Obituary: Jessie Reid, educator

Jessie Reid. Picture: Contributed
Jessie Reid. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 29 May, 1916, in Newmills, Fife. Died: 8 August, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 97

JESS Reid had a varied and very distinguished career as a school teacher, educational psychologist, research fellow, and university teacher.

She began by studying English language and literature at St Andrews University where in 1938 she was awarded a first-class honours degree. For the next decade she taught school children of wide-ranging age and academic ability, and it was during this time that she became keenly aware of the crucial role that children’s standards of literacy play in their secondary school careers. Her concern about children who are educational failures because they do not learn to read in the first years at school was to dominate the rest of her working life.

She decided after a while that it was time for a return to university to undertake further study in education and psychology. This time she chose Edinburgh, where in 1952 she was awarded the degree of Master of Education (MEd) with distinction. Thus qualified, she started work in a clinic in the Sick Children’s Hospital to which many young people with educational as well as emotional problems were referred.

Here she had the opportunity to observe children whose reading and writing problems were severe, and she began her first research programme.

Along with Dr Tom Ingram, a paediatric neurologist, she studied a group of children with reading disabilities but no obvious neurological damage or serious pre-existing emotional problems. The clinical findings from this work revealed much that was new about the condition known as dyslexia, including evidence for the existence of more than one variant, which in turn suggested the need to develop more than one kind of remedial teaching.

During the 1960s Jess helped to set up the Scottish Centre for the Study of Dyslexia, a diagnostic and treatment centre for children unable to get appropriate help in school. But she had earlier decided that her next research project should be to look at the very early stages of school learning.

In 1956, she was appointed senior research fellow in the Department of Education at University of Edinburgh, a post that gave her the scope she needed. She then began a series of outstandingly original investigations.

Her key insight was that the study of children’s own notions about reading had been neglected. Using the technique of semi-structured interviewing – a method never before used for this purpose – she did pioneering work on what could be discovered by talking to the novice readers themselves.

The most important finding from the first study in this series was the extent to which they were affected by context, both syntactic and semantic. This evidence was quite new and surprising at the time. All the emphasis was on knowing words, yet it turned out that a child who had just read a word with ease in one sentence might completely fail to read the same word in another sentence a few minutes later. So what is it to “know a word”?

Compare, for example, “His shoe stuck in the deep mud”, with “Darkness was on the face of the deep”.

A child who read “deep” easily in the first sentence might be totally baffled by it in the second.

Yet, typically, the children themselves would attribute all their problems to “hard words”. Thus their awareness of the nature of their own difficulties was quite limited.

The second study revealed that children often came to school with little or no understanding of the nature of written language, no sense of its purposes, and no terminology with which to talk or think about it. For example, they might use the terms “word”, “letter” or “number”, but be quite muddled about what these meant. One little girl said: “My name begins with ‘three’,” and then added: ‘We’re past reading. We ­finished it yesterday.”

How to help?

In 1969, Jess set out her ideas for a new reading programme based on her own studies and on other relevant research. The outcome was “Link-Up”. Its main features were: the extensive use of “environmental print”, such as street signs, to make a link between real-life settings and the pages of a book; the emphasis on conceptual learning; the use, in the early stages, of sentence patterns which children would find natural and easy to follow; and the gradual introduction of sentence patterns more characteristic of the “language of books”. Jess’s co-author in producing “Link-Up” was Joan Low. The programme has been widely used and appreciated.

All this shows Jess to have been an outstandingly powerful, original and influential thinker in her chosen professional field. But there is much more to say about her.

She was highly versatile: a fine linguist but also a fine mathematician who enjoyed using complex algebra to solve difficult problems. A friend of hers, an inventive engineer, used sometimes to ask her to have a go when he had a tough challenge. This delighted her and she was capable of producing impressive solutions. But also she enjoyed a wide range of practical activities such as cooking, dressmaking, upholstery and bookbinding.

However, her deepest passion was music. Music moved her profoundly and she played her piano from the heart. A career as a concert pianist was at one time suggested for her, but she thought she could not stand the lifestyle – and besides she had other aims, which brings us back to the children.

She was able to teach individual children with remarkable success and this was not just because of her academic knowledge. Nor did she do this work simply because of the responsibilities of the jobs she held. She saw many children out-of-hours and after her retirement: despondent children brought along by anxious mothers. She always found time for them, however busy she was, and somehow she was able to reach them, lift the gloom and start the learning. I believe she did this by virtue of the way in which the strength of her concern combined with the clarity of her understanding. In any event, she is survived by many former “educational failures” whose lives she transformed and who remember her with love and gratitude. One boy, now a doctor, said to his mother when he was becoming able to read: “She’s an ace woman. She deserves a medal.” His parents gave Jess a ring, which she greatly valued.

Her last pupil was a 12-year-old boy who came for urgent help two months before her death. She saw him for only five half-hour sessions then could do no more. But it was enough. Whatever she did has ­enabled him to go on learning for himself with a whole new confidence. His own comment is: “She opened a window for me.”

What more is there to say?