OBITUARY: William Murray

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The Independent Online
There could not have been anyone more dedicated to teaching than William Murray. He taught and researched in special schools and reading clinics; he was a headmaster and County Education Adviser; he taught all ages from pre-school to sixth form and adults in prison; he lectured on the teaching of reading throughout Britain and abroad; he contributed to the educational press; and he started the Ladybird "Peter and Jane" Key Words Reading Scheme.

When I first met him at an educational conference in Exeter in the early 1960s, his total commitment was immediately obvious; I made a mental note that here was someone with whom it would be a privilege to co-operate one day. That time came a few months later when, passing through Cheltenham, I acted on his invitation to call at Thirlestaine Court - the special school where he and his staff accepted children with moderate learning difficulties and helped them to catch up with and return to their normal classes. It was heart-warming and inspiring to see the work done there.

Murray's greatest interest was the teaching of reading and, over a cup of tea, he happened to mention that he had only that day received a copy of the first proof of the booklet Key Words to Literacy - the result of his work with an educational psychologist, Joe McNally, into what were "key" words in the English language: those which appeared most consistently. They had found that 12 words formed one quarter of all that children read and write, 100 formed half, and 300 about three-quarters of all the words in children's reading books. Murray believed that, if a child learnt these words early in the learning process, valuable extra confidence would be gained and encouragement given to a child's sense of achievement on discovering that it was soon possible to read a book.

As the editor of Ladybird Books at the time, to me the idea of Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme seemed a natural next step. Murray soon realised that although the standard format of Ladybird books was different from that of any other reading scheme available at that time, their full-colour illustrations, handy size and high regard in schools would form the ideal base from which to launch a Key Words Reading Scheme. And so, in 1964, the first book in the series appeared and Peter and Jane and Pat the Dog were born. A further 36 volumes were published and the books went on to sell more than 80 million copies.

Another of Murray's beliefs was that the co-operation of parents was most important in the teaching of reading, and that the skills involved are rooted naturally in the home - the important skills of listening, talking, reading, writing and spelling. In the early days this belief was not always shared by everyone, but primary schools now recognise the important role that parents can play.

Bill Murray was a wonderful author with whom to work. Even on the tightest of production schedules - often necessitating meetings with a team of artists which frequently carried on until late at night and through weekends - he was patient and co-operative. His warm personality contributed greatly to the enthusiasm of all who worked with him and he was invariably ready to contribute new ideas and listen to those of other people.

Douglas Keen

William Murray, writer and teacher: born 19 April 1912; married (one son, one daughter); died Cheltenham 21 September 1995.

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