Malcolm Douglass, 79; Educator Specialized in the Teaching of Reading

Times Staff Writer

Malcolm Paul Douglass, an educator who for 30 years directed the Claremont Reading Conference, died Dec. 29 at his Claremont home after a long battle with cancer. He was 79.

Douglass taught education at Claremont Graduate School, which is now Claremont Graduate University, from 1954 to 1994. A specialist in the teaching of reading, he began as director of the reading conference in 1959.

The conference, which is in its 70th year, assembled experts from around the country to discuss the best ways to teach children to read. Its emphasis was on natural or "whole language" approaches, which stress that children learn to read most effectively by being exposed to good stories rather than by practicing phonics and other discrete skills.

"There's a long tradition in this country that you learn to read by studying reading and that people who have problems just didn't study very well," he told The Times in 1983. "But increasingly we understand this isn't where the problem is."

Controversies over how to teach reading simmered through the 1980s and early 1990s, when test scores showed that too many American students could not read at grade level. Many experts blamed the indirect, or whole language, approach.

American students, Douglass maintained, spent too much time learning the mechanics of reading and not enough time enjoying books, literature and writing.

He said the best description of reading he ever heard was from a child who called it "telling stories in your head."

"If a child has that concept," Douglass said, "he can read."

The educator also believed that students in many foreign countries were more proficient readers in part because they started school later and thus had more experience with language before formal instruction began.

One example was Norway, where Douglass spent several months in 1969 studying the schools and their approach to reading. The key factors he found in that nation's success included having teachers stay with the same students for at least three years and teaching all students together instead of separating them by ability. He also noted that Norwegian students did not begin school until age 7, when they were more prepared to master the instruction.

Douglass was a native of Pullman, Wash., but grew up in Claremont, where his father, Aubrey, was a founding faculty member at what became Claremont Graduate School. Aubrey Douglass went on to serve as California's associate superintendent of education under Gov. Earl Warren.

The younger Douglass completed high school in Sacramento before enrolling at Pomona College in 1941. When the U.S. entered World War II, he joined the Army as an infantryman and fought in the European theater.

He earned his bachelor's degree from Pomona in 1947, a master's from Columbia University in 1948 and a doctorate in education from Stanford University in 1954.

Douglass was an elementary school teacher and principal in Sacramento before joining the faculty at Claremont Graduate School.

He founded the school's Center for Developmental Studies in Education in 1971 and was its director until 1989.

He also wrote four books, including "Learning to Read: The Quest for Meaning," and a number of scholarly articles.

Douglass is survived by his wife of 54 years, Enid Marie; sons Malcolm Jr. and John Aubrey; a daughter, Susan Douglass Yates; and four grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Malcolm Paul Douglass Scholarship Fund at Claremont Graduate University, 171 E. 10th St., Claremont, CA 91711.

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