An Investigation of Questions in McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Readers

Alice M. Scales
Li-Bi Shen

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In this study, we examined why McGuffey used questions, and found that he believed that the use of questions during instruction would ensure that students understood the lesson. We also examined the type and level of questions in three of his Second Eclectic Readers. We found that the majority (1,218) were wh- questions, while 265 were yes-no and 27 were of other types. Classification systems by Bloom and by Pearson and Johnson were used to classify questions by levels. Overall, we found more questions classified at the knowledge and textually explicit levels than at any other level.

Introduction | Background and Purpose | Method | Results | Discussion and Conclusions | Implications | References | Related Resources

During the nineteenth century, the McGuffey readers were used to teach millions of children in the United States to read (Spring, 1986). They were the best known textbooks of their time in the U.S., surpassing even The New England Primer and Noah Webster’s The American Spelling Book in sales (Nietz, 1961): “From their first publication in 1836 through the two major revisions of 1857 and 1879, the McGuffeys outsold all the rest” (Gorn, 1998, p. 2). Between 1836 and 1922, approximately 122 million copies were sold (Spring, p. 141; Venezky, 1987, p. 251). (Covers from the first and second readers are shown at right. Find more information about the readers and links to sites with additional resources and images.)

Teachers were satisfied with the McGuffeys. Stories in them reflected “the popular moral philosophy of beginning industrialization and increased immigration” (Shannon, 1989, p. 7). At the time, there were concerns about morality, virtuous behavior, and children’s character development (Elson, 1959). The readers were ideal for helping to shape the moral values of children (Norstad, 1995, online abstract; Spring, 1986). Their influence on public education in the United States was profound.

From 1836 to about 1920, the McGuffeys “served as the main reading materials, confirmed moral values and truths, and shaped the literary tastes of American children” (Bohning, 1986, p. 263). But although the stories they included were designed to imbue students with religious, moral, and ethical principles, questions for instructional purposes were also included. Further, the McGuffeys “were among the earliest schoolbooks to introduce vocabulary gradually, use word repetition, and control sentence length” (Bohning, p. 264). The first text-based comprehension questions appeared in a section of McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Reader, in 1836.

Our review of several reading methods textbooks used today in teacher preparation classes revealed no comments about the McGuffeys. We assume that this piece of American education history is largely being omitted in teacher preparation classes as well. After having been used to teach not only reading skills but also social values to five generations of American children, we question why the McGuffey readers are not more prominent in teacher preparation materials. According to Monaghan and Hartman (2001; online document) the history of literacy education provides a connection between our past and our present practice and research. It helps students to explore such why questions as “Why did the McGuffey readers become so popular in the 19th century? Why did the popularity of the McGuffey readers wane? How important is it for teacher preparation programs to include the history of the McGuffey readers? What does research say about the McGuffey readers?”

  cover of McGuffey's first reader

cover of McGuffey's second reader

During the 1800s, when the McGuffeys were the most popular textbooks in the United States, little reading research was conducted; only 34 reading studies were reported between 1884 and 1910, for example (Staiger, 1968, online abstract). The McGuffey readers had great longevity (Nietz, 1964), and their promotion of teaching techniques (e.g., vocabulary study, word identification, questioning) could have been the subject of considerable research over the years. The sparseness of reports encouraged us to conduct more study and research of our own. In this article, we report a study on the technique of questioning included in McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Readers.

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Background and Purpose

Questions that prompt recall of information, shape understanding, and encourage reflection play an important role in the learning process (Morgan & Saxton, 1994, p. 41). Postman (as cited in Morgan & Saxon, p. 9) points out that “question-asking is our most important intellectual tool.” Questions shape students’ comprehension and concept of what is important in a text: “What you ask about is what children learn” (Wixson, 1983, p. 287).

Questioning promotes thinking. “The role of questioning is crucial to the development of thinking. Questions asked and pupil responses constitute the main language of the classroom. The kind of question determines the kind of thought process necessary to answer it” (Cooke, 1970, p. 5). Questions are a vehicle for developing thinking skills (Vaughn, 1976), and “can be used to develop concepts, build background, clarify reasoning processes, and even lead students to higher levels of thinking” (Gunning, 2000, p. 260). By asking the right questions, teachers can lead students into all kinds of thinking and help them develop a variety of skills (Guszak, 1967; Sanders, 1966).

In the area of comprehension, however, some questions that teachers ask do not require reading the text; they “do not ask for new knowledge gained” (Haupt, 1977, p. 193). Instead of responding to questions, Harp (1989) indicates that students can demonstrate their comprehension of text through literature logs, small group discussion, and individual projects. Questions could then emerge during group discussion, for example, and individuals can use self-questioning to reveal their thoughts before, during, and after reading. Before reading, questions may be used to establish a purpose for reading, during reading they can be used to determine whether text is understood, and after reading they can help assess knowledge and use of the text (Ryder & Graves, 1994; Scales & Rhee, 2001). In this way, questions “can function as a measure of comprehension” and “post-hoc probes for organizing and integrating text content” (Beck & McKeown, 1981, p. 913).

Note, however, that postreading questions might limit learning. For example, the way teachers ask questions, the way students respond to those questions, and the way teachers evaluate responses may “not allow for questions that reveal ignorance, request clarification, puzzle over meaning, express curiosity, draw comparisons, or raise hypotheses on the part of either students or teachers” (Allington & Weber, 1993, p. 61). Even so, questions are needed, and “it is important to know the nature of questions” (Armbruster & Ostertag, 1993, p. 70). We believe that understanding the types and uses of questions will help position teachers to employ effective questioning for instructional purposes. Much research has examined the use of questions in current commercial basal readers (see, e.g., Beck & McKeown, 1981, 1987; Cooke, 1970; Habecker, 1976; Hare, 1982; Mangano, 1983, online abstract; Vaughn, 1976; Walter, 1985, online abstract); research on the use of questioning in earlier reading textbooks is sporadic.

Our intent with this study was to examine the nature of comprehension questions in the earliest published reading textbooks used in the United States. To begin, we searched for those textbooks, and particularly for those that included text comprehension questions. Our findings revealed several published readers; three were designed for teaching reading and speaking skills and intended to ensure that pupils used correct tone and gestures as they read (Bingham, 1794; Murray, 1832; Pierpont, 1826). Two further readers were intended for teaching reading at the elementary levels (Cobb, 1830; Worcester, 1826). None of these five readers, however, contained comprehension questions. Another reader by Worcester (1830), designed to teach reading and spelling, did contain questions; most focused on word analysis and word meaning, with only a few about text comprehension. With Emerson’s (1833) reader, pupils were supposed to read the text, and then teachers were to question pupils about the text’s general meaning and important vocabulary. However, Emerson did not include the questions.

Unlike authors of earlier published readers (with the exception of Worcester, 1830), in his Second Eclectic Readers McGuffey (1836, 1844, 1857) provided a large number of questions for reading instructional purposes. Hence, we selected these readers for study of early textbooks’ inclusion of questioning techniques. Specifically, we investigated McGuffey’s types and levels of questions.

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Understanding Questions

“Questions function in both reading and teaching situations” (Melnik, 1968, p. 509). In reading, questions establish a basis for identifying and clarifying a reader’s purpose; this influences the method of reading, degree of comprehension, reading rate, and the skills employed. In teaching situations, students’ concepts of reading are largely influenced by the type of questions their teachers ask. Questions may cause wonder, uncertainty, doubt, or suspicion. Yet, used appropriately, they can lead to new knowledge and skill, help to quell controversy, and promote useful discussion. Richards, Platt, and Platt (1992, p. 303) define question this way:

A sentence which is addressed to a listener/reader and asks for an expression of fact, opinion, belief, etc. In English, questions may be formed: (a) by the use of a question word such as what, how, when, where, why; (b) by the use of an operator in the first position in a sentence, as in Can she come?; (c) through the use of intonation, as in She isn’t married?; and (d) by the use of a question tag such as isn’t it, is it, can he, won’t she, do you, etc.; for example: Patricia is a student, isn’t she?

This definition helped us focus our study on types and levels of questions. The question types were those formed by a question word (wh- questions) and those that require a yes or no response. Wh- questions require readers to provide specific content information in their answers; yes-no questions require readers to show their agreement or disagreement on an issue or statement. Additionally, the definition assisted us in directing our thinking toward levels of questions. We felt that classifying the questions in the McGuffey readers by intellectual level would reveal their instructional purpose. Classification of questions used to evoke thinking has been studied through several systems. Guilford’s (1950) and Bloom’s (1956) development of models to study intellectual processes or whether situations are understood appears to be the baseline for developing classification systems. Building on their work, several other classification systems have been developed.

For the purposes of our study, we examined one baseline system developed by Bloom (1956). His system is a useful guide for constructing questions on a variety of levels as well as for judging questions that have already been created. It can be used to evaluate students’ comprehension of text. Table 1 shows Bloom’s levels and operations. The first level, knowledge, involves the recalling of facts, events, and details. Comprehension, the second level, refers to one’s ability to go beyond knowledge to translate and explain information. Application, the third level, refers to applying information to existing or hypothetical situations. Analysis involves critical investigation of information received. Synthesis refers to the ability to re-assemble and present information in a more creative format. The sixth level is evaluation, or one’s ability to place value on the importance of an idea and judge it using established criteria (Swaby, 1984, p. 95).

Table 1
Bloom’s Classification System, by Levels and Operations

Level Operations for Learning Outcomes
Knowledge Involves recall of information and knowing; illustrated by telling, citing, showing, listing, locating, stating, reciting, repeating
Comprehension Refers to understanding or apprehension of material and ability to make use of it; illustrated by describing, explaining, reviewing, inferring, translating, paraphrasing, predicting, summarizing, discussing
Application Ability to use abstractions in concrete situations and apply them to other instances; illustrated by modeling, trying, operating, manipulating, diagramming, demonstrating
Analysis Process of breaking down communication so that ideas are explicit; illustrated by organizing, making connections, categorizing, scrutinizing, dissecting, proving, inspecting
Synthesis Ability to put elements or parts together to make a whole; illustrated by explaining, creating, composing, hypothesizing, deducing, imagining, formulating, elaborating, designing
Evaluation Judging the value of methods and materials for set criteria; illustrated by justifying, appraising, recommending, criticizing, supporting, reflecting, awarding, censuring

We also examined classification systems developed by Aschner-Gallagher (Gallagher, 1965), Smith and Barrett (1974), and Pearson and Johnson (1978). The Aschner-Gallagher system, as illustrated in Table 2, shows cognitive-memory, convergent, divergent, and evaluative types of thinking and questioning operations. Cognitive-memory “represents the simple reproduction of facts, formulae, or other items of content remembered through use of such processes as recognition, rote memory, and selective recall” (Gallagher, p. 24). Convergent thinking represents analysis and integration of data remembered, leading to one answer. Divergent thinking shows that one is able to generate ideas with limited data about a topic and, subsequently, to show a new perspective for that topic. Evaluative thinking allows for judgment of situations, deciding on values, and making choices (Swaby, 1984, p. 96).

Table 2
Aschner-Gallagher’s Classification System, by Levels and Operations

Level Operations for Learning Outcomes
Cognitive-memory Represents the reproduction of fact or other items; illustrated by recalling, recognizing, rote memory, identifying, observing, answering yes/no, defining, naming
Convergent Portrays the analysis and integration of given data, leading to one result; illustrated by explaining, summarizing, describing, stating relationships, comparing, contrasting
Divergent Shows intellectual freedom to generate ideas from given data; illustrated by predicting, hypothesizing, inferring, reconstructing, finding alternatives, guessing
Evaluative Allows judgmental quality of various situations; illustrated by giving an opinion, justifying, choosing, supporting, valuing

The Smith and Barrett (1974) classification system was influenced by Bloom (1956). It consists of four major categories: literal recognition or recall, inference, evaluation, and appreciation. Details for each category are shown as operations in Table 3.

Table 3
Smith and Barrett’s Classification System, by Levels and Operations

Level Operations for Learning Outcomes
Literal recognition or recall Requires locating or identifying explicit information or situations; illustrated by recognizing or recalling details and main ideas, sequencing, comparing, examining cause/effect relationships and character traits
Inference Requires thinking and imagination beyond the printed page; illustrated by inferring supporting details and main idea, sequencing, comparing, examining cause-effect relationships and character traits, predicting outcomes, focusing on figurative language
Evaluation Requires determining the truthfulness of text; illustrated by judgment of reality or fantasy, fact or opinion, adequacy or validity, appropriateness, desirability or acceptability
Appreciation Involves increasing sensitivity to various types of literary genres; illustrated by emotional response to plot or theme, identification with characters and incidents, reactions to the author’s use of language, response to generating images

The final classification system we examined was developed by Pearson and Johnson (1978). These authors believe that reading is a process in which meaning is derived from an interaction of reader with text. Table 4 shows their question types as textually explicit, textually implicit, and scriptally implicit. Textually explicit questions are literal or factual recall questions; this is considered as “reading the lines.” Textually implicit questions require reading between the lines, while scriptally implicit questions require reading beyond the lines to find an answer.

Table 4
Pearson and Johnson’s Classification System, by Levels and Operations

Level Operations for Learning Outcomes
Textually explicit Question and answer are cued by text language; illustrated by reading the lines
Textually implicit Question and answer are not bound by language cue on the page; illustrated by reading between the lines
Scriptally implicit Text question with nontextual response; illustrated by reading beyond the lines

There are parallels across these classification systems. “Knowledge,” “cognitive-memory,” “literal,” and “textually explicit” can be interpreted as similar levels. “Comprehension,” “convergent,” “inference,” and “textually implicit” can be used to request similar or different information within learning situations. “Application,” “analysis,” and “synthesis” from Bloom’s system, “divergent” from Aschner-Gallagher, and “scriptally implicit” from Pearson and Johnson can be used to request information that is similar or different in learning situations. All systems claim an evaluation level; in Pearson and Johnson, it is embedded in the “scriptally implicit” level. A note of caution (as suggested by Gallagher, 1965, p. 146) when discussing the Aschner-Gallagher system: There appears to be an intimate interrelationship between the operations. Because of this, overlap within, between, and among systems was perceived.

We determined that, for our study, we would use the Bloom and Pearson and Johnson classification systems. Our rationale was that this would ensure that questions were subjected to a rigorous form of classification. Bloom’s classification system is detailed and direct (the type of comprehension expected, based on questions, can be determined in a detailed logically sound hierarchical fashion) and, though Pearson and Johnson’s is not as detailed, it is comparable and hierarchical. In as much as we found the Aschner-Gallagher and Smith and Barrett systems interesting, we also recognized their similarity in comprehension expectations to the Bloom and Pearson and Johnson systems. As such, we felt it unnecessary to use them to classify questions in this analysis.

Examination of the McGuffey Readers

We examined all available McGuffey readers in the Hillman Library of the University of Pittsburgh, in western Pennsylvania, United States. All readers were original copies from the 1800s, housed in one of the library’s special collections. After examining all available books, we focused our attention on the eight Second Readers, published in 1836, 1844, 1848, 1853, 1857, 1865, 1879, and 1896. All but the 1879 and 1896 editions contained question sections. These were titled “Questions” in the earlier editions, but “Exercises” appears instead in the 1865 edition. We then selected McGuffey’s 1836, 1844, and 1857 editions for our study because they differed significantly from one another: The 1836 edition is the first edition; the 1844 edition is a “newly revised” edition; and the 1857 edition was revised and new materials were added. Other editions were re-copyrighted with only slight changes.

In the 1836 reader, there is a preface, table of contents, and suggestions for teachers to follow prior to teaching the first lesson. For each lesson, there are reading passages, postreading questions, a list of vocabulary words, and a list of words divided into syllables. In the 1844 edition, similar content appears, and diacritical marks were added to assist in pronunciation. New materials, including exercises in articulation before lessons, were added to the 1857 edition.

Questions in each of the readers are value laden. Most ask children about morality, conduct, and virtues. In fact, 52% in the 1836 edition, 46% in the 1844 edition, and 75% in the 1857 edition deal with these topics. Other questions ask about word definitions, nature, God, and animals. In the 1844 edition, 23% ask about word definitions. Fifteen percent ask about nature and 13% about God and religion in the 1836 edition. In the 1857 edition, 11% ask about animals. Spring (1986) suggests that McGuffey’s goal was to impart moral lessons. We concur. McGuffey intentionally provided questions that would encourage children to think about the consequences of their behavior and to believe in God.


Questions in the 1836, 1844, and 1857 McGuffey’s Second Readers were examined. The questions were grouped as yes-no, wh-, or “other types.” Next, we used Bloom and Pearson and Johnson’s classification systems to categorize questions by level.

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Our focus in this study was to explore why McGuffey used questions, and to determine the type and level of questions he provided in his Second Readers.

Why Use Questions?

McGuffey’s first concern was that “the teacher be assured that pupils understand what they read” (Minnich, 1936, p. 65). He thought that this could be accomplished by having the teacher ask questions in a conversational tone. Teachers were to use their own questions or those furnished in his books, which were designed “to ensure that the student had not only read the passage, but read it with comprehension” (McGuffey, 1836, p. iii). They also “served as a strong reinforcement of the lesson’s moral and/or religious applications” (Lindberg, 1976, p. 25).

Questions were used to instruct students in religious virtues and to help them accept and appreciate their lives as experienced (Mosier, 1947). For example, one story in the 1844 reader shows a rich boy yearning to help the poor; he states that he will give as much money to the poor as he can. A second story has a poor boy wanting to earn a good living, and suggests that God makes some people poor and others rich but that the poor can be happy if they are good. One pointed question after this story asks, “If children are poor, should they complain at their lot?” Spring (1986, p. 145) believes that these stories “provide a justification for economic inequality and a rationale for accepting one’s position in life.”

McGuffey’s readers “exercised a persuasive influence over the mind, the morals, and the manners of the American people” (Mosier, 1947, p. 170). For example, “How the World Was Made” in the 1836 reader is a synopsis of the creation story from the Bible’s Book of Genesis. This story tells students that God created our universe, made the earth and everything on and above it, and made man. One of the questions for teachers to ask students after reading this story is “By whom was the earth made?” Another pointed question is “What was made last?” There is no doubt about the intended answers.

Type of Questions

We found two general types of questions in McGuffey’s 1836, 1844, and 1857 readers: those having to do with pronunciation and those that focus on comprehension and story content.

Before each reading lesson and right after the word list, McGuffey listed questions that could help students learn sounds in words, as in the following examples:

Comprehension questions appear after every lesson in the 1836 and 1844 editions; they appear after all lessons except numbers 1, 21, 41, 44, 49, 50, 52, 58, and 70 in the 1857 edition. We grouped these questions as yes-no, wh-, and “other.” Examples of McGuffey’s yes-no questions are

Examples of his wh- questions are

Questions that we grouped as “other” asked students to retell the story, connect the story to a situation, describe an incident, or relate the story to their behavior.

Table 5 shows the number and proportion of yes-no, wh-, and “other” questions in the three readers.

Table 5
Number and Distribution of Types of Questions in McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Readers

Question Type 1836 Edition 1844 Edition 1857 Edition Total
Yes-no 139 (25.1%) 101 (15.5%) 25 (8.2%) 265 (17.5%)
Wh- 410 (74.1%) 544 (83.3%) 264 (86.8%) 1,218 (80.7%)
Other 4 (0.7%) 8 (1.2%) 15 (4.9%) 27 (1.8%)
Total 553 653 304 1,510

A chi-square test (X2 = 61.226, df = 4, p < .0005) shows that the proportion of yes-no questions significantly decreased over the years while the proportion of wh- questions significantly increased. The number of other types of questions also increased over the years, though not significantly. Of the total number of questions in the three readers, 17.5% were yes-no, 80.7% were wh-, and 1.8% were other types. Additionally, the number of wh- questions surpassed the yes-no and other types of questions in each year.

There were many types of wh- questions. Table 6 shows the number and proportion for each type by edition of the readers. The 1844 edition had the greatest number of wh- questions. All textbooks had more of the ’what’ type than other types of wh- questions.

Table 6
Number and Distribution of Types of Wh- Questions in McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Readers

Wh- Question Type 1836 Edition 1844 Edition 1857 Edition Total
What (thing) 262 (63.9%) 314 (57.7%) 165 (62.5%) 741 (60.8%)
42 (10.2%) 43 (7.9%) 24 (9.1%) 109 (8.9%)
How (means/method) 42 (10.2%) 92 (16.9%) 30 (11.4%) 164 (13.5%)
Where (place) 21 (5.1%) 26 (4.8%) 11 (4.2%) 58 (4.8%)
When (time) 23 (5.6%) 20 (3.7%) 4 (1.5%) 47 (3.8%)
Why (reason) 17 (4.2%) 31 (5.7%) 27 (10.2%) 75 (6.1%)
Which (choice) 3 (0.7%) 18 (3.3%) 3 (1.1%) 24 (2.6%)
Total 410 544 264 1,218

Results show that McGuffey’s trend was to use more wh- than yes-no questions throughout his readers. What explanations are there for this trend? Were the wh- questions perceived as providing more instructional value than the yes-no and other types of questions? Nietz (1964) suggests that revisions were necessary to maintain the popularity of the readers. The fact that the proportion of wh- questions systematically increased over yes-no and other types of questions shows that the textbooks were indeed revised. Questions were important. Apparently McGuffey recognized that different types of questions were necessary for teachers to use as they instructed students in understanding text and promoted moral behavior by drawing attention to the behavior of story characters.

Level of Questions

We classified McGuffey’s questions by levels. Table 7 shows the number and proportion of questions according to Bloom’s classification system. Most questions were at the knowledge level, with the 1857 edition having the highest proportion of questions in this category. A higher proportion of comprehension- than evaluation-level questions was found. The 1844 edition had the highest proportion of both comprehension- and evaluation-level questions.

Table 7
Number and Distribution of Questions from McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Readers, According to Bloom’s Classification System

Edition Knowledge Comprehension Application Analysis Synthesis Evaluation
1836 291 (52.6%) 147 (26.6%) 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%) 115 (20.8%)
1844 294 (45.0%) 218 (33.4%) 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%) 141 (21.6%)
1857 220 (72.4%) 48 (15.8%) 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%) 0 (0.0%) 36 (11.8%)
Total 805 413 0 0 0 292

Table 8 shows the number and proportion of questions according to Pearson and Johnson’s classification system; it is parallel to Bloom’s. The largest proportion of questions for all editions is textually explicit; the second largest is textually implicit. The 1857 edition had the highest proportion of textually explicit questions, while the 1844 edition had the highest proportion of textually implicit and scriptally implicit questions.

Table 8
Number and Distribution of Questions from McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Readers, According to Pearson and Johnson’s Classification System

Edition Textually Explicit Textually Implicit Scriptally Implicit
1836 291 (52.6%) 147 (26.6%) 115 (20.8%)
1844 294 (45.0%) 218 (33.4%) 141( 21.6%)
1857 220 (72.4%) 48 (15.8%) 36 (11.8%)
Total 805 413 292

Results of classification of questions by both Bloom’s and Pearson and Johnson’s systems agree for all levels. Both classification systems revealed higher proportions for the 1857 edition on the knowledge and textually explicit levels. The second highest proportion was for the 1844 edition at the comprehension and textually implicit levels. These results lead us to believe that McGuffey was adamant about students learning and applying the messages taught through stories in his books. In his 1857 reader, there are more knowledge and textually explicit questions than other types. Use of these questions ensured that students “read the lines,” and that they were able to recall, tell, locate, and recite information. His 1844 reader includes more comprehension and textually implicit questions, which were used to direct students to read between the lines. As well, students had to explain, infer, paraphrase, discuss, and summarize.

We assumed that the difference in distribution of questions from 1844 to 1857 related to teacher instruction. Were teaching methods altered between those years? Did McGuffey want teachers to emphasize locating and reciting information in 1857 and explaining and inferring it in 1844?

In discussing instructional methods, Venezky (1987) concludes that methods did not change during that time and focused primarily on whole-word and analytical methods. As such, students were expected to spell and pronounce words. Teachers were drillmasters; they relied on textbooks. Students were drilled until textbook information was mastered. McGuffey’s books were designed to teach children to accept and be happy with their lives. In his 1844 edition, students were asked to explain and explore whatever content was present in the book. But, in the years immediately before the Civil War, as politicians and others in the United States discussed slavery and other explosive social issues, McGuffey’s textbook questions became more restrictive. To answer those knowledge/textually explicit questions in the 1857 book, students had to “read the line” and recite what was read. Seemingly, this was one way of keeping students immersed in those religious and political beliefs valued at the time.

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Discussion and Conclusions

From 1836 to 1920, more McGuffey readers were used to teach U.S. schoolchildren to read than were any other reading textbooks. Many teachers relied on his stories and questions. If what we ask about is what children learn, then questions play a significant role in children’s schooling. In this study, we examined the reasons why McGuffey used questions in his readers as well as his type and level of questions.

Questions in the McGuffey readers were used to assist students in understanding what they read. One way for teachers to involve students in lessons is by asking them questions, though this should not be the only strategy used. Teachers should also provide opportunities for pupils to discuss, locate, relate, and interpret text. Instructional information in the readers did suggest a multiple-strategy approach to teaching reading. Research suggests not only that teachers use questions to guide and monitor students’ comprehension of text, but that they employ multiple strategies; these strategies include asking and answering questions, generating questions, summarizing and clarifying text, and predicting the intent of text (National Reading Panel, 2000, online document).

Our results revealed that McGuffey’s readers had more wh- and yes-no questions than other types, and more wh- than yes-no questions. In fact, over the years, the number of yes-no questions plummeted, from a high of 139 in the 1836 edition to a low of 25 in 1857. The use of yes-no and wh- questions suggested to us that the readers were being revised to meet consumer demand. Certainly, teachers continued to use them in classrooms from decade to decade.

More of McGuffey’s questions were at the knowledge and textually explicit levels than at other levels. Use of questions at these levels require that after reading, students are able to tell, recite, show, or locate information in the text. In other words, they must demonstrate more than a yes-no response. The second largest group of questions were classified as comprehension and textually implicit. These questions are used to engage students in such comprehension tasks as describing, explaining, predicting, summarizing, and discussing after reading. To fulfill these tasks, students must first have knowledge of the text; then they should use that knowledge to show that they can use the text by reading between the lines. McGuffey’s questions, then prompted students to not only read the lines but to read between the lines as well.

Minnich (1936) states that McGuffey was the pioneer in his field. We recognize that not only did McGuffey’s questions show that he was interested in teaching students how to think and letting them show that they understood the text, but his content suggests that he wanted to teach children moral lessons as well. Indeed, McGuffey’s textbooks were designed to provide directions for a way of life for children in the United States.

Our investigation of McGuffey’s questions reveals one of the earliest meaning-getting models for teachers and students. McGuffey felt that questions are important for teaching, and for students to use to comprehend text. Use of wh-, yes-no, and other types of questions has continued until the present. Savage (1998, p. 239) indicates that teacher questions “have an enormous effect on how students develop comprehension. Questioning creates a teacher-pupil dialogue about text.” McGuffey’s questions promoted teacher-pupil dialogue for teaching and for learning. Wade and Moje (2001, online document) discuss other teaching and learning techniques used to promote teacher-pupil dialogue. Photos at the website of Hale Farm & Village, a re-created Ohio settlement from the 1840s, show other means used during this period to encourage dialogue: the organization of benches within the old schoolhouse building, writing slates, inkwells, homes, games, educational services, and much more.

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The influence of McGuffey’s readers (including textbook format, instructional suggestions, vocabulary lists, and use of stories and questions) can be seen in today’s reading textbooks. Yet there is little recognition of McGuffey’s contributions in teacher preparation programs. This study of his questioning techniques was designed to inform instructors, students in teacher preparation programs, and others about early teaching techniques that helped shape multiple-strategy instruction. For teacher education purposes, students can explore why McGuffey’s stories were value laden as well as the types of questions that he used. They can investigate why stories that incorporate overt religious values might not be used in reading textbooks designed for today’s public school classrooms.

Finally, as students in teacher preparation programs study questioning strategies, their instructors can direct them to use classification systems to compare questioning techniques. Results of these comparisons might assist preservice teachers to use questions more effectively as they begin teaching. Similarly, teachers can use the systems to study and evaluate questions they use in their classrooms. One activity might be to match questions from the teacher’s manual with levels and outcomes listed in the tables. Do the questions show the variety McGuffey used, or are they clustered at the literal level? If most are clustered at the literal level, this might cue teachers to supplement their instruction with questions that include exercises in showing, locating, comparing, sequencing, and so on. This can assist teachers in guiding their students not only to read the lines, but to read between and beyond the lines.

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About the Authors

portrait of Alice Scales Alice Scales is a professor and coordinator of reading education in the Department of Instruction and Learning, School of Education, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA. She teaches graduate courses in reading methods and research. Her research and publications focus on reading programs, instructional strategies, and behaviors of elementary, college, and adult learners.
portrait of Li-Bi Shen Li-Bi Shen (e-mail) completed her doctoral studies in reading education at the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently an assistant professor at Chia Nan University of Pharmacy and Science, Tainan, Taiwan, where she teaches English reading, writing, conversation, listening, and speech. Her research and publications focus on curriculum design and instructional strategies.

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Citation: Scales, A.M., & Shen, L.-B. (2004, May/June). An investigation of questions in McGuffey’s second readers. Reading Online, 7(6). Available:

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