Margaret Meek Spencer obituary

Margaret Meek Spencer, who has died aged 95, had a significant impact on the teaching of reading, and her books on the subject are still among the most influential in the field. She presented learning to read as a complex enterprise with meaning as both the guide and the reward.

Against the dominant view that successful reading teaching was a matter of marching children through schemes and training them to answer dull comprehension questions, Margaret maintained that the basics of learning to read were children’s joy in the story and their desire to come to know the text for themselves.

She argued that from the earliest stages, all developing readers need to experience pleasure and success. Being read aloud to is therefore an essential early experience, in which children learn to delight in rereadings, and in the rhythm and tune of the text. From the late 1960s onwards, her ideas markedly changed the direction of much reading research and practice throughout the English-speaking world, bringing a deeper recognition of both the importance of the text and the active role of the reader.

The most notable of her shorter publications, How Texts Teach What Readers Learn (1987), still enthuses readers today. With its focus on the importance of giving children access to powerful texts that speak to them, and on how the skilled writer shapes the reader’s response, it has had a lasting effect on generations of teachers.

In a clear and thought-provoking way, each of her longer books, including Learning to Read (1982), Achieving Literacy: Longitudinal Studies of Adolescents Learning to Read (1983) and On Being Literate (1991), looks at these concerns with a fresh eye, rejecting the distorting lens of accepted practice to make penetrating observations based on a wide-ranging scholarship in literature, psychology and philosophy. She observed that folk tales teach “the accumulated wisdom of those whose survival depends on outwitting the powerful” and that stories can provide listeners “with an increasing imaginative repertoire of ways of coming to terms with their emotions, which, unlike all other aspects of their being, are full-sized from the day of their birth”.

Born in Leven, in Fife, Margaret was the eldest child of the engineer Robert Meek and his wife, Elisabeth (nee Ballingall), who was one of Scotland’s earliest female graduates but who married on graduation. This meant, in the 1920s, that she was not permitted to take a job.

When Margaret was 10 the family moved to nearby Dunfermline, more convenient for her father’s work on torpedoes. Her maternal grandfather, who kept an ironmonger’s shop, was an important influence: he spoke German fluently and encouraged her to work hard at her lessons. She taught herself Latin, necessary for admittance to Edinburgh University, where she studied English literature and philosophy.

Appointed in 1950 to teach English at Haberdashers’ Aske’s school for girls in Acton, west London, she stayed there until 1954, when she became a research assistant to the educationist Roy Niblett at the University of Leeds, before moving two years later into teacher education, initially at the University of Bristol. In 1968 she went to the Institute of Education at the University of London, where she was a lecturer, then reader, and taught in an outstanding English department that was headed by James Britton and included Nancy Martin and Harold Rosen.

Margaret would never just “give a talk”: even in the most formal circumstances she would find a way of involving her audience, presenting her listeners with problems to think about and always leaving them wanting more.

Her work always honoured what she called the “implicit skilled understanding” of teachers and aimed to make it part of official discussions of literacy.

As a tutor she was attentive and expectant – she watched your face as you talked, her eyes bright and encouraging. You found yourself saying things you had no idea you knew.

Her first major book was The Cool Web (1978), an anthology undertaken with Aidan Warlow and Griselda Barton, in which hers was the animating spirit. A collection of rich and varied essays exploring the forms and functions of narrative art, it is principally concerned with exploring what readers make of texts, and still stands as a seminal text for English teachers.

Over the next two decades Margaret wrote a remarkable range of influential books, with a gap before her last, Coming of Age in Children’s Literature, published in 2003. She remained at the Institute of Education until her retirement in 1990, after which she was appointed reader emerita and continued to have an office there.

In 1960 Margaret married Patrick Spencer, a cellist and later a banker. He died in 2011. She is survived by their two children, Sophie and Jo, and five grandchildren.

Margaret Meek Spencer, educationist, born 14 January 1925; died 4 May 2020

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