readers in a more method-approved manner.

While these versions do have some slight differences, the core of McGuffey readers (the texts, style of language and even references to traditional values) tends to remain the same.

McGuffey Readers Approach To Teaching


As we’ve mentioned, McGuffey readers are a very traditional series of readers and tend to be what we today might consider classical in their approach.

Particularly from the third reader and up, the books rely on older and, in many cases, classic texts for practice material, including short stories, poems and even essays from great authors such as Daniel Defoe, Longfellow, Shakespeare and others. 

picture showing many of the classic authors and texts found in the mcguffey readers series

Additionally, and as we will discuss in more depth below, in addition to reading instruction, the books also help students develop their reasoning and comprehension, personal morality, articulation and even oratory skills, which are at least somewhat similar to the overall approach often taken by many of the classical ELA curricula we’ve seen

As a result, we feel that McGuffey readers can be a great fit for those who value a traditional or classical approach to homeschooling.

That said, the inclusion of more challenging written works and, at times, a more unusual vocabulary does mean that the series can be a bit more challenging for students at times, which can be an issue for families of struggling readers. 

Further, it is important to note that many of the texts do place at least some emphasis on traditional values, family dynamics and morality, which some families (especially more secular and progressive ones) may feel are a bit out of touch or out of date, even if they are by no means offensive. 


Although some of the texts that McGuffey readers include can be a bit more challenging for students raised in the modern world, the series is by no means overwhelming. 

In fact, the McGuffey readers tend to introduce concepts gradually and incrementally, introducing new words and and skills in reading, rhetoric and articulation over the course of a year and with plenty of practice, word repetition and exercises over the course of its lessons to help solidify current and previous learning. 

As a result, the series does go a long way in preventing the development of skill and knowledge gaps in reading and can seem a lot less overwhelming or intimidating for students and parents to go through.

That said, while the inclusion of frequent repetition and practice can make things a bit more approachable, quick studies may find the series a bit slow at times. 

More Than Just Reading Practice

Finally, the McGuffey readers do offer a good deal more to homeschooling families than simple reading practice. 

For example, the first part of each book tends to offer a fair amount of instruction in the concepts that will be presented, for instance by teaching essential letter sound connections and simple words and sentences in the earliest levels and articulation and oration in the later levels. 

We would probably recommend that the books’ instructional components be used as a supplement to a fuller program, particularly when it comes to phonics (largely to their relatively short length – usually less than ~30 pages of teaching material per book), but overall they are nice to have on hand. 

In addition, McGuffey readers also include a number of discussion questions at the end of each lesson, which can help families work on reading comprehension, and nearly always include a list of new words and their definitions, something that can help with vocabulary learning. 

Interestingly, later on during the series, the McGuffy readers also introduce principles of rhetoric and oration, which can cover public speaking and reading skills. 

picture showing some of the enunciation and public speaking exercises found in mcguffey readers

Consequently, we feel that the McGuffey books can be seen as a fairly comprehensive language program, rather than just a traditional reading supplement.

While perhaps a bit short at times and certainly not the most cutting edge in terms of teaching theory, the concepts taught are certainly still valid and, for those who are taken by its traditional style, can serve as a strong addition (if not a spine) to a K-12 ELA curriculum. 

This can be particularly good news for homeschoolers considering the relatively low price of the series as a whole and the fact that the books are pretty compact as learning resources.

Containing instruction, textual practice and reinforcing exercises all contained in each book, parents really won’t have to buy and store a lot of different teaching materials over the course of a year, which can be good news for larger families and those who struggle with keeping things organized. 

Parents should keep in mind, however, that the McGuffey readers don’t really formally cover much in the way of formal grammar, composition or handwriting, all of which will need to be supplemented by other programs. 

Further, as we’ve mentioned, because many of the readings are older/more traditional in nature, the series should be supplemented by modern examples of writing for balance and appropriate vocabulary development.

How It Works

Integrating the McGuffey readers into a modern homeschool setting is actually pretty simple and straightforward. 

Each book is intended to be used over the course of a year or so, with the student progressing to the next book only once they have mastered the readings and skills of the current level. 

Each book contains a short section at the front dedicated to teaching the fundamental skills and concepts that later lessons will touch on. 

For example, the first reader has a short section on essential word letter connection and short vowel words while later levels progress to articulation and enunciation, with specific instruction in poetic pauses, inflection and other oratory skills, such as projection and appropriate gesticulation. 

picture of pronunciation instruction found in mcguffey reader level 3

Following this instructional component, the books then progress to their lessons. 

These lessons are centered around a particular written text, which (depending on the level of course) could be an essay, poem, passage, excerpt or story. 

The lessons themselves tend to follow a rather predictable pattern, providing a bit of stability and familiarity as students work through the series. 

Lessons tend to include a list of new words that students will learn, up to about 20 or so (although usually fewer), as well as their definitions. 

picture showing vocabulary list in mcguffey reader lesson

Students then dive into the text, which may have illustrations and, at earlier levels, may have a section rewritten in cursive (called slate work as students used to work on personal blackboards), which can give students much needed reading and copywork practice in this traditional (and now less frequently used) written form. 

picture of cursive writing in mcguffey reader level one

At the end of each lesson, the books offer students a few questions to answer, which are intended to be used to test reading comprehension and a student’s understanding of new terms and concepts and act in lieu of any real formal quizzes or tests, which the books don’t readily include.

These questions can be answered in written form, as intended, or as a framework for narration and discussion exercises, something that those following a Charlotte Mason approach will probably prefer. 

Parents should be aware, however, that the McGuffey readers are not consumable items and there is no real room for student responses. 

As a result, students will have to work alongside a journal, notebook or loose leaf paper. 

Pros and Cons



A complete set of McGuffey readers can be very inexpensive, usually under $150 or so for a complete set of new copies of the revised edition.

Considering that the books can be used by families as an ELA resource through high school, this makes them very budget-friendly.


Generally speaking, McGuffey readers are quite thorough when it comes to reading and language instruction and the included texts and vocabulary can be a bit more advanced and challenging compared to more modern counterparts, providing students with a bit more of a rigorous English language education. 

Traditional outlook

McGuffey readers are filled with stories, essays and poems that often center around traditional values such as hard work, respect and bravery, which can help amenable families reinforce their children’s overall personal and moral development. 

Introduces younger students to classic literature and great authors

In addition to general reading practice, and particularly when it comes to the upper levels, McGuffey readers can help parents introduce their children to classic texts from authors such as Dickens, Shakespeare and more. 

Teaches more than just reading

While McGuffey readers are often primarily used as a way to practice reading, they also can help students work on their comprehension, vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling, cursive and oration skills, making it a fairly well-rounded program on the whole. 

Illustrations can be kind of cool

While perhaps not the most colorful and modern series of books out there, McGuffey readers do come with some hand drawn, black and white illustrations from the 19th century that can have a cool, vintage feel to them. 

Takes a gradual approach to teaching reading

McGuffey readers tend to introduce new words and concepts slowly over the course of a book and tend to provide students with lots of repetition and practice of learned concepts, both of which can make the series a lot less intimidating and frustrating to learn from.

Reading instruction shouldn’t be too unfamiliar to those using phonics programs

McGuffey readers do teach reading through phonetic instruction, with lessons dedicated to letter sound connections, blending, graphemes and so on. 

As a result, although originally written in the 19th century, its reading instruction should not be too unfamiliar to parents today. 


Texts and vocabulary can be unfamiliar to younger students

Filled with classic texts and dating back to the late 19th century, the vocabulary included in McGuffey readers can be a bit challenging and unfamiliar at times to younger students in the modern era. 

Not every child will be a fan of its illustrations

Although we feel that they do have a cool vintage look to them, the illustrations included in McGuffey readers are fairly simple compared to many modern printed readers and may not excite or engage some younger students quite as much. 

Not exactly the easiest program to figure out placement

At the end of the day, the McGuffey series no longer really correlates with current grade levels and, with the books themselves labeled 1-6, it can be a bit confusing and challenging at times for parents to find a reader that suits their child’s needs and abilities. 

Who Are McGuffey Readers Ideal For?

Those looking for a program that emphasizes traditional values and morals

With classic stories that are frequently centered around themes of bravery, faith, respect, family and so on, McGuffey readers can be a good choice for families looking to teach traditional values. 

Those looking for a very compact and affordable ELA resource

Each book in the McGuffey readers series includes instructional material, texts for practice and exercises for reinforcement, meaning that parents won’t have to buy and store a lot of extra materials. 

At the same time, because the entire program can be picked up fairly inexpensively, it is fairly budget-friendly as well. 

Those interested in a classical approach to teaching English

With its inclusion of classical works, as well as instruction in enunciation, memory work, rhetoric, cursive writing and more, McGuffey readers can be an excellent addition for homeschools interested in a more classical English language education. 

Those looking to introduce students to classical texts and great authors

At the upper levels especially, McGuffey readers contain works that are now considered classics, making the series an excellent resource for families looking to introduce their children to great works of English literature. 

Those looking for a more comprehensive program in language studies

In addition to reading, students working with McGuffey readers will also get practice in writing, rhetoric, comprehension and oration, making it a fairly comprehensive resource overall. 

Who Are They Not Ideal For?

Fans of modern literature and teaching methods

Although they have been revised over the years, the McGuffey readers are still considered fairly traditional in their instructional method and world outlook and may not be the best fit for those seeking cutting edge teaching techniques or a more generally progressive and modern resource. 

Fans of hands-on learning

Generally speaking, McGuffey readers are centered around traditional reading, recitation and writing exercises and don’t contain many of the more multisensory, kinesthetic and hands-on literacy activities that may be present in other programs. 

Those looking for simple and easy texts for practice

Many of the texts included in McGuffey readers can be a bit more challenging and rigorous compared to many modern alternatives, and their vocabulary and reading level may be a little tough for some students to get through. 


Note: All prices are correct as of writing, all prices in USD. 

The price of a set of McGuffey readers can depend a great deal on the version and retailer in question. 

Generally speaking, however, a complete boxed set of readers can cost around $130-140, with each individual book costing around $15-30, depending on their length and level. 


Are McGuffey Readers Worth It?

Overall, we feel that McGuffey readers can still provide a lot of value for the right homeschooling family. 

The books of the series are filled with interesting and classic stories, poems, and essays,  which not only provide students with high quality reading practice but also touch on themes of honor, respect, perseverance and more, which in turn  can serve to reinforce traditional morals and values. 

More than that the books also contain a good deal of instructional materials that, depending on the level in question, can teach students letter sound connections, blending skills, enunciation, writing (as slate work) and even oratory skills – all without requiring a lot of extra materials to buy and keep track of.

At the same time, the series takes an incremental approach to teaching, introducing new concepts slowly and providing a good deal of practice and repetition that can help students get a firmer grasp of the material and prevent skill and knowledge gaps from forming. 

Finally, due to the sophistication of some of the writings in later levels, the McGuffey Primer series can serve as a resource for students all the way from grade 1 through high school, meaning that parents, especially those with multiple children learning at home, can get a lot of use out of the series. 

Bottom Line

With their classic texts, incremental approach, extensive instruction and thorough coverage, McGuffey readers can still be an effective and values-oriented way of helping homeschooling students hone their reading and comprehension skills…even over a century after their initial publication.  

Picture of our author and editor Anne Miller

About the Author

Anne Miller is the editor of The Smarter Learning Guide and is a passionate advocate for education and educational technology. A mom of two, she majored in English Language and Literature and worked as a substitute teacher and tutor for several years. When not writing she continues to root for the Yankees and the Giants.