We were sad to learn of the death of Professor Diane McGuinness and send our condolences and warm wishes to her family and friends. We have so much to be grateful for in many ways, thanks to Diane’s work and her friendship.

Diane was very supportive of the work of the RRF, particularly in the days of the government’s National Literacy Strategy for England (1997-2006). This strategy included  the notion of “searchlights” for reading which, in effect, meant teaching children to use cues to guess words, a strategy that has been discredited. It needed to be challenged, both educationally and politically, but most teachers and those with influence did not understand the issues. Diane’s work contributed significantly to improving their understanding. Of central importance was her organisation of the English alphabet code. This breakdown of the code from sound to symbol was never so comprehensively tabulated before Diane.

Partly as a result of better understanding, Sir Jim Rose’s recommendations in his Independent review of the teaching of early reading (2006) were accepted by the government. The “Simple View of Reading”, first described by Gough and Tunmer in 1986, was put forward to replace the “searchlights”.

Diane gave freely and generously of her time, expertise and friendship during this period and beyond. She wrote important and influential articles for the RRF (http://rrf.org.uk/resources/newsletter-archive/), including the following:

A Prototype for Teaching the English Alphabetic Code (2002)

This prototype almost certainly influenced the notion of a core criteria for phonics programmes, which the government in England went on to provide for teachers to help them choose programmes based on evidence-informed practices.

A response to ‘Teaching Phonics in the NLS’  (2004)

In this article Diane describes the distinction between word decoding and language comprehension, which is the basis of the “Simple View of Reading” adopted in England in 2006.

Diane spoke brilliantly at RRF conferences:

  • In 2006 she described the alphabetic code and explained the importance of ending guessing by context and how to improve the teaching of reading.
  • In 2007 she spoke of the importance of assessing children’s reading and explained some of the science of assessment and how to evaluate tests.
  • In 2008 she spoke about provision in the UK for older poor readers.
  • In 2011 she asked “What is the English alphabet code and why is it so hard to teach?” and explained how to structure lessons so that every child learns to read, write, and spell.

Diane’s contribution to literature was extraordinary and her books continue to be important, relevant and influential to this day. They include:

  • Why Our Children Can’t Read: And What We Can Do About It
  • Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading
  • Language Development and Learning to Read: The Scientific Study of How Language Development Affects Reading Skill
  • Growing a Reader from Birth: Your Child’s Path from Language to Literacy

Diane worked closely with several members of the RRF committee in different ways, as described in some of their individual tributes, as follows.

Fiona Nevola

I first heard Diane at the Westminster Hall conference of 1998 when Tony Blair was PM and “Education education education” was the great cry from the Labour party. It was only after reading Diane McGuinness’, Why Children Can’t Read and what we can do about it (Penguin 1997) and being introduced to the breakdown of the English alphabet code into logical teaching steps that I truly understood the nature of the breakthrough in thinking behind the new sound to letter/s approach. Our first telephone calls were in January 2003 and then Diane moved to Oxford. We worked together for six years approximately on the Sound Reading System and Diane became the Chairman for Our Right to Read, our small trust.

Diane was a ‘one off’, she was unique; she was focussed, single minded and determined. Her academic knowledge was profound but she was also a teacher and understood the practicalities of teaching children. She was generous, kind, empathetic and understanding – and she could also be very very funny! Because of working with her so long over a shared passion, she is wound into the fabric of my life; she changed my life and has meant so much to me. When I am teacher- training, people say she is in the room. May she always remain in the room and may her work go on to support many more millions of teachers and children.  A teacher wrote to me this week, “She has left a huge legacy and it is so sad that she won’t see the full impact of her own work, but in truth, no-one ever really gets to see the extent of the ripples that their life leaves behind. Her work absolutely will not die with her – it is only the beginning…” I believe this will turn out to be true.

Geraldine Carter

It was the early summer of 1998. Melvyn Bragg’s Start the Week was on Radio 4. Diane McGuinness happened to be interviewed on the programme that day and succinctly explained the logic of teaching reading through a sound orientation to the alphabetic code. To this listener, everything immediately made blindingly good sense – it had taken all of 5-10 minutes! Very shortly after, I found myself sitting next to Fiona Nevola at a talk given by Diane and her daughter-in-law at Westminster Hall in London. This led to a long, exciting, and frustrating exploration of how to promote her work.  Fiona’s determination to acknowledge her importance and promote her work led to the charity Our Right to Read. It also led to her adaptation of the work of Diane and her daughter-in-law, through the Sound Reading System, which they wrote together – and named by Diane. I became a trustee of the charity and when Diane moved to Oxford to work with Fiona and then to help set up a tutoring centre, was privileged to enjoy her company on many occasions. Modest, unassuming and with an extraordinary clarity of mind, she devoted her life to the cause of literacy through her research, her books and her setting up of the charity’s reading centre.  We owe her a huge debt of gratitude.

Marlynne Grant

That is indeed sad news and a great loss for phonics and children’s reading.  I found Diane’s work inspirational and she was approachable, supportive and generous in all communications I had with her.  She had a great brain and contributed in important ways to our thinking about how children learn to read.  Rest now in peace Diane, with a life well lived.

Anne Glennie

I was so sorry to hear the news about Diane. I didn’t know her personally, or ever meet her, but her work has had a profound impact on me and my life. The scales fell from my eyes when I read ‘Early Reading Instruction’ and I have been campaigning for research-informed instruction in Scotland ever since. I recommend Diane’s book in all my work with teachers here and quote her frequently. Her work gives me the strength and confidence to call for change and for that I am truly grateful. I hope that in some small way the knowledge that her work will continue to persuade and inform teachers and parents around the world – helping to ensure that every child can read – gives her friends and family some comfort during this difficult time.

Derrie Clark

She gave so much to all.  Changed the face of the teaching of literacy.  A clever and generous woman.

Debbie Hepplewhite

I found her to be a wonderful person when she lived over here for a while – very kind, generous and supportive. She took part in a presentation (CD format) that David and I made to promote the importance of the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles and the support provided for teachers and learners by SSP (various) programmes. Nothing seemed too much trouble for Diane when it came to promoting research-informed and practice-informed reading instruction. We have extremely fond memories of Diane personally as well as gratitude for her incredible contribution to literacy.

Elizabeth Nonweiler

Diane was a wonderful person. She was kind, unique and intelligent, with a gentle and wry sense of humour. Reading her books and then meeting her had a profound influence on my understanding of the alphabetic code and how to teach it.

Sue Lloyd

I was extremely sad to hear that Diane had died. She had been such an able and dedicated lady. We, in the RRF, benefitted enormously from her support. Many of us had the teaching experience but Diane had the scientific understanding as well. I shall always be very grateful to her. I send my condolences to her family and close friends.

Tami Reis Frankfort

It seems to me that Diane’s work is the foundation on which everything we do and understand about literacy is built. My personal journey is hugely indebted to her research and clarity of thought.

Jim Curran

Diane McGuinness, was a truly amazing woman. I was a secondary school teacher with no background in teaching reading who worked with struggling readers daily and just didn’t know what to do. I was lost and had been looking for answers for a long time and then one summer in 1998 I read this magical book, ‘Why Children can’t Read’ and slowly I began to understand. There was a fax number in the back of the book and I got our school secretary to fax Diane and I finished up in London training with Carmen and Geoffrey. It changed the course of my life and the hundreds of children I have had the privilege to teach since. I am so grateful to her and so sorry to hear this news and offer my condolences to her family. I have adapted a piece from Robbie Burns which I feel is appropriate. 

Few hearts like hers
With virtue warm’d
Few heads with knowledge
so informed;
If there’s another world
She lives in bliss;
If there is none,
she made the best of this.

Rob Randel

Those are lovely words, Jim.  It was 20yrs after your first reading that I eventually became enlightened by Why Children Can’t Read, followed by ERI and Language Development, when I had already been teaching for 10+ yrs — each page was a moment of ‘how did I not know this before’. Although I never knew her, her writing has had a major impact on my teaching and most importantly how I support my students — I will be forever grateful to Diane McGuinness and her incredible work for this.  

My sympathies are with her family and all of you on the RRF who knew Diane closely.  What a remarkable lady; I feel privileged to be in the RRF and connected to people that did know her personally and reading your personal comments are really touching. It is a beautiful tribute that you have written for her.

  MAY 2022

Tribute to Diane McGuinness from the UK Reading Reform Foundation (RRF)

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