Celebrating New Zealand literary pioneers: Dame Marie Clay and renowned children’s author Beverley Randell

02 March 2016

Beverley Randell at the Faculty of Education and Social Work’s Tribute to Professor Dame Marie M. Clay on 18 April 2013
Beverley Randell at the Faculty of Education and Social Work’s Tribute to Professor Dame Marie M. Clay on 18 April 2013

On the 2nd March 2016 the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland launched the Marie Clay Research Centre, to honour and continue the legacy of pioneering literacy researcher, Dame Marie Clay who died on the 13 April 2007. Dame Marie Clay championed the idea that young children deserved the support that they needed to get off to a good start in their literacy learning. Her Reading Recovery programme has been implemented, with striking success, throughout the world.

The concept of Reading Recovery arose out of Marie 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 - a "cognitive system" which every child develops to make sense of the world and language. Before the 1980s it was common educational practice to ignore early reading difficulties in the hope that children would grow out of their problems. Some-time later these confused beginners would become “ready to read.” The result of this belief was that many children who struggled to learn to read fell further and further behind, condemned to a life of semi-literacy. Marie focused on identifying children’s strengths and competencies, including their oral language, and built on those abilities to help them keep abreast of their peers.

Dame Marie Clay attributed much of her success to her close involvement with capable teachers who had daily contact with children learning to read. Beverley Randell,  who was teaching in Wellington, was not one of those who met Marie Clay in the 1950s, but when her first little books were published in the early 1960s, they reflected a similar passion for bringing children success. Beverley Randell went on to become a famous children’s author and New Zealand literacy icon. Her children’s stories have been enjoyed by thousands of children, all round the world, for over fifty years.

As a young teacher, Beverley was fascinated by five-year-olds’ first attempts to read and write. This was reflected in her first published story, John the Mouse who Learned to Read (Part One School Journal, 1955). Beverley’s story-writing began in earnest in 1958, when she was the sole teacher of 27 children, aged five to thirteen, at a country school near Blenheim. The imported reading scheme then in use had feeble story content, and it was out of a deep desire to make reading more meaningful for her pupils that Beverley began writing books for beginners.  In the course of her staggeringly successful career, arguably Beverley’s greatest achievement has been to write and edit proper stories for five-year-olds who have the very minimum of reading skills. Before 1963, when the New Zealand Department of Education published Ready to Read, most early school reading books had been relatively meaningless repetitive reading exercises. In contrast, Beverley had the ability to devise infant readers which used minimal vocabularies to tell actual stories with plots, each with tension, climax and a satisfying resolution. Beverley’s genius was in being able to craft stories for children that were based on familiar underlying concepts, had clarity, meaning and logic, stories which showed respect for children– a virtue deeply admired by Marie Clay.

Beverley Randell and Marie Clay first met at a reading conference in about 1970, and it was after that meeting that Beverley felt she had a surer sense of direction. It was the start of a long and mutual respect and admiration for each other, personally and professionally. In Beverley’s own words:

“[Marie Clay’s] findings had an enduring influence on me as a writer and publisher…She shared her many insights with teachers worldwide, and helped us all to improve our skills... the debt teachers and children owe her is beyond measure."  

The influence of Dame Marie Clay’s research on Beverley’s understanding of children’s oral language, and on her commitment to writing and publishing engaging stories that would save children from frustration level reading, was strong. Marie Clay always maintained that children needed a slow rate of new word introduction, and she spelt it out in 1971:

"[Teachers should take]… an accuracy check to find a book which the child can read with 95% accuracy. Above 95% accuracy represents pleasure reading, from 90-95% accuracy represents teaching level … and below this represents frustration level" (Marie Clay, Reading, the Patterning of Complex Behaviour, 1971).  

This rule had guided Beverley since her teaching days in the 1950s, when she had been influenced by the pamphlets written by Edward Dolch who had also recommended that new words should not make up more than 5% of a text for beginners. When Beverley published her first little books in the 1960s to support the over-difficult Ready to Read series, this was her aim, too. That 5% ratio, 1 new word in 20, is not accidental – it can only be achieved when the writer pays close attention to the words and sentence structures used.

Marie Clay’s reiterated endorsement of the 5% ratio gave Beverley courage, allowing her to continue to have faith in her levelled books when they became unfashionable in the 1980s.

"[Teachers should] …cautiously increase the text difficulty … give massive practice on texts at this next level before increasing the difficulty level again… [Teachers should] … arrange for massive opportunity to read enchantingly  interesting texts of just the right level of difficulty..." (Marie Clay, Reading Recovery, a guidebook for teachers in training, 1993).  

Marie Clay’s call for "massive practice" was answered in the 1990s, when Beverley Randell and two teaching colleagues, Annette Smith and Jenny Giles, revised and extended the PM Story Books. Together they produced at least 30 titles (instead of the original 10) for each level. In Beverley’s words: “We were trying to prevent initial failure and keep children out of Reading Recovery”.  Dame Marie Clay was also very influential when the PM Story Books were being redesigned.  Determined to follow Marie’s recommendations about informative covers, wide word spacing and clearly laid out inside pages, Beverley pushed for design control of the revised books: her favourite mantra was, “Marie Clay says…”.  

The synergistic relationship between the PM Story Books and Marie Clay’s literacy research can best be described by the following anecdote provided by Beverley. A leading literacy teacher in the UK (Shirley Bickler) was asked to assess a struggling eight year old. He had scored poorly in his IQ test, his speech was limited, he looked sub-normal, his shoulders were hunched, and his mouth hung open.  He could read very little. She decided to enrol him anyway, and began using the PM Story Books (and other stories). And it worked. He discovered that reading made sense. He became self-monitoring and self-correcting. His spoken vocabulary grew. And he underwent an amazing physical transformation. When retested, his strides in reading were matched by a big jump in his IQ test score! He had begun to feel in control of his world, and everything about him showed it.

Dame Marie Clay and Beverley Randell enjoyed professional success in their respective fields, and rightly so. In 1960 Dame Marie Clay was offered a position at the University of Auckland to assist in creating a new diploma of Educational Psychology. She remained at the University for 25 years, becoming it and New Zealand's first female professor in 1975. In 1976 she began her pioneering work on what would become known as 'Reading Recovery'. Marie Clay received numerous awards and accolades. In 1982, Clay was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame. She was the recipient of the Mackie Medal in Education from the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1983) and the New Zealand Association for Research in Education (1993). In 2002 the Institute of Education in London marked its centenary by awarding Marie Clay an honorary doctorate in Literature, presented by the Princess Royal, and in 2003 she was voted the most influential person in the field of literacy over the past three decades at the National Reading Conference of America. Marie Clay was always regarded as a quiet voice of reason in a field of frequently jarred by the conflicting cries of academic rivals.

Beverley’s stories have been published by many publishers in several languages. When her first story, John the Mouse who Learned to Read, was republished as a Picture Puffin it sold around 267,000 copies. Over the years she wrote hundreds of stories for schools, most of them designed for children with limited reading skills, but she has written for adults as well. In 2004 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to children's literature and education, and to date over four hundred million copies of books in the PM series she created have been sold in many countries. At 84 she is still writing.

New Zealand is honoured to have two such visionary, highly decorated literacy leaders in their own right who have made a positive difference on the education and wellbeing of young children around the world.

 

Written by Sharon Roux, Development Manager, in conversation with Beverley Randell.