Skip to main content

Cognitive psychologist Frank Smith sitting on a bench which he constructed.David Olson /Handout

While it is generally agreed that reading and writing are humankind’s most brilliant inventions, there is no such agreement on how best to teach these essential skills to children. In English-speaking countries the question became particularly explosive after the publication in 1955 of the book Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolf Flesch, which vigorously made the case for phonics – sounding out individual letters – as the one true path to literacy.

The cognitive psychologist Frank Smith was a powerful combatant in the reading wars. With his 1971 book Understanding Reading, he revolutionized reading theory and changed how educators think about the acquisition of reading fluency. The book went into six editions, the last published in 2004. It sold “something like half a million copies, the most widely read book in the field of education perhaps in history,” said his close friend and former colleague David Olson, university professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. “The book prompted the Cognitive Revolution (as we thought of it) in reading and shook the pedagogy of reading to its core.”

In Understanding Reading, Prof. Smith argued that children naturally learn to recognize whole words because they are searching for meaning: “The ‘decoding’ that the skilled reader performs is not to transform visual symbols into sound, which is a widely held conventional view of what reading is about, but to transform the visual presentation of language into meaning,” he wrote. Children, according to Prof. Smith, are clever and must be given credit for the skills they bring to this task. Phonics have their place when the young reader encounters a new and unfamiliar word, but sounding out every word is tedious and slows reading down.

His other key insight was the reading brain’s inclination to expectancies, that is, the subconscious predicting of the next word in a sentence. Prof. Olson points out that the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) has proved the accuracy of this hypothesis. We can see it in the predictive words our cellphones offer when we are texting. “In my view recent advances in machine learning (a part of AI) establish beyond doubt Frank’s basic idea that perception and reading are based on expectancies. What readers anticipate and look for is a possible meaning, what the sentence or story is about.”

The Whole Language movement embraced him, although he refused to join or endorse any organization or faction.

Prof. Smith died on Dec. 29 in Victoria, of aortic stenosis at the age of 92. His death was followed by an outpouring of tributes online from educators, in particular the members of the Reading Hall of Fame, an information exchange network of 150 senior literacy experts from around the world.

“His work was seminal and my work was changed because of him,” wrote one from the University of Albany in New York. “I am so grateful that we were able to be informed and influenced by Frank Smith’s work in South Africa, too,” wrote another from the University of Cape Town. Another message on the site read: “Frank changed the way we thought and taught literacy in Australia.”

Prof. Smith died on Dec. 29 in Victoria, of aortic stenosis at the age of 92.Handout

Frank Ernest Smith was born Feb. 10, 1928, in London, the elder of two gifted sons of Constance and Ernest Smith. (Younger brother Alan became an electrical engineer.)

His father worked for the London Underground system and his mother was a homemaker. Frank grew up in Battersea on the south bank of the Thames, with dreams of travelling the world. Aged only 17, with the Second World War nearly over, he volunteered for the Royal Navy using the ID of an older man with the same name and was posted to Bermuda, at the Western Atlantic naval headquarters. Here he was assigned a desk job as a writer, paving the way for his first career as a journalist. Back in England three years later, he started writing for newspapers and magazines. In his mid-20s, on a skiing holiday in Norway, he met Mary-Theresa Marshall, a Scottish girl as adventurous as he was. Within a few weeks he proposed marriage and they tied the knot in Brussels in 1954.

After a few more years of working on the Continent, she as an editor, he as a writer, they immigrated to Perth, Australia, with Laurel, the first of their three children, born in Leiden in the Netherlands. The young father supported his family by working as a subeditor at The West Australian, a Perth newspaper, and simultaneously enrolled as a mature student at the University of Western Australia, to take a degree in psychology. After graduating with top marks and two academic prizes, he was accepted into the PhD program at Harvard University to work under Jerome Bruner, one of the pioneers of cognitive psychology. (Dr. Bruner’s book A Study in Thinking had opened up the field in 1956.)

Two more children had joined the family by the time they set out from Perth for the United States.

At Harvard, he met Prof. Olson, a fellow grad student from Canada, who shared his academic interests. Prof. Olson was delighted when his English friend later decided to accept a job offer from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and move north. The 1970s, which Prof. Smith spent at OISE, were years of new challenges in the world of pedagogy. Immigrant children who spoke no English were flooding into Ontario schools and the introduction of French immersion called for new reading approaches. Prof. Smith was in demand as a speaker at conferences and debates.

Jean Handscombe, a noted Toronto educator who lived next door to the Smith family, wrote in an e-mail that she invited him to be the keynote speaker at an international convention in Toronto of educators who teach English to speakers of other languages. “That audience of over 4,000 from about 45 countries [was] already aware of Frank’s work and growing reputation,” she wrote, and he spoke to a “packed and excited house, open to his often scathing attack on the status quo in classroom instruction.”

He collected reading errors children make, believing they were significant. When a BBC crew came in 1975, to shoot a documentary about Prof. Smith’s work for the science program Horizon, he borrowed Dr. Handscombe’s preschool-age son Matthew who was just learning to read. They went for a walk through the Scarborough Town Centre, filmed by the BBC, where he asked Matthew to read the signage. Faced with a Stop sign, Matthew said it was either S-p-o-t or Stop. Seeing a sign for “Footwear,” Matthew was unsure whether it said “shoes” or a profane expression that means “go away.”

Margaret Clark, a prominent English educator who also took part in the documentary, titled How Do You Read?, said it widened the understanding of literacy and was used in teacher training in Britain for many years.

After a decade at OISE, Prof. Smith accepted the Lansdowne Chair in Educational Psychology at the University of Victoria and moved west, having been promised a light teaching load that would leave him time to write. But his teaching load increased and he grew frustrated and unhappy. He left the university after only four years to become an independent scholar/writer, producing 20 books mainly but not exclusively about reading.

His popular Reading Without Nonsense (1979) was followed by Ourselves: Why We Are Who We Are and The Glass Wall, his book about learning mathematics. He was invited to be a visiting scholar at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg in the early 1990s as apartheid was ending and the language of school instruction became hotly contested in South Africa. After returning to Victoria, he wrote the book Whose Language? What Power? about this period. A man of many competencies, he read constantly, could build furniture, was a keen sailor and chess player, and enjoyed flying small planes.

Prof. Smith was predeceased by his brother, Alan, and leaves Mary-Theresa Smith, his wife of 66 years; his three children, Laurel, Melissa and Nicholas; and seven grandchildren.