Cover photo for Sara G. Tarver's Obituary
Sara G. Tarver Profile Photo
1935 Sara 2023

Sara G. Tarver

December 26, 1935 — October 16, 2023


MADISON–Dr. Sara G. Tarver passed away on October 16, 2023. She was born an ordinary little girl in Mississippi, to the Gambrell family, and she became an extraordinary scholar and researcher at the University of Wisconsin, focusing on the application of effective instructional practices. Sara was a tireless advocate for evidence-based teaching methods and her legacy in this area continues to grow.

Sara grew up on the family farm in Sicily Island, Louisiana, where she worked hard, as farm kids do. Hard work as the surest path was an ethos that guided Sara throughout her life, including to the position of valedictorian of her high school class. She also played a disciplined guard position on school basketball teams, and she always enjoyed watching well-coached and well-executed basketball as an adult. Card playing, too, was a family source of fun growing up, which Sara continued to enjoy throughout her life.

A harbinger of Sara’s future professional path was also notable growing up on the farm. There she would gather on the large front porch her younger siblings and the children of the farm hands and teach them to read. It never occurred to her then, or later, that any kid could not be taught to read. Sara’s methods as teacher on the farm were intuitive, but later became informed by the knowledge, and by her own groundbreaking research, that reading can be taught by systematic approaches empirically shown to be effective.

Sara’s path to the University of Wisconsin was not direct. She began her college studies at Northeast Louisiana State College, majoring in business education. Sara then taught in rural public schools, while mothering with devotion her daughters Paula and Sandy. The family eventually relocated to Richmond, Virginia where Sara earned her master’s degree in psychology from the University of Richmond. All the while she continued to raise her daughters and teach in Virginia public schools.

As a classroom teacher, in the trenches, Sara became skeptical of the effectiveness of the teaching philosophies and materials of the time. She began to search for better methods, which she eventually found while working on her doctoral degree in special education at the University of Virginia. Direct Instruction, an empirically proven method of effective teaching, became the workhorse of Sara’s future professional career at the University of Wisconsin.

Sara joined the University of Wisconsin faculty in 1976 as an assistant professor. She became a full tenured professor in 1987. She remained at the University for more than 30 years before assuming the role of emeritus professor. During her tenure with the University, Sara made innumerable contributions to the research, teaching and service missions of the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education–and most significantly in the area of Direct Instruction, where Sara became internationally known for her research, scholarship, and the cadre of students that she trained and sent forth.

Sara’s passionate advocacy of Direct Instruction stemmed from the undisputed empirical evidence that this method of teaching is effective, while other methods-of-the-moment, such as whole language, do not achieve desired results. Thus, for example, reading proficiency in the United States stacks up poorly when methods other than Direct Instruction are used. For that reason, Sara became not just a proponent of Direct Instruction, but also one of the leading figures in education with an understanding of the science of reading and the wherewithal to teach teachers how to teach. She pursued the objective of effective teaching with unrelenting resolve.  Her students continue the pursuit.

Sara’s professional passion, however, did not prevent her from being just as devoted to her family and friends. She always supported and nurtured her daughters Paula and Sandy, as well as five grandchildren, six great grandchildren, and most recently a great great granddaughter, all of whom survive Sara and grieve her death. Sara’s dear friend Pat grieves too, although her odds of winning at Upwards have improved.

Sara will be missed dearly by so many. Her legacy will continue, however, for all those whose lives she touched and whose lives will be touched in the future.

A celebration of Sara’s life and legacy will be held Saturday, May 18, 2024, at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, 816 State Street, Madison, WI.  Gathering begins at 2:00 p.m. with Remembrance at 3:00 p.m..  A reception will follow the services.

Please use this link for further detail on attending in person or by zoom:


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