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How to Teach Spelling with McGuffey Readers

Teach spelling with the 1857 McGuffey Readers, with advice from Charlotte Mason

In the First Eclectic Reader, McGuffey's instructions are simple: "Let the child spell each word in the line, then read the line." Remember that these readers were written for use in one-room schoolhouses, so when the instruction is given for students to spell, this generally meant that the student would stand and spell the word aloud, then say it. McGuffey suggests that each word be spelled phonetically, using the sound rather than the name of the letter.
Teach spelling using the 1857 McGuffey Readers, with a bit of advice from Charlotte Mason
For words of more than one syllable, each syllable would be spelled aloud, then pronounced, and the entire word spelled out and said at the end. For example, a student spelling "kitten" would spell and pronounce:
  • k-i-t: kit,
  • t-e-n: ten
  • k-i-t-t-e-n: kitten

The student is expected to write the words on a slate or blackboard, as well. In the early readers, words are presented with a hyphen between syllables so there is no guesswork as to where syllables fall. Throughout the curriculum, McGuffey seems to intend that individual reading and spelling practice should be in the context of sentences, rather than lists, which seems consistent with classical principles. 

Benefits of oral spelling

Spelling words were usually practiced by spelling and reciting together, then tested by individual recitation. This multi-sensory approach helped students to become intimately familiar with the look and sound of each individual letter and letter combination.

In addition, oral recitations in a multi-grade classroom meant that students who struggled with reading or spelling would hear words spelled and pronounced many times, automatically providing repetition that would help them become better spellers. Advanced students who listened to upper grade recitations were often able to move ahead as they proved themselves capable, just as they can in a homeschool setting.

Spelling for Auditory, Visual, and Kinesthetic Learners

Teach spelling with McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader, suitable for pre-K -1McGuffey's method of teaching spelling is particularly effective for auditory learners, because students are hearing each part of the word, and then the whole, repeatedly spelled and pronounced.

However, Charlotte Mason suggests that spelling is principally a visual activity. She reminds parents that ‘the gift of spelling depends upon the power the eye possesses to 'take' (in a photographic sense) a detailed picture of a word.” If you have ever looked at a word and said, "That looks wrong," it is because your eye had at some point taken a mental snapshot of the correctly spelled word.

Auditory and kinesthetic learners are less likely to to have strong visual word images, so McGuffey's method adds auditory input, which strengthens the learning process. For kinesthetic learners, you may add an additional sensory element.

For some students, the drag of chalk on a chalkboard, particularly with large letters, can help to connect the shape and sound to the spelling of a word. A whiteboard does not have the same effect — its surface is too slick, providing no friction and almost guaranteeing ugly writing.

Other options for a kinesthetic learner include spelling in the air using full-arm motions; spelling in a tray of sand, rice, or wheat; spelling with magnetic letters; or spelling with puzzles or songs.

Spend time looking at correctly spelled words, not mistakes

To teach spelling for all learning types, Miss Mason suggests that parents and teachers take care that students do not spend time looking at misspelled words, as doing so will result in lasting confusion. She states, “Once the eye sees a misspelt word, that image remains; and if there is also the image of the word rightly spelt, we are perplexed as to which is which . . . It becomes, therefore, the teacher's business to prevent false spelling, and, if an error has been made, to hide it away, as it were, so that the impression may not become fixed.”

Just as a banker studies real currency in order to not be deceived by a forgery, it is essential that students study only correctly spelled words until spelling them becomes second nature. (Charlotte Mason quotes excerpted from Home Education, pp. 240-243)

How to Teach Spelling with McGuffey Readers

  1. Spell: Say the sound of each letter aloud.
  2. Pronounce: Pronounce each syllable as it is spelled.
  3. Speak: Say the entire word.
  4. Practice: Write the word at least once.
  5. Test: Spell the word aloud or on paper.

First ReaderSecond Reader • Third Reader

Fourth Reader • Fifth Reader • Sixth Reader


  • Jessica, thank you for asking about sounding out silent letters. There are a couple of approaches, but what I did with my boys was to ask them if there was a spelling principle they could think to apply to the word. If they didn’t remember one, I’d suggest the spelling principle that says “when two vowels walk together, the first one says its name and the second one is silent.” When they spelled the word aloud, they would just say “silent a” and not use the phonetic sound for the letter.

    There are many exceptions to spelling rules, but I grew up using principles like this as a starting point. It seems helpful, and it can be especially encouraging for struggling spellers to have something to try. If they try sounding it out and the letters sound like a word, the principle fit. If it doesn’t sound right, there may be another one that does. I hope that helps!

    Janice Campbell
  • “McGuffey suggests that each word be spelled phonetically, using the sound rather than the name of the letter.” What about a word such as speak with that silent a? The child would say “ssss puh ee aaah kuh”? It seems like pronouncing the a as a silent a instead of just saying its name would be confusing for those who struggle with spelling.

  • Thank you for this very simple explanation! I’m currently using the original McGuffey’s second reader with my son and have wondered how the spelling lesson would have been structured.

  • Hi, Rachel!
    We do have the 1879 editions in hardcover, and they are a bit larger. I’ve been thinking of putting these 1856 Readers in hardcover as well, but it is a more expensive option. I appreciate the feedback, though, and will definitely consider it!

  • Hi I
    Ove the edition you published. I wish it came in hard copy form like the Mott Media books for long term use. I also wish the printing was easier to read . I love the books but find the quality of the binding and printing hard to use on a daily basis and long term use with multiple children in the family. I am hoping for a future reprint. I do love the books so thank you for making them available.

    Rachel T.

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