Becoming an elementary school teacher
Pinnell’s father eventually became the chair of education at the local Eastern New Mexico University, so her parents wanted her to attend college there. In the 1960s, nursing or teaching were the two approved careers for women that called for a college degree. She chose teaching.
“I have really good memories of teaching kids in classrooms,” she said. “I would do it again if I had the energy.”
As a young adult, she discovered one key to helping children enjoy learning when she taught swimming for the Red Cross at a Texas summer camp.
“Most of them — special needs kids — were frightened of the water,” she said. “So you get them in and let them play in the water, get to love it. Blow bubbles. Dive for things. They have to enter it in a playful way. Once they’re used to the water, then they learn to swim so rapidly.”
It’s the same with almost any type of learning, especially reading, Pinnell said. “It’s got to be engaging and active…. It needs to … use your brain in a very satisfying way. And (then) you can bring in everything you have to this very complex process of reading.”
Choosing Ohio State to study with the “greats”
Pinnell chose Ohio State for her master’s degree because it was and is well known for its experts in the study of children’s literature and literacy learning.
The experience opened a new world to her. She took courses with Charlotte Huck, whom she calls the country’s foremost expert in children’s literature in her time. She studied with Martha King, known for her interest in children’s language and writing. They inspired her to pursue a PhD.
Fast forward past her dissertation research, past the awarding of her PhD with Huck and King as her advisors, to 1984. As a young assistant professor in the college, Pinnell studied the work of Marie Clay, a developmental child psychologist and academic in New Zealand.
“When children fall behind in reading, you can see it happening,” Pinnell said. “Clay carefully observed children as they became literate and used her unique insights to form a powerful theory.”
Reading Recovery arrives in North America
Clay created Reading Recovery for struggling first-graders. It was so effective, and she was so respected at the University of Auckland, that New Zealand adopted it in schools nationwide.
“The idea is that even from the beginning, learners are very active and reading is quite complex,” Pinnell said. “Yes, they learn to recognize letters and connect them to sounds…. But readers also use their knowledge of the structure of language, and for children who’ve been read to, they have such a huge advantage. They use the meaning and everything they know.”
Intrigued, Pinnell traveled to New Zealand, met Clay and talked to Reading Recovery teachers. Back home, she told G. Robert Bowers at the Ohio Department of Education about Reading Recovery. He knew that Columbus Public Schools officials were concerned about serving young readers who were falling behind, so they began work to pilot a program.