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Death of Professor Marie Clay

Who? New Zealander Marie Clay developed the Reading Recovery Program which is a feature of infants schools in NSW. When some years ago I did a research project in the poorer suburbs of S-E Sydney I saw this program in action and was very impressed by it, and by the skill and dedication of its trained practitioners. While Marie Clay always insisted it should be used only at a certain age, I think its principles can apply at any age. It does have its detractors, though very often one suspects they are not immune to ideological agendas of their own, or are advocates of some rival approach competing for implementation and therefore often government dollars.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald carries the following obituary.

Dame Marie Clay championed the idea that children who struggle to learn to read and write can be helped with early intervention. Her Reading Recovery program has been used with striking success in many schools in the English-speaking world.

Before the 1980s it was common educational practice to ignore early reading difficulties in the hope that children would “grow out of” their problems, with the result that many youngsters fell further behind, some condemned to a life of illiteracy.

The concept of Reading Recovery arose from Clay’s close observation of what really happens when a teacher and child work together to make the child a reader and a writer. She concluded that however puzzling and illogical a child’s responses might be, they arise out of some sort of internal logic, which every child develops to make sense of the world and language.

That logic may be shaped by confusion, misunderstanding or partial knowledge. If a teacher could somehow understand the child’s thought processes and if the teaching could start from the child’s “cognitive system”, then it might be possible to help him or her to find more effective ways of thinking about reading and writing.

An essential component of Reading Recovery is the training of teachers to observe, analyse and interpret the moment-to-moment behaviour of their pupils when struggling to read and write, and to design individual programs to help them. The key, Clay taught, was flexibility.

Reading Recovery success rates have been impressive, with eight out of 10 of the lowest-attaining six-year-olds lifted to levels of literacy appropriate to their age within months.

Marie Clay, who has died at 81, was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and qualified as a primary school teacher in 1945. She earned a master’s degree at the University of New Zealand in 1948 and went as a Fulbright scholar to study for a doctorate in educational psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Returning to New Zealand, Clay taught primary school children at Wanganui. In 1955 she moved to Auckland with the Department of Education’s new psychological service. In 1960 she joined the University of Auckland to help create a new diploma of educational psychology. She remained at the university for 25 years, becoming New Zealand’s first female professor in 1975.

In 1976 she began work on what became known as the Reading Recovery program, based on the development of observational tools for the assessment of a child’s progress, research that was brought together in An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement (1993). Reading Recovery has been used in schools across the English-speaking world and adapted for Spanish and French languages.

Clay received many awards and accolades, and in 2003 was voted the most influential person in the field of literacy over the past three decades at a survey of the National Reading Conference of America. She was appointed DBE in 1992. In 2002 the Institute of Education in London marked its centenary by awarding Clay an honorary doctorate in literature, presented by the Princess Royal.


Literacy discussed.

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Posted by on May 7, 2007 in for teachers, literacy, pedagogy


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