Revered by his students at a tough dockside comprehensive in Hull, he wrote 80 education books and two sets of memoirs. He was also a keen swimmer and rugby player.
He was most well-known for his 1960 text, English Through Experience, described as ahead of its time. In later years, his expertise was regularly tapped in radio and television broadcasts.
He was born into a very poor family in Cornwall and his childhood inspired his work with pupils from low-income families.
One of his last books, Untouched by Time, told of his 20 years of retirement in an Andalusian village.
Some of his poetry appeared in The Times Literary Supplement. His last book, Cats, a collection of poetry, will be published posthumously next month.
He is survived by two of his three daughters, and three grandchildren.
His funeral will take place in Exeter today.