Faculty of Education and Social Work

About Marie Clay

We do not have to solve the problems of teaching on our own: we have the constructive learner as our strongest ally. (Clay, 2014, p. 248)

Marie Clay
Dame Professor Marie M. Clay

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 Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH and the authors. This piece 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.


Read the full article here.

Some of the books written by Marie Clay.

Dame Marie Clay's contributions


Clay’s theoretical and research contributions in children’s language and literacy extend beyond Reading Recovery into children’s learning in whānau/fono/families, early childhood education and primary grades. Foundational premises of her thinking pervaded her research and translations into practice, and led to novel approaches for observing and facilitating children’s learning. Examples of these premises related to the Centre are:

  • She understood that assumptions about groups deprive us of the guidance that we need to teach individuals.
  • She re-conceptualized the constructs of prevention, intervention, acceleration and systemic implementation, which are now embedded in diverse, international educational systems.
  • She acknowledged the central role of collegial interactions in professional development and teacher leadership for sustaining children’s progress and educators’ work.