Teachers through History: William McGuffey

William McGuffey (1800-1873) was an academic and educator who developed his educational theories in to a widely-read and well respected series of textbooks. These ‘McGuffey Readers’ were so influential that they were used by the majority of American schools from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, and some private schools to this day, with the template itself considered the basis of most modern textbooks.


McGuffey, who was born in Pennsylvanian and grew up in Ohio, was an adept scholar from a young age and began teaching classes to other students at just 14 years old. It was during his time studying and working in the schools that he began to question the lack of structure and standardisation in teaching. The schools in the area at the time where mostly one-teacher establishments that took in students aged anywhere between 6 and 21 who were responsible for bringing in their own textbooks, these were usually copies of the bible as few textbooks where available. McGuffey worked in a succession of frontier schools, mainly in Kentucky, where he often worked for 11 hours a day, 6 days a week.


By aged 26 McGuffey, who had since completed a classical college education, had returned to teaching as the Professor of Languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Having grown to prominence for his sharp mind and bright ideas on how to improve education, he was asked to write a series of readers by the publisher Truman and Smith. These textbooks, known as Eclectic Readers, took a systematic approach to learning, starting with the alphabet and phonics, and progressing over 4 editions to writing poems, stories and answers to comprehension questions. The readers where immensely popular, selling over 120 million copies, and have long outlived their author who died on May 4, 1873 but will be remembered for years to come.

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