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William Scott Gray (June 5, 1885–September 8, 1960) dedicated himself to the study and practice of education, with his greatest contributions being the research he conducted on reading and reading instruction. Gray’s studies provided methods and important research findings that still are used today by those that continue to investigate reading.

Gray began his career as a teacher in rural Illinois in 1904. Though not content with teaching, Gray was intrigued with the administrative aspects of education and served as principal of several elementary schools in Illinois from 1905 to 1908. After obtaining experience in teaching and administration, Gray obtained a teaching certificate from Illinois State Normal University. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree from Columbia University. Gray returned to the University of Chicago to earn his doctorate degree in philosophy.

The early 20th century was a period of intense educational reform, with two broad research approaches being supported: scientific and nonscientific (Kliebard 1995). Gray became part of the Herbatian movement which advocated using scientific methods when researching learning in schools. Using these principles, Gray concentrated on quantitative research methods in educational settings and published 12 articles while studying for his first college degree. He studied with Charles Judd at the University of Chicago and Edward L. Thorndike at Teachers College, both of whom were leaders in the use of scientific research methods in education during the early 1900s. In fact, Thorndike’s beliefs in scientific principles, measurement techniques, and statistical procedures had an enduring affect on Gray’s research. From Gray’s master’s thesis, which was written with Thorndike’s mentoring, emerged the Gray Oral Reading Test, an effective method of assessing student reading levels that evaluates reading orally rather than through the more traditional format of silent reading followed by a written examination. The fourth edition of this reading test was reissued in 2001.

An important project in which Gray participated while pursuing his doctoral studies was the Cleveland Survey Project. Gray’s role was to assess the reading levels of students throughout Cleveland schools. Through his involvement, Gray refined his scientific research skills in reading, which prepared him for writing his doctoral dissertation Studies of Elementary School Reading through Standardized Tests (1916).

Gray served as a faculty member at the University of Chicago from 1914 to 1950. He introduced the first reading course at the school and was dean of the school of education from 1917 to 1931. While an academic, Gray published more than 400 books, book chapters, and articles. After his retirement, he continued his academic interests and published another 100 items.

Gray served as the 1932–33 president of the American Educational Research Association. He organized the first annual meeting of the International Reading Association and was elected its first president in 1956.

One of Gray’s best known works is Reading: A Research Retrospective, 1881–1941 (1984), a composite of prior reading literature. The book features theories—such as a reader’s experience is a crucial component in reading comprehension and the relationship between vocabulary and reading comprehension—that helped develop reading as a field of study. “It follows that a reader’s meaning vocabulary in terms of extent and richness is of large importance. In fact, it correlates more highly with comprehension than any other factor studied thus far except intelligence” (Gray 1984, xi). Other areas that Gray researched included reading readiness, speed of reading, oral and silent reading differences, the effects of content and style on reading rates, time on task, reading in content areas, direct versus less structured reading instruction, and the use of typewriters as a teaching tool.

In the 1930s Gray coauthored with William H. Elson the basal series known as the Elson Basic Readers published by Scott, Foresman and Company, which eventually became the Elson-Gray Basic Readers. He is most notably known as coeditor of the Scott-Foresman’s “Dick and Jane” readers, a short-story series read by thousands of students in the United States.

Gray also was concerned about the reading difficulties of adults. He eventually published Maturity in Reading: Its Nature and Appraisal (1956) with Bernice Rogers to address the reading problems of adults. “The basic aim of the study was to provide high-school and college teachers of English with needed information about the characteristics of mature, competent readers and ways of promoting their development” (Gray and Rogers 1956, v).

Gray’s keen use of research and publishing methods was demonstrated further in published works such as Reading in General Education: An Exploratory Study (1940), The Reading Interests and Habits of Adults (1929), and The Teaching of Reading and Writing: An International Survey (1956).

Contributed by Fernando Vasquez, The University of Texas at Austin.

Gray, W. S. 1984. Reading: A research perspective, 1881–1941. Newark, NJ: International Reading Association.

Gray, W. S., and B. Rogers. 1956. Maturity in reading: its nature and appraisal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kliebard, H. M. 1995. The struggle for the American curriculum: 1893–1958. New York: Routledge.

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