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Frank Smith is a contemporary psycholinguist recognized for his contributions in linguistics and cognitive psychology, both nationally and internationally, over the past 35 years. He is regarded as an essential contributor to research on the nature of the reading process together with researchers such as George Armitage Miller, Kenneth S. Goodman (see Ken Goodman), Paul A. Kolers, Jane W. Torrey, Jane Mackworth, Richard Venezky, Robert Calfee, and Julian Hochberg. Smith and Goodman are singled out as originators of the modern psycholinguistic approach to reading instruction. He is the author of numerous books and his books have been republished through several editions.
Frank Smith was born in England and currently lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. He started out as reporter and editor for several media publications in Europe and Australia before commencing undergraduate studies at the University of Western Australia. He received a PhD in Psycholinguistics from Harvard University in 1967.
Smith held positions as professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education for twelve years, professor of Language in Education at the University of Victoria, British Columbia as well as professor and department-head of Applied English Language Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. Before taking the position at the Ontario Institute, Smith briefly worked at the Southwest Regional Laboratory in Los Alamitos, California.
Frank Smith's research made important contributions to the development of reading theory. His book Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read is regarded as a fundamental text in the development of the whole language movement. Amongst others, Smith's research and writings in psycholinguistics inspired cognitive psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West's research into the role of context in reading.
Smith's work, in particular Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read, can be described as a synthesis of psycholinguistic and cognitive psychology research applied to reading. Working from diverse perspectives, Frank Smith and Kenneth S. Goodman developed the theory of a unified single reading process that comprises an interaction between reader, text and language. On the whole, Smith's writings challenges conventional teaching and diverts from popular assumptions about reading.
Apart from his research in language, his current research interests include the psychological, social and cultural consequences of human technology.
After disrupted schooling and evacuation from London to the countryside in the Second World War in Europe, Frank Smith learned to be a newspaper reporter on several suburban London newspapers, and the Evening Standard of Fleet Street fame. He also wrote freelance articles which appeared in popular magazines.
A couple of years of travel saw him serve in the British Royal Navy where he fudged his age upwards to enable him to join. Naval travel took him to Canada, the United States and Bermuda. He did not fulfil his ambition to captain a destroyer, rather he was confined to a desk and given the title of “writer.”
A stint of play-writing in France followed. Frank later travelled to Australia to work as a journalist. He also drove a tram in Sydney for a brief period, painted corrugated iron roofs (a warm job in the summer time), and later worked as a jackaroo on a sheep station in Western Australia, where he rode a horse for a living. He obtained some journalistic work but not enough to sustain him so decided to return to England. He was able to get his seaman’s ticket by working on a Danish freighter, plying between Fremantle and Christmas Island, thus becoming eligible to work his passage on a cruise liner sailing to England where he again took up journalism.
Frank subsequently served with international organizations as a publications officer in Belgium and Holland, producing magazines in several languages. He became more interested in the academic nature of language and began serious research in the subject. This led to formal study at the University of Western Australia and an Honours B. A., earned while he was working full time at night as a sub-editor on the West Australian newspaper in Perth. He was the first student to win both top prizes in the Psychology department in one year, an event that caused the rules to be changed to allow only one prize per student.
An interest in adult education found Frank leaving his newspaper work and taking charge of adult education in Western Australia, while still continuing his full-time studies. Upon graduation, he was urged by faculty at the university to apply to Harvard to continue his studies in the cognitive psychology of language. After taking the requisite examinations, he was accepted into the Centre for Cognitive Studies at Harvard where he was to work with George A. Miller and Noam Chomsky. Others on the faculty included B. F. Skinner and Jerome Bruner. Frank graduated with a Ph.D in cognitive psychology.
As a research assistant, Frank was asked to write a history of the Cognitive Centre along with a report on its current activities. He also edited the proceedings of a conference on language development with his supervisor, George Miller, published by MIT Press with the title THE GENESIS OF LANGUAGE.
Frank’s novel BROTHERS’ KEEPERS was published just before he left Perth for Harvard by Hamish Hamilton in the UK, Simon and Schuster in New York, and subsequently in paperback by Penguin. The book was twice optioned for a movie.
He has since written over 20 books on such topics as language, reading, writing, thinking and teaching. He was featured by the BBC in a program titled HOW DO YOU READ? And was also a featured speaker in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ideas program on language. His most recent prize was awarded by the National Council of Teachers of English which cites Frank “for his transforming influence and lasting intellectual contribution to the English profession.” He is the first Canadian to receive this prestigious award.
Frank’s books and academic work are documented elsewhere, (see Wikipedia). His book on Africa, WHOSE LANGUAGE? WHAT POWER? was short-listed as the best book on Africa for 2005. Many of his books have been translated, the latest being THE BOOK OF LEARNING AND FORGETTING into Japanese.
An abiding interest in education has followed Frank throughout his academic life. He claims not to tell teachers how to teach, only to show them how language and the brain interact to make reading take place. His hope has always been that teachers will think for themselves and, armed with the theoretical knowledge of what helps and what hinders, come up with the best results for the children in their classroom.
Always an avid and analytical reader who does not take accepted wisdom for granted, Frank pursues many intellectual interests including technology, history, music, astronomy, and evolution. His book currently in preparation is entitled MADE TO MEASURE. It examines how evolution has shaped the various features – and the mind – of human beings.