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Kōrero: Clay, Marie Mildred

Whārangi 1: Biography

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Clay, Marie Mildred


Teacher, developmental and child psychologist, literacy researcher

I tuhia tēnei haurongo e Helen May, ā, i tāngia tuatahitia ki Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau i te 2018.

Marie Clay was an influential literacy researcher and educationalist whose pioneering Reading Recovery programme changed the experience of learning to read for many children in many countries. She sometimes quoted Allen Curnow’s lines, ‘Simply by sailing in a new direction / You could enlarge the world’, as a metaphor for new research conversations in the early literacy field, which revolutionised the way reading was taught around the world. 1 One of New Zealand’s first echelon of senior female professors, her career journey across the mid-to-late twentieth century was that of a scholarly woman and mother ‘sailing’ against the tide of societal expectations and norms.

Childhood and education

Marie Mildred Irwin was born on 3 January 1926 in Wellington. Her father, Donald Leolin Irwin, was an accountant and her mother, Mildred Blanche Godlier, a music teacher. At age five her parents separated; Marie lived mostly with her mother, but regularly visited and briefly lived with her father, who remarried and had two more children. She attended four primary schools, and the challenge of living with separated parents made her conscious of other children’s difficulties. Aware that split families were unusual, Marie was determined to succeed at school despite the disadvantages of her home situation.  

Marie’s secondary schooling at Wellington East Girls’ College was more settled and enjoyable, and included Red Cross work for the war effort. Leaving school, she trained to be a primary school teacher at Wellington Teachers’ Training College, simultaneously studying history, politics and psychology at Victoria University College. She gained a Primary Teachers’ Certificate in 1945 and graduated with a BA in 1947 and an MA (Hons) in Education and a Diploma of Education in 1949.

Marie’s lifelong interest in child literacy education began during her studies, when she taught junior special classes for so-called ‘retarded children’ in several Wellington schools. Her thesis, ‘The teaching of reading in New Zealand special classes’ (1948), entwined research and practice in a way characteristic of her future research, which was always centred on issues that mattered in the classroom. In 1949–50 she was employed by the fledgling Psychological Services of the Department of Education to assist in selecting children for special education classes.

In 1951 Marie was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct postgraduate study at the University of Minnesota. The focus of her studies at the university’s Institute of Child Welfare was on how children learn and develop, and how slower children could be helped. The experience of living and studying in the United States was life-changing, as she experienced specialised training unavailable at home.

Marriage, motherhood, early career

Shortly after completing her studies, Marie married Warwick Victor Clay, a New Zealand engineer, in Minnesota on 14 June 1952. The couple had met in New Zealand, and Warwick had joined Marie in Minnesota late in 1951. They returned to New Zealand shortly after their wedding, settling in Whanganui.

From 1953 Marie taught a class of nine- and ten-year-olds at Castlecliff School. School inspectors, discovering the subject of her studies, soon placed several children with special needs in her class. Her efforts to introduce ability group reading activities attracted attention, although Marie claimed it made her a ‘whirling dervish with both instructional and control problems.’2

In 1955 the family shifted to Auckland to expand their employment opportunities, settling in Murrays Bay. Marie worked as a part-time psychologist in the Department of Education (1955–6) and as a relieving primary schoolteacher. Her son Alan had been born in 1954 and daughter Jenny in 1956, and Marie juggled motherhood and career in an era that expected mothers to be at home and professional childcare arrangements were scarce. Teaching remedial reading to private pupils at home was an interim solution. Marie resumed employment with the Department of Education in 1958 in a job-share arrangement with a friend.

Academic career

In 1960 Marie’s work with the Education Department led to her appointment as a temporary lecturer in educational psychology at the University of Auckland. She was appointed to a permanent position in 1962, and despite the pressures of work and home she embarked on doctoral studies the following year. Her thesis, ‘Emergent reading behaviour’ (1966), recorded the weekly progress of children learning to read and write during their first year of school. Marie found that by the age of six about 10 per cent of children were not keeping pace with their peers.

Marie’s research generated a lot of interest in the field, and in 1972 she published The early detection of reading difficulties: a diagnostic survey, a classroom resource to help teachers support children struggling with reading. Another book, Reading: the patterning of complex behaviour (1972), outlined a theoretical framework for literacy learning. These books propelled Marie to the forefront of national and international debates about reading, and, as she described it, launched her ‘long and lonely swim against the accepted tide of theory and practice’.3 Marie’s research was grounded in the concerns of classroom teachers, but was also intended to forge new understandings across the scholarly networks of literacy research. Keeping observational methodology at the centre of literacy learning with children and their teachers was the hallmark of Marie’s research.

Marie’s engagement in various professional reading associations in New Zealand provided opportunities for interacting with teachers, publishers and teacher educators, and soon became a platform for advocacy on behalf of children struggling to read. By the early 1970s Marie was active in a number of international committees and associations on reading, as well as a regular conference attendee and speaker.

Marie was steadily promoted at the University of Auckland, and in 1975 she was appointed Head of the Department of Education and promoted to professor – a first for a woman at the university on both counts, and she was also the first female professor of education in New Zealand. This was a newsworthy event, especially during International Women’s Year. Marie’s appointment resonated with academic women, frustrated with their minority status, often untenured and predominately in junior positions. She had broken gender barriers. Marie told the feminist-leaning magazine Thursday that she intended to dispense with the idea that there was a ‘right’ way in education, because ‘something right for one child will be wrong for another’.4 Starting from the child’s perspective was the missive that underpinned Marie’s research. She resigned as Head of Department after two years to focus on research, although she returned to the role from 1986 to 1988. By the 1970s Marie and Warwick had developed different interests and their children had grown up. They separated in 1976, and Marie settled in Remuera.

Development of ‘Reading Recovery’

In 1976 Marie embarked upon the development of a ‘Reading Recovery Programme’ for teachers, which had its origins in her doctoral research. She argued that children with early reading difficulties did not require a different method of teaching. Rather, teachers needed diagnostic tools and the children needed to learn skills and strategies to assist their reading development. Marie and a team of experienced teachers set to work to determine whether the collective experience of good teachers could be used to develop and describe teaching procedures that could be used with failing children in schools. The reading recovery approach emerged, and field trials in five Auckland schools in 1978 showed that children who struggled with reading could be taught at the same pace as their classmates if they received help after a year at school. In 1979 Marie and her team commenced a training programme for 100 Auckland teachers.   

Teaching reading had become a political issue by the late 1970s, with calls by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon for education to go ‘back to basics’ and the primary school curriculum to focus more directly on the skills and facts of literacy and numeracy. Marie remarked in 1979 that negative publicity concerning falling literacy had left the public ‘more concerned than informed’. She cited evidence that the current methods were successful for most children, but bluntly stated that the formal systems for teaching ‘letters, sounds and words’ were ‘not teaching reading’.5 Marie collaborated with policymakers and politicians to progress the Reading Recovery programme beyond the trial stage. Her skills were crucial to its success. The 1981 election catapulted Reading Recovery into the political spotlight when the National Party promised a nationwide programme if re-elected; the programme was introduced into schools from 1982 as a result. Children needing help with reading henceforth received 20 weeks of daily, individually-tutored, 30-minute sessions. From the start, teachers and parents were enthusiastic about the programme, which worked for most children.

The expanding programme proved successful over the following decades, but it generated controversy around issues of cost and control. In the late 1980s and 1990s, as academic debates over the teaching of reading grew heated, Reading Recovery was cast by some as part of the problem, and unnecessary if children were taught to read by phonics. Reading Recovery, nevertheless, remained integral to the New Zealand education system, supported by teachers, parents and government agencies.

The 1980s were a period of expansion for Marie’s career. From 1983 the Reading Recovery programme caught the attention of educationalists around the world and the programme was exported to other countries. It was later trademarked in the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain, and was produced in several languages. Marie travelled the world to work with universities and educationalists, who later paid tribute to the leadership she provided. The programme worked within existing educational structures, but required the training of teachers, tutors and trainers – as Marie wrote, ‘the idea is simple but the program is complex’.6 She was sometimes catapulted into political arguments overseas, such as during the 1992 British election campaign.

Rolling out the system around the world and ensuring its longevity became a huge enterprise, and Marie relied on people like Barbara Watson to lead and direct local operations. In 1991 Marie became an Emeritus Professor, enabling her to focus more fully on her whirl of endeavours, including her presidency of the International Reading Association (1992–3). In 1997 she established The Marie Clay Literacy Trust, a non-profit charitable foundation supporting reading, literacy learning and teaching, and the Reading Recovery programme internationally. She gifted the initial capital and ongoing royalties from the sales of her published books to support it.

Later years

Marie considered herself a scientist studying children’s development and determinedly resisted being cast as ‘the Reading Lady’ by considering broader issues across the spectrum of developmental psychology, language and literacy. She wrote more than 20 books, some published in multiple editions, including Becoming literate: the construction of inner control (1989), By different paths to common outcomes (1998), and Literacy lessons designed for individuals (2005). She held many honorary positions and received a host of national and international awards and accolades. Marie was appointed a Dame of the British Empire (1987), received the first New Zealander of the Year award (1994), and became a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand (1995). She was generally reluctant to be singled out for recognition but accepted acclaim as an opportunity to progress her work.

Marie Clay died on 13 April 2007 in Auckland, aged 81. Obituaries appeared around the world, and past students and educationalists contributed to the book Memories of Marie (2009, compiled by Jenny Clay). They described her as ‘tough’, ‘nurturing’ and ‘protective’.7 Most of all, Marie was an advocate for the children who now learnt to read because of her ‘stirring the waters’ of early and remedial literacy. In 2016 the University of Auckland launched a research centre to continue her work.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. ‘Landfall in unknown seas’, in Allen Curnow. Collected poems. Auckland, 2017, p.96 . Back
  2. Quoted in Jenny Clay. ‘Early life’. In Memories of Marie: reflections on the life and work of Marie Clay. Ed. Jenny Clay. Auckland, 2009, p.31. Back
  3. Marie Clay.‘International Perspectives on the Reading Recovery Program’. Journal of Reading Recovery 7 No. 1, (2007): 16–33. Back
  4. Anne Lloyd. ‘Marie Clay Professor of Education’. In Memories of Marie: reflections on the life and work of Marie Clay. Ed. Jenny Clay. Auckland, 2009: 54-55. Back
  5. Marie Clay.‘International Perspectives on the Reading Recovery Program’. Journal of Reading Recovery 7 No. 1, (2007): 16–33. Back
  6. Stuart McNaughton. ‘What I learned from Marie’. In Memories of Marie: reflections on the life and work of Marie Clay. Ed. Jenny Clay. Auckland, 2009: 75. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Helen May. 'Clay, Marie Mildred', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2018. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/mi/biographies/6c3/clay-marie-mildred (accessed 17 June 2024)