Dolores Durkin received her PhD degree in May 1957 from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. In the fall of that year, she accepted the position of Assistant Professor at the University of California in Berkeley. In the course of writing a Master's Degree paper, she first learned that a widely held belief was that children are not ready to learn to read until they have a mental age of 6.5. Because she herself learned to read at the age of four, thanks to sharing a table with older siblings doing homework, she found such a belief to be questionable. This led to her first experience with conducting research, resulting in a longitudinal study of six years duration. In the initial stages, 49 children in the Oakland, California, Public Schools were identified as having some ability to read before entering kindergarten. Unlike the current times, academic programs were non-existent for children ages three and four.
Eventually, the study included visits to kindergarten to sixth grade classrooms where subjects were located. Parents were interviewed in their homes. This resulted in descriptions of how the children read prior to kindergarten. All the data from this and a similar study conducted later in New York are reported in the book, Children Who Read Early, published in 1966. Earlier, Durkin was visited by the Dean at Teachers College, Columbia University, with an invitation to join its faculty. She accepted the position of Associate Professor and remained there for six years.
Visits to classrooms continued. What was now a larger number of observations revealed that what might be termed reading comprehension instruction was rare. In contrast, reading assessment was common, often done with questions. Additional study of this finding was reinforced by other researchers. Durkin's studies were mostly reported in the Reading Research Quarterly.
The various studies now referred to resulted in the publication of two textbooks. The first, Teaching Young Children to Read, went through four editions. The second, Teaching Them to Read, enjoyed six editions.
During this period, Durkin received the William S. Gray Award and, in addition, was invited by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to join a committee charged with the responsibility to arrive at suggestions for how television programs for young children can foster interest in reading and even in some reading ability, itself. Of interest, too, was providing opportunities for advancing language skills. As it turned out, this marked the beginning of efforts to produce the popular program Sesame Street which began in 1968.
It was in 1970 that an invitation arrived from the University of Illinois encouraging Durkin to return to that campus as a Full Professor. She accepted the appointment, now anxious to return closer to her family. The willingness of Carnegie Corporation of New York to continue funding her research allowed Durkin to continue her work. It now included teaching, research, consultations with publishers, and attendance at professional meetings where she was often featured as a speaker.
At the end, she chose to retire in 1993. And, as she often said, if those paying her salary ever learned how much she loved what she did, she might be payless.