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William Scott Gray (1885–1960)

Influence of Reform Movements, Literacy Efforts

William S. Gray, as author of the popular "Dick and Jane" series, arguably helped to define the field of reading education in the United States. Gray received a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago in 1913, a master's degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1914, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1916. He was associated with the University of Chicago from the time he became an instructor in 1915 to his retirement as professor emeritus in 1950. Always interested in the education of teachers, he was dean of the college of education from 1917 to 1930 and head of the university's teacher preparation committee from 1933 through 1945.

Conducting and analyzing research studies to improve reading instruction was Gray's passion, and his work impacted virtually every aspect of the field. During his lifetime he authored more than 500 publications that examined the characteristics of all ages of readers, from young children to adults, as well as teaching procedures appropriate for the characteristics. He also developed a standardized reading test in 1915, which continues to be used into the twenty-first century, and he pioneered the diagnostic/remedial approach to reading difficulties.

Influence of Reform Movements

The underpinnings of Gray's approach to research and practice were formed in the first two decades of the twentieth century when his work and education brought him into contact with the reform movements transforming American education. In 1908, to prepare to become a teacher, he entered the Illinois State Normal School, the center of the Herbartian movement in North America: Charles De Garmo and Frank and Charles McMurry were among those who had taught or studied there. Herbartianism at the turn of the century was a scientific approach to education based on principles of learning. Gray adopted Herbartian principles and had the opportunity to apply them when he became principal of the training school at Illinois Normal following his graduation in 1910. The experience led to Gray's first publications: twelve articles on the teaching of geography, based on the principles of Herbartianism, which appeared in The School Century from May 1911 through June 1912.

Gray's incipient interest in a scientific approach to education was nurtured at the University of Chicago, where he worked primarily with Charles Judd, head of the department of education. Judd was a psychologist as well as educator who utilized scientific methods and measurement techniques to study education. While at Teachers College Gray worked with Edward L. Thorndike, who, even more so than Judd, was applying scientific principles, measurement techniques, and statistical procedures to education. Gray's life-long interest in reading assessment began to focus at this time. Thorndike was developing achievement scales in various subject areas, and Gray, for his master's thesis, developed a scale for reading. The test, Standardized Oral Reading Paragraphs, Grades 1–8, was published in 1915. This test continued to be used with only minor revisions until 1963; in 2001 the fourth edition of the Gray Oral Reading Test was issued.

Gray returned to the University of Chicago to study for a Ph.D. and immediately began to work for Judd, who was participating in a survey of the Cleveland schools. The survey was a major reform effort to bring scientific principles to bear on school improvement, and Judd asked Gray to assess reading achievement in the Cleveland schools. The experience gave Gray the opportunity to observe reading instruction in many classrooms and to refine his skills in reading assessment. He received his Ph.D. degree with a dissertation entitled "Studies of Elementary School Reading through Standardized Tests." His dissertation was published in 1917 as the first number in the Supplementary Educational Monographs of the University of Chicago.

During the "Economy of Time" reform movement in the second decade of the twentieth century, Gray, by then dean of the college of education at the University of Chicago, used scientific methods to determine the most successful method of teaching reading. Gray identified the following components:(1) selecting content of interest and significance to students; (2) developing independent word-recognition skills by word study and phonetic analysis after the student has acquired a basic vocabulary through content reading; and (3) providing a system of phonics that will naturally lead to accurate analysis of longer words encountered past the second grade. Gray became an advocate of the sight method of teaching reading, and had the opportunity to directly impact classroom practice in 1930 when he became a coauthor, with William H. Elson, of a popular basal reading series titled the Elson BasicReaders, published by Scott, Foresman and Company. In 1936 these became the Elson-Gray Basic Read-ers; in 1940 he became first author of the renamed Basic Readers. These "Dick and Jane" readers became widely used throughout America.

Literacy Efforts

Gray's assessment experience made him aware of student reading difficulties and the necessity to fit instruction to the perceived weaknesses of students. In 1922 this led to an influential book titled Remedial Cases in Reading: Their Diagnosis and Correction. This book marked the beginning of a diagnostic/prescriptive approach to individual differences that remained in practice at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Gray had a continuing interest in adult literacy, publishing The Reading Interests and Habits of Adults in 1929 and Maturity in Reading: Its Nature and Appraisal in 1956. He was also involved with literacy on an international level, working particularly with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This led to The Teaching of Reading and Writing: An International Survey, first published in 1956. He was also a founder of the International Reading Association, serving as its first president in 1955–1956.

Biographical information and a complete list of Gray's publications are included in a 1985 publication of the International Reading Association: William S. Gray: Teacher, Scholar, Leader, edited by Jennifer A. Stevenson. This document is also available as ERIC No. ED 255902.


GILSTAD, JUNE R. 1985. "William S. Gray (1885–1960): First IRA President." Reading Research Quarterly (summer):509–511.

GRAY, WILLIAM S. 1919. "Principles of Method in Teaching Reading, As Derived from Scientific Investigation." In The Eighteenth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part II: Fourth Report of the Committee on Economy of Time in Education, ed. Guy Montrose Whipple. Bloomington, IL: Public School Publishing.

GRAY, WILLIAM S. 1948. On Their Own in Reading: How to Give Children Independence in Attacking New Words. Chicago: Scott, Foresman.

GRAY, WILLIAM S., and ARBUTHNOT, MARY HILL. 1940–1948. Basic Readers. Chicago: Scott, Foresman.

STEVENSON, JENNIFER A., ed. 1985. William S. Gray: Teacher, Scholar, Leader. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.


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