Marie Clay

Researcher, author, and champion of young readers

Acknowledgement: This brief biography is adapted from the 1999 book, Stirring the Waters: The Influence of Marie Clay, edited by Janet S. Gaffney and Billie Askew. It is presented here with permission of the authors and the publisher, Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. Text has been updated in a few places from text that appears in the original book.

Marie M. Clay
By Janet S. Gaffney and Billie Askew

Writing a tribute to Marie Clay is simultaneously an easy and an awesome task for exactly the same reason: She has accomplished so much, and her publications reflect the continuing change of her theoretical analyses between 1967 and 2001. That her influence transcends a single field of study and spans geographic borders is reflected in a single volume entitled Stirring the Waters from which this biographical snapshot is taken.

Born in 1926 in Wellington, the capital city on the southern tip of the North Island, Clay is uniquely New Zealand — frugal and resourceful. Although education is a top priority in New Zealand, funding for schools and research leaves no room for excess and spurs ingenuity and cooperation. Historically, the national curriculum was developed and revised by educators, with products of collegial work attributed to the New Zealand Department of Education rather than to individuals. From the beginning of their programs at a teachers college, pre-service teachers work in schools, and they apprentice with master teachers as they enter the profession. These cultural features are footholds in Marie’s work, as reflected in her concern for the “economic use of a child’s learning time” and the central role that collegial interactions play in professional development.

Clay completed her teacher training at the Wellington College of Education and was awarded a primary teacher’s certificate in 1945. At the same time, she was pursuing a bachelor of arts degree at the Wellington campus of the University of New Zealand. After graduating in 1946 with a senior scholarship in education that would support advanced study, she completed her master’s thesis, “The Teaching of Reading to Special Class Children,” and was awarded a master of arts degree with honors in 1948. At the same time, she was employed as an assistant psychologist for the New Zealand Department of Education. In 1950, Clay traveled to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship and a Smith-Mundt grant to study developmental and clinical child psychology at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Welfare. This she acknowledges as a turning point in her understanding of how to study children’s learning.

On her return to New Zealand, Clay moved to the small town of Wanganui and continued to teach in the elementary grades. Because of her interest in and expertise with children with special needs, the district placed many high-need students in her class. In 1955, Clay moved to Auckland and worked in the Department of Education’s newly established Psychological Services.

In 1960, Clay was offered a temporary position at the University of Auckland to assist with a new Diploma of Educational Psychology, a postgraduate training program for educational psychologists. Two years later, this became a permanent appointment. Clay continued to be involved in teaching developmental psychology, consultation, testing, and measurement to school psychologists for the next twenty-five years.

Around the time that Clay was studying in Minnesota, Samuel Kirk and Barbara Bateman were developing the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities (ITPA) at the University of Illinois. This test was designed to guide remediation for children whose poor academic achievement was not attributable to intellectual, social, or emotional deficits. In the research, she found herself in disagreement with the assumptions underlying the ITPA and other special-education assessments. Clay’s developing criticism of the theoretical perspectives and the nature of instruction in the field of learning disabilities was a catalyst for much of her subsequent work. Her classic article, “Learning to Be Learning Disabled,” represents the culmination of her thinking on issues of identification, assessment, and teaching students with learning disabilities (Clay, 1987). Her challenges to current practice in preventing and recovering from literacy learning difficulties are no less relevant and urgent today than they were more than a decade ago.

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Fall 2023