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Marie Clay: A Personal Reflection on an Unparalleled Professional Career

Published On: October 28th, 2022 | Categories: Latest News |

By P. David Pearson, UC Berkeley
Evelyn Lois Corey Emeritus Professor of Instructional Science

A note to the reader: I wrote the initial draft of this essay soon after Marie Clay’s death in 2007, but I failed to finish it in time for inclusion in a publication honoring her contributions to the field. And it has rested in a comfortable sinecure in the cloud since that time. About a week ago, I happened on an American Public Media podcast by Emily Hanford, one that cast doubt on the professional contributions of Marie Clay. Essentially, Hanford blamed Dame Clay for America’s dismal reading performance when Clay offered teachers an approach to promoting reading development that, at least according to Hanford, is just plain wrong. And it is wrong, Hanford added, because it is at odds with what we know because of recent advances in the science of reading. Time to right that wrong by restoring phonics first and fast to the top slot in our reading curriculum.

I was appalled and angered by this indictment for two reasons: (a) it is based on a limited portrayal of scientific reading research (dare I say, just plain wrong?), and (b) it was directed at a scholar who has left us a rich, perhaps unparalleled, legacy of understandings about the nature of reading acquisition, one to be celebrated not denigrated. At the height of my rage, I remembered this unfinished tribute. Thanks to the search affordances of our digital age, I found it—as I said, resting comfortably in the cloud. So, I got to work and finished it for this occasion (Finally met the deadline! Thanks for your patience, Marie). Today, I’ll forego a point-by-point counter to Hanford’s outrageous claims in favor of an argument for celebrating Professor Clay’s legacy.


Marie Clay: A Personal Reflection on an Unparalleled Professional Career

I met Marie early in my career, in the early 1970s, thanks to an introduction from Ken and Yetta Goodman at an International Reading (now Literacy) Association Convention. We hit it off because we discovered a common alma mater—the University of Minnesota. Marie had studied language acquisition as a Fulbright Scholar with Mildred Templin at the Institute of Child Development in the 1950s; I did my PhD in reading education at Minnesota in the late 1960s. Go gophers!!! She was always on my list of “folks I hoped I would run into at IRA” (by the way, she later became IRA’s first international— non-North American—president) so that I could learn more about the progress of her then-emerging Reading Recovery program. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, I got to know her more closely during her regular visits to the University of Illinois, when she served as the George A. Miller Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Reading. During those years, as the dean of the College of Education, I had the privilege of supporting the establishment of an active Reading Recovery University Training Center. When Marie came to town, it was always a feast, both intellectually and gastronomically. Finally, I got to visit with Marie when I was invited to participate in Reading Recovery conferences nationally and internationally.

There is no question in anyone’s mind, including mine, that Reading Recovery will always be regarded as Marie’s signature contribution to the field of literacy education. That is as it should be because Reading Recovery, in addition to rescuing tens of thousands of students from a career of school failure, helped us understand what it took to help vulnerable students build a repertoire of robust tools for maintaining stamina and self-efficacy in the face of daunting reading challenges. Not so well known, but equally important, are her contributions to our understanding of emergent literacy, formative assessment, scaffolding, and teacher education.

Emergent literacy. Marie coined the term, emergent literacy in her PhD thesis; more importantly, she enhanced our understanding of it enormously, both in Reading Recovery and her assessment work. When we utter the term, we usually mean to emphasize the idea that no matter how young, inexperienced, or novice you are as a reader and writer, there is a level at which, there is a task in which, you can demonstrate your emerging literacy competence. But I also like, as did Marie, the other end of the continuum— the idea that no matter how old, experienced, and expert you are as a reader or writer, there is always something more for you to learn—another book to read, another practice to master, another paper to write, or another word to learn. We are all emergent readers.

Assessment. If you look carefully at Marie’s enactment of assessment, both in the Observation Survey and in the daily enactment of Reading Recovery, you’ll discover that she was all about what became formative assessment. And she did all of this before we began using that term to describe the sort of responsive assessment that guides teachers in three important tasks:

  1. getting a close reading of each individual student so they can determine the next pedagogical steps to take,
  2. asking oneself whether what the assessment data suggests that it is the teaching rather than the learning that may need modification, and
  3. how to engage learners in assessing their own progress.

Marie anticipated the formative assessment movement by a decade or two.

Scaffolding. One of my favorite features of Reading Recovery is the practice labeled, “roaming around the known.” In this practice, every day students spend some time reading texts that they had read before and are well within their zone of competence and confidence (Why? To consolidate and fine tune their skills, strategies, and knowledge). Daily students also spent some time reading texts that were at the edge of their competence and confidence (Why? To challenge and stretch their skills, strategies, and knowledge in moving to a new level). And daily, yesterday’s challenge texts became today’s known texts. An elegant approach to promoting gradual progress! And the key was the level of scaffolding that Reading Recovery teachers provided on the challenge texts. Interestingly, Marie and her colleagues did all of this in the same period (mid to late 1970s) in which Wood, Bruner, and Ross (the folks credited with coining the term, scaffolding, within the realm of learning) were doing their seminal work enacting Vygotsky’s notion of working in the Zone of Proximal Development. Yet another example of Marie’s uncanny ability to anticipate what would happen more broadly in the field before we even named the practice.

Teacher Education. In teacher education, we began, in the late 1970s and 80s, to champion the idea of the teacher as a reflective practitioner. Marie, in her famous “behind the glass” sessions—where a teacher in training and a teacher leader comment, in real time, on the lesson enacted by a second teacher in training—figured out how to operationalize moment-by-moment real-time reflection about practice long before researchers in teacher education got there. This did not go unnoticed by colleagues. During my tenure at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), Dick Anderson, Bonnie Armbruster, and Jan Gaffney developed adaptations of that model for our pre-service teacher education program. We see models of professional development come and go, but that model in Reading Recovery stands the test of time. It endures because it is effective. Moreover, it addresses a perennial problem in teacher development: We tend to avoid the absolutely essential but also personally threatening task of evaluating the moment-by-moment flow of teaching. Marie taught us how to do this respectfully—and effectively.

Scholar of Practice to Theory. Finally, I want to pay tribute to Marie as a scholar of practice, one who understood that the knowledge that moves from practice to theory is as important as the knowledge that moves from theory to practice. Her scholarly disposition is deeply embedded in all her work. Her practices that are based on solid theories of language and literacy development and subjected to rigorous empirical validation—and modification. But nowhere is her disposition as a researcher more vividly portrayed than in the sweat equity that Marie—in concert with the cadre of New Zealand teachers who worked with her—put into the inch by inch, day by day, week by week continuous improvement process that led to the development of Reading Recovery in the 1960s and 1970s. We owe Marie and that group of teachers a great debt for the pedagogical tool kit and the professional development framework they gave us. Today, scholars in math and science education talk about design-based research, a process by which an intervention of some sort is constantly examined, modified, improved, and re-examined in the crucible of the classroom. Again, Marie was ahead of her time—doing design-based research before we had a name for it.

There is much to remember about this powerful colleague. There is much also to honor. We can best honor her life by keeping her legacy alive—by enacting the principles and practices she left to us in our own classrooms—and by paying that legacy forward to the next generation of readers and teachers.

P. David Pearson is an emeritus faculty member in the School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, where he served as Dean from 2001-2010. His current research focuses on literacy history and policy. He also holds an appointment as a Professor of the Graduate School and is the Evelyn Lois Corey Emeritus Chair in Instructional Science.



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