McRuffy Language Arts programs for kindergarten through fourth grade cover phonics, reading, spelling, grammar, and composition. Optional handwriting workbooks easily integrate with the other components of each course. While the complete programs for all levels are very good, I particularly like the kindergarten, first, and second-grade programs, especially their coverage of reading and phonics.
Most phonics programs require direct instruction for the beginning levels, but some reduce the amount of direct teaching around third grade. However, McRuffy continues with a teacher-intensive program all the way through. This might be helpful for struggling readers, but I think some parents might want to use a program that does not require so much direct instruction once students are able to read independently.
This program made my Top Picks list for a number of reasons. It is a comprehensive program that uses proven teaching methods, and it has full-color workbooks and readers. Teacher’s manuals are easy to use. It incorporates multi-sensory learning, and it is surprisingly low priced. Even better, if you have more than one student or reuse the program another year, you need only purchase a second set of workbooks.
Both teacher and student books have lay-flat spiral bindings, student books have laminated covers and sturdy pages, so they should hold up well. Teacher’s manuals have step-by-step lesson plans and include reduced, color reproductions of student pages. Lessons are scripted, making it easy for the inexperienced teacher to know exactly what to do and say. Even so, there are frequent open-ended questions that might lead you off the script for a short time. This is not a predictable question-response type program.
There are two teacher’s manuals for each level for first grade and above. At the beginning of each teacher’s manual (only in the first volume of two-volume sets) are an overview of the program and its components, a scope and sequence, spelling lists, game ideas, suggestions for helping students with creative writing, and other helps. There are also two student workbooks for each level.
I reviewed the Special Edition which is the latest edition and the one most readily available to home educators. The most noticeable difference is that these are printed in color while earlier editions were not. However, the Special Editions also have more material than the earlier editions.
McRuffy teaches phonics in a fairly traditional fashion. Students should have some exposure to the alphabet before beginning the kindergarten program. The first lesson begins by having children identify the letters "a" through "e." They learn that there are capital and small letters as well as how to distinguish between them. They learn the /ă/ sound and they write both capital and small "a"—all within the first lesson. Students begin blending the letters "b" and "a" together in lesson three. This is a rapid pace for students who do not already have fairly good phonemic awareness and who do not already recognize the letters of the alphabet by name. The program quickly moves students into reading sentences with lesson 23 presenting “Pat has a cat” for students to read. The kindergarten level introduces all of the letters, both long and short vowels, some digraphs, a few sight words, and the names of colors. Spelling is taught as reinforcement for phonics.
There are two sets of readers for kindergarten. These are printed in color on matte-finish card stock. In the first set of ten readers, each book has only four pages. In the second set of twenty readers, each book has from 12 to 15 pages. Illustrations do provide visual clues, but as sentences get longer, and especially when there is more than one sentence on a page to read, students will not be able to rely on visual clues to decode the words. The teacher’s manual directs conversation about each story that expands beyond simple comprehension into critical and creative thinking. Students practice “story creating” orally, in writing, and with cut-out puppets.
The program does include some drill. As part of a daily routine, children are drilled on the alphabet, sounds of the letters, short vowels, long vowels, capital and small-letter identification, color names, and other words they have been learning. Flashcards and laminated charts for drill and review are in the resource pack for this level.
A typical lesson might begin with some drill and review. Then following the script in the teacher’s manual, you introduce a new concept. Students complete a workbook activity related to the new concept. These activities might be matching columns, circling the correct answer, reading and writing phonograms or words, puzzles, fill-in-the-blanks, word searches, or cut-and-paste activities.
In some lessons students will use “sliders.” Sliders are sleeves constructed from heavy card stock into which you insert strips of letters or phonograms that will appear in the window. Corresponding phonograms that will allow students to create words are already printed on each slider. Preprinted forms with sliders and instructions as well as preprinted strips for the sliders are in the resource pack.
Games add another hands-on, interactive dimension to this program. Laminated game boards and playing pieces come in the Resource Pack that comes with the program. You will cut out game cards and other pieces from card stock in the resource pack. Many games can be played solo, but most are more fun with at least one other player, even if it’s a parent. The Resource Pack also includes cardstock pages with figures from each storybook. These can be cut out, colored, and mounted on ice cream sticks for use as puppets. Students use these to retell the stories or do creative story telling.
Each story has a coloring sheet with lines for writing at the bottom so that students can add a caption or write a sentence. Students who prefer to draw might instead use the formatted pages in the resource pack that have space for drawing their own pictures and writing their own captions or sentences.
McRuffy Press Flip & Draw™: Ruff’s Pre-Writing is an extra bonus included in the Kindergarten Resource Pack. This resource for developing eye-hand coordination helps children learn basic handwriting strokes and skills such as controlled lines, curves, and slant. This ingenious book has a clear overlay that can flip to cover either the front or back of any page in this book. Students should use fine line wipe-off markers as they practice tracing the various lines and shapes as well as printing their own names. The 30 pages in the book are also reproducible. The Flip & Draw is not incorporated into the lesson plans. Use it as you wish.
The teacher’s manual includes models for handwriting in both traditional and modern manuscript (printed) forms. At the front of the teacher’s manual you will find suggestions for tactile learning for students who might benefit. Also, there are “Assessment Item Analysis” grids for the weekly assessments that will help you identify potential problem areas.
The kindergarten program also teaches language fundamentals: sentences, periods, question marks, capitalization of the first word in sentences, rhyming words, antonyms, and vocabulary. Adding handwriting instruction with McRuffy’s books (choose from traditional or modern manuscript or cursive workbooks) or those from another publisher rounds this out into a total language arts program.
The McRuffy program for first grade provides students with a Language and Reading workbook (LAR) and a Spelling and Phonics workbook (SAP). Instructions in the two-volume teacher’s manual direct you to teach from both workbooks and one of the storybooks in most lessons.
The first unit of LAR is largely review of concepts taught in kindergarten. From there it progresses to more challenges phonograms, prefixes and suffixes, contractions, and two-syllable words. By the end of first grade, most of the phonograms will have been introduced.
LAR workbook activities include writing words or sentences, sorting, circling, matching, alphabetizing, unscrambling words, proofreading and making corrections, puzzles, fill-in-the-blanks, and multiple-choice questions. The amount of writing increases significantly from the kindergarten level. The LAR workbook also includes a few original poems that students will read with the teacher. Phonics activities that follow relate to each poem. Every fifth workbook page is an assessment of phonics, language, and reading skills.
The teacher's manual instructs you to direct students in writing their own stories, often developing their ideas based on discussion of one of the storybooks. For story writing, you can use the reproducible forms from the resource pack that comes with the program (your choice of either single pages or forms to create books) or any other paper you choose. Instructions for creative writing, the writing process, and how to make a book are at the front of the first volume of the teacher’s manual. Creative writing is one area where the instructions are general rather than detailed. Students determine what they want to write about from your discussion time, then it is up to you to direct and assist them with ideas from the manual.
The SAP workbook is somewhat similar to other spelling programs, although the lessons relate directly to LAR. The first five weeks review concepts taught in kindergarten. After that the lessons work with a new list of spelling words each week. Words with common phonetic elements are introduced on Monday, and students complete workbook activities Monday through Thursday. Friday is for the weekly spelling test. Four weeks out of the year, the lessons review phonetic concepts previously covered in spelling lessons—sort of a comprehensive review and reinforcement. Activities vary from lesson to lesson, sometimes overlapping with broader language arts skills such as adding suffixes and identifying rhyming words.
First grade level includes 34 storybooks that each have about 16 pages. The resource pack for first grade is very similar to that for kindergarten minus the flash cards. While it also has games, there is no packet with dice and pawns as there is for kindergarten. (You can use those from the kindergarten set or from any other game.)
The second grade program is constructed like the first grade program with a two-volume teacher’s manual and two student workbooks: Language and Reading (LAR) and Spelling and Phonics (SAP). It quickly reviews previously taught phonics skills then adds more challenging phonograms such as "ou, ough, augh," and "ph." Common phonetic elements continue to serve as the basis for spelling lists. The grammar component is much stronger as the program introduces nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, types of sentences, tenses, quotation marks, syllables, homophones, contractions, root words, prefixes, suffixes, and other topics. It teaches then reviews each topic a number of times.
The second grade course is very strong in developing reading skills. Some lessons use graphic organizers to analyze story elements, but much reading skill development occurs through the interactive dialogue led by the teacher. The 28 readers for this level generally have 16 pages each. Stories are quite complex with lengthy dialogues and many paragraphs per page. However, they still retain full-color illustrations on every other page. In addition, the LAR workbook includes non-fiction reading activities. The newest edition has added ten lessons on fables and folktales.
Composition work continues to challenge students with creative writing activities, but it also teaches book report writing, letter writing, recipe writing, and a few other forms of expository writing.
Instead of a resource pack there is a Test and Assessment Packet. While there are assessments in the earlier levels, those for second grade include four-page quarterly tests along with phonics and language tests for every fifth lesson.
McRuffy’s optional handwriting workbooks include either printing or cursive options or a transitional book that covers both, with your choice of either traditional or slant-print style printing. Handwriting lessons correlate with phonics and spelling instruction. These worktexts are bound at the top and lie flat which makes them easy for either right- or left-handed students to use.
Of course you can continue with this excellent program beyond second grade level, but I especially like the very solid and easy-to-use foundation in reading and language arts it provides for the early grades when it is so crucial.
The third grade level continues work in reading, grammar, composition, spelling, and vocabulary at a challenging pace. As with the second grade program, there are two student workbooks: LAR and SAP.
By the end of third grade, students will have been taught all parts of speech except interjections. Every fifth lesson includes a creative writing assignment. Since phonics has been covered thoroughly in earlier grades, phonetic concepts are reviewed only once every fifth lesson. Vocabulary words are derived from the reading stories—original stories include in two large student Reading Books. Spelling words are relatively challenging; examples of the more difficult words are caribou, parachute, righteous, quadruple, manageable, and unbelievable. Quarterly tests are included. While handwriting assignments are included in both third and fourth grade courses, if students need instruction rather than practice, you should consider the optional McRuffy handwriting workbooks.
Third and fourth grade courses continue to rely on teacher presentation and interaction as is laid out in the two-volume Teacher's Manual. Reading skills are developed through some workbooks activities as well as teacher-led discussions.
Fourth Grade drops phonics instruction and expands reading and composition work. There are now three workbooks: Reading and Writing, Language Arts, and Spelling. Readers also expand into three books this year. In the Reading and Writing workbook, students frequently write in response to questions directly related to the stories. Some vocabulary is taught within the reading lessons, but spelling lessons now have a strong vocabulary component. Some Greek and Latin roots are introduced. Some sentences are given for dictation practice. Rather than creative writing, students begin work on various forms of expository writing such as summaries, short reports, comparisons, evaluations (e.g., of stories), and persuasive articles.
While the McRuffy Language Arts program is rigorous, lessons exhibit a lot of variety to help stimulate student interest. They also require students to use higher level thinking skills, especially in the third and fourth grade courses. Parents who have time for direct teaching should find the upper level courses an easy to teach, yet academically challenging option.