Joyce Morris 1921-2014

Joyce Morris, who has died aged 93, was a famous literacy researcher, a founder member of the UK Reading Association, and a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. In an account of her career published in the International Reading Association (IRA)’s ‘History of Reading News’ in 2002, she explained that her lifelong dedication to the improvement of literacy teaching was driven by a shock on her first day of teaching, at a primary school in Ealing, west London, in 1939: none of her class of 40 seven- to ten-year-olds could read.

In 1948-51 she took a University of London degree in psychology, then in 1952-53 a full-time diploma in child development at the Institute of Education in London, including observations in nursery schools. This she combined with registered studies for a PhD, but in 1953 the university research fellowship for which she had been interviewed was given to another student.

Instead, through her tutor’s intervention she was added at the last moment to a list of interviewees for, and gained, the newly-established post of reading research officer at the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales (NFER), then in its infancy (established in 1946) and based in Wimpole Street in London – Joyce relished the literary associations – and spent the next 12 years there carrying out ground-breaking research in Kent on reading attainment, published as Reading in the Primary School (1959) and Standards and Progress in Reading (1966). Reading in the Primary School was cited (among other places) in an influential UNESCO report (1969).

After Joyce left NFER in 1965 (and therefore never joined its relocation to Slough) she freelanced as an independent trainer and consultant for the rest of her working life. On leaving NFER she was made an individual honorary member of the Foundation, a status maintained till her death.

Joyce had joined the British Psychological Society as an Ordinary Member in March 1950, and upgraded from Ordinary Member to Associate Member in 1957. In December 1987, following amendments to the Society's Royal Charter, Associate Membership became known as 'Associate Fellowship' (AFBPsS). Under the same Royal Charter amendments, the Society gained authority to set up and run a Register of Chartered Psychologists and the title, 'Chartered Psychologist' (CPsychol) came into being. Dr Morris was admitted to the Register of Chartered Psychologists – and thereby became a Chartered Psychologist – in September 1989. She was therefore amongst the earliest members to achieve this status. She was admitted to Fellowship of the Society (FBPsS) in October 1989.

Joyce was instrumental in the establishment in 1961 of the first Reading Council in Britain, which in 1964 became the UK Reading Association, IRA’s first national affiliate. She was UKRA’s second President (1965-66), and in 1966 was its representative on the programme committee for the first World Congress on Reading, held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Within UKRA she was best known for her linguistics-based advocacy of synthetic phonics, a system which (as she explained in her article ‘Phonicsphobia’ published in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society in 1994) has often met fierce resistance. She lived long enough, however, to see the tide turn, in particular following the publication of the Rose Review on the teaching of reading in 2006.

Joyce was centrally involved in creating two BBC television series intended to help children learn to read: ‘Look and Read’ (first broadcast in 1967) and ‘Words and Pictures’ (from 1970), and also led the development of the ‘Language in Action’ series of initial reading books (1974-83). The legacy she intended from her research and her research-based teaching materials was that children’s lives would be enhanced by their skilled reading. 

Raymond Glenn

University of Sheffield


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