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Jeanne Chall (1921–1999)

Leading teacher, researcher, and writer in the field of reading, Jeanne S. Chall held views on the importance of direct, systematic instruction in reading that were slighted in the 1980s but justified in the late 1990s. She was deeply committed to teaching; to the importance of children's successful reading acquisition and the need to address failing readers; to the power of research to answer practical questions; and to the merit of understanding the historical background of research questions.

Born in Poland, Chall emigrated as a girl to New York City with her family. She graduated from the City College of New York in 1941 with a B.A. (cum laude). She became an assistant to Irving Lorge, who directed educational research at Teachers College, Columbia University. She then served as research assistant to Edgar Dale at the Bureau of Educational Research at Ohio State University, where she received an A.M. in 1947 and a Ph.D. in 1952. Her review for Dale of the existing research on readability led to her Readability: An Appraisal of Research and Application (1958) and a keen appreciation of the value of historical synthesis. Dale's and Chall's collaboration culminated in their Dale-Chall Formula for Predicting Readability (1948), which combined vocabulary complexity with sentence length to evaluate text readability. (Chall updated it in 1995.) Between 1950 and 1965 Chall rose from lecturer to professor at City College. These years brought a lifelong collaboration with Florence Roswell on the diagnosis and treatment of reading difficulties, and led Chall to question whether some methods were superior to others in preventing reading failure.

In 1965 Chall moved to Harvard University to create and direct graduate programs in reading for master's and doctoral candidates. An excellent clinician herself, she founded the Harvard Reading Laboratory in 1967 (now named after her), directing it until her retirement in 1991. She was a member of numerous scholarly organizations, editorial boards, policymaking committees, and state and national commissions. She served on the board of directors of the International Reading Association, 1961 to 1964, and on the National Academy of Education's Commission on Reading that resulted in the report Becoming a Nation of Readers (1985). She received many professional awards, the last given by the International Dyslexia Association in 1996.

Chall was engaged in both practice and research, often at the same time. For more than fifty years she taught students of all ages, including remedial ones, and advised schools. She was a consultant for children's encyclopedias, an educational comic book, educational software, and educational television, including the children's literacy programs Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Between the Lions.

Chall's most important professional contribution was a byproduct of the professional furor over Rudolf Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read–and What You Can Do About It (1955). Flesch attacked the prevailing sight word methodology of teaching reading, claiming that reading professionals had ignored their own research. With beginning reading instruction now on the national agenda, the Carnegie Corporation funded a study that Chall conducted from 1962 to 1965. She reviewed the existing research, described methods of instruction, interviewed leading proponents of various methods, and analyzed two leading reading series of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The results appeared in her Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967).

Chall identified what she called "the conventional wisdom" of reading instruction: that children should read for meaning from the start, use context and picture clues to identify words after learning about fifty words as sight words, and induce letter–sound correspondences from these words. Like Flesch, she concluded that this conventional wisdom was not supported by the research, which found phonics superior to whole word instruction and "systematic" phonics superior to "intrinsic" phonics instruction. She also found that beginning reading was different in kind from mature reading–a conclusion that she reaffirmed in her Stages of Reading Development (1983), which found that children first learn to read and then read to learn. She recommended in 1967 that publishers switch to a code-emphasis approach in children's readers, which would lead to better results without compromising children's comprehension.

Chall's Learning to Read quickly became a classic. Major textbook publishers reacted by emphasizing more phonics earlier in their series, although no publisher already committed to initial whole word instruction switched to systematic phonics. Chall's book was updated in 1983 (and 1996) with even stronger research findings to support its conclusions, but by 1983 textbooks of all kinds were under attack from the Whole Language movement, which condemned textbooks as a genre. The climate was an unsympathetic one for Chall's coauthored study Should Textbooks Challenge Students: The Case for Easier or Harder Textbooks (1991), which explored the relationship between the decline in difficulty of textbooks between 1945 and 1975 and lower SAT scores. Chall's coauthored study of thirty low-income urban children, The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind (1990), was also not universally well received. Whole Language proponents criticized it for relying on outdated tests; social scientists complained that it did not adequately explain its ethnographic techniques.

Chall showed her regard for the reading instruction of the past by reissuing, largely for home schooling use, stories from school readers of the 1880s to 1910s, titling them the Classic American Readers (1994). She had already given her own collection of over 9,500 imprints related to the history of reading research and the teaching of reading, spanning more than two centuries, to the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Monroe C. Gutman Library.

Chall's last work, published posthumously, was The Academic Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom (2000). In it, she divided American instruction into "child-centered" and "teacher-centered" approaches, suggesting that the twentieth century was dominated by the former (discovery approaches) in spite of research that supported the superiority of the latter (explicit teaching). Earlier, Helen Popp had persuaded her to coauthor a contribution to explicit teaching: a handbook for teachers, Teaching and Assessing Phonics (1996). The Chall-Popp Phonics program was completed after her death (2000).

Written in a climate in which many members of her own profession still disdained explications of the English writing system, the 1996 handbook is true to many of Chall's core concerns: teaching reading, particularly to at-risk children, and research-validated explicit instruction.


ADAMS, MARILYN JAGER, and RATH, LINDA K., eds. 2000. "Jeanne Sternlicht Chall: The Difference One Life Can Make." Perspectives [issue devoted to memorial tributes of Jeanne Sternlicht Chall] 26 (4):1, 4.

CHALL, JEANNE S. 1983. Stages of Reading Development. New York: McGraw-Hill.

CHALL, JEANNE S. 1993, 1994. "Fascination with Psychology and Teaching of Reading." History of Reading News 17 (1):1–2; 17 (2):2.

CHALL, JEANNE S. 1996. Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967). New York: McGraw Hill.

CHALL, JEANNE S. 2000. The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom. New York: Guilford.

CHALL, JEANNE S., and POPP, HELEN. 1996. Teaching and Assessing Phonics: A Guide for Teachers. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.

RAVITCH, DIANE, et al. 2001. "A Tribute to Jeanne Chall." American Educator 25 (1):16–23.


JEANNE CHALL READING LAB. 2002. "About Jeanne Chall." <www.gse.harvard.edu/~litlab/aboutchall.html>


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Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)