A permanent and, by 1973, senior member of the University faculty, Clay maintained a high level of contact with children, parents, and educators. Among her many commitments, she was an early member of the Reading Association in New Zealand, president of the Auckland Reading Association in 1971-1972, and coordinator of the New Zealand Reading Association Councils from 1971-1974. Clay was the first non-North American to be elected president of the International Reading Association (IRA). During her term (1992-1993), Clay revitalized international participation in the work of the Association. As the 1995 recipient of the prestigious William S. Gray Citation of Merit, her contribution to invigorating the international emphasis of the IRA was acknowledged. “World-class scholar, researcher, and visionary educator, Marie Clay has inspired scholars, regenerated teachers, and touched the lives of children in all parts of the globe. An unwavering advocate for world literacy, she will always symbolize the I in IRA.” (Reading Today, 1995, 34).
Reading Recovery is one of Clay’s important contributions to education. Like the pattern of her work, the program emanated from close involvement with keen insight into those closest to the source. The research project was born from the concerns of classroom teachers who, despite well-designed classroom programs and good teaching, were not able to change the paths of progress for particular children. The driving question, stated with simple elegance, was “What is possible when we change the design and delivery of traditional education for children that teachers find hard to teach?” (Clay 1993b, p. 97.) It is early identification and instruction of these children, and not the classroom programs, that Clay has tried to redesign.
In 1976, Clay began to work—first with one research assistant, Sara (Sue) Robinson, then with a group of experienced primary educators including Barbara Watson—to develop an intervention that would bring the lowest children up to the average band of progress in their classrooms. These pioneers did not know then the possibilities that might be created for children, for teachers, and for schools with a different set of circumstances and assumptions.
Reading Recovery was developed and trialed in the short span of three years. Barbara Watson was appointed to the leadership team to contribute to this rapidly expanding effort. Field trials conducted in five schools in 1978 were replicated the following year in forty-eight Auckland schools. Reading Recovery became a national education program in New Zealand in 1983. Remarkably, Reading Recovery is now operating in most English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, The United Kingdom, the United States, and other jurisdictions; Anguilla, Bermuda, and Jersey), and has been redeveloped for use in Spanish and French languages.
Clay’s role in developing and guiding the implementation of Reading Recovery is such a demanding and illustrious one that there is a danger that it will mask her accomplishments in other areas, including oral language (Clay, 1971; her first book, and Clay, Gill, Glynn, McNuaghton, & Salmor, 1983), writing (Clay 1975, 1987), and teaching-learning interactions that accommodate individuals with diverse starting points and rates of learning in typical primary classes (Clay, 1998). Although literacy learning has been an early and abiding focus of her work, Clay’s academic and intellectual curiosity has taken her along multiple paths of inquiry.