Chall's work influenced scholarship on reading and the teaching of reading in schools and universities throughout the country. She was among the first to describe learning to read as a developmental process and to advocate for the use of both phonics and exposure to challenging literature as the best method of teaching young children to read. She produced the definitive study of reading instruction in her 1967 book, Learning to Read: the Great Debate (McGraw-Hill). The book summarized the evidence surrounding a controversy that continues today as the relative importance of meaning-based versus phonics-based reading instruction.
"Jeanne identified and studied the crucial issues in education decades before others," said Dean Jerome T. Murphy. "Her work included examinations of schooling and instruction, of the relationship of poverty and disability to reading difficulties and school achievement, and of the interdisciplinary nature of learning to read. She was enormously influential in helping us understand how people actually learn to read and in ensuring that the research evidence was used in the classroom to help children. She was a beloved member of our community, prized for her dedication to her work, her students, and to the pleasure and value of reading; we will miss her deeply."
Firmly grounded in her research findings, Chall advocated for her theories despite the swings of fashion in educational theory and practice. "A scholar of exceptional intelligence, discipline and uncontainable intellectual honesty, Jeanne also exhibited great strength, as she was loudly and brutally maligned for her work," said reading expert Marilyn Adams, a visiting scholar at HGSE whose 1990 book Beginning to Read confirmed Chall's 1967 findings. "How much easier her life would have been had she given up or given in. But Jeanne could never abandon what she knew was best for children."
Born in Poland
Chall was born in Poland on January 1, 1921 and moved to New York at age seven with her family. Speaking Yiddish when she arrived, she attended New York City public schools quickly learning English at a time when no bilingual programs existed. She spent Saturday mornings at the public library where her love of reading was nurtured. Her mother was her first student, whom she taught to read so that she could pass the U.S. citizenship test. Chall was the first person in her family to go to college, graduating cum laude from New York's City College with a B.S. in 1941. She received both her M.A. (1947) and her Ph.D. (1952) from Ohio State University. She served on the faculty at Ohio State, Columbia's Teachers College, and at City College of New York, before joining the Harvard Graduate School of Education as a full professor in 1965.
At Harvard, she founded the Harvard Reading Laboratory in 1966 as the centerpiece of a program to train teachers and reading specialists, to collect data for ongoing research efforts, and to provide services to the local community. She directed the lab for more than 20 years and trained legions of researchers, reading teachers, and policy experts.
Chall created several important diagnostic tools for reading specialists. With her Ohio State University mentor Edgar Dale, she developed the Dale-Chall Readability Formula, one of the first and most effective measures of the difficulty that a text presents to a student. In 1956, she first published the Roswell-Chall Diagnostic Reading Test of Word Analysis Skills with Florence G. Roswell, her longtime collaborator and friend at City College. The widely-used test helps identify reading problems.
Dedication to Helping Poor Readers
One hallmark of Chall's work has been her concern for poor children and the need to ensure that they receive the instruction and access to literary challenges that more affluent children have as a matter of course. She spent several years unraveling the link between early reading and later academic achievement. In her 1983 book, Stages of Reading Development, Chall described how readers progress from developing elementary skills through the most complex reading, arguing that unless students are fluent in decoding they seldom progress academically. In her 1990 book, The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind, she examined the reasons behind the commonly cited "fourth-grade slump." Chall explained that children who lack family support for reading depend on teachers for their literacy education and future academic success. She urged teachers and policy makers not to underestimate the value of teachers and schooling.
Chall was deeply involved in efforts to use television to help children learn to read. She served as an advisor to the creators of Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Most recently she advised the developers of a show, entitled Between the Lions which aims to strengthen children's literacy and is now in production.
"Jeanne was the most focused and single-minded individual that I have ever known," said Gerald Lesser, professor emeritus at HGSE and one of the principal architects of Sesame Street and other children's television programs. "She was absolutely dedicated to helping every child in the U.S. learn to read not only fluently but for the pure joy of it as well."
Chall's concern for readers included adults, and in 1986 she conducted a survey of adult literacy centers at the request of Harvard President Derek Bok. This study laid the foundation for the Harvard Adult Literacy Initiative, a university-wide program to train literacy volunteers.
Chall was a fellow of the American Psychological Association, a member of the National Academy of Education and the Reading Hall of Fame, and had served on the Board of Directors of the International Reading Association and the National Society for the Study of Education. She has received many awards, including the Edward L. Thorndike award from the American Psychological Association for distinguished psychological contributions to education, the American Educational Research Association's award for significant contributions to educational research, and the Samuel T. Orton Award from the Orton Dyslexia Society. She is a member of Ohio State University College of Education Hall of Fame.
Chall was called upon by a succession of U.S. presidents and secretaries of education to bring her wisdom to national literacy efforts. She was an advisor to projects conducted by the Office of Education, the National Institute of Education, the National Academy of Education, and many others. She made herself accessible and supportive to the many students, teachers, and researchers who sought her advice and wise counsel.
Books Were Her Children
A prolific writer, Chall often said that her books were her children. Although she formally retired in 1991, she continued to conduct and publish research. Among the books she published after her retirement are: Should Textbooks Challenge Students (1991); Creating Successful Readers (1994); Readability Revisited and the New Dale-Chall Readability Formula (1995); Qualitative Assessment of Text Difficulty (1996); Learning to Read: The Great Debate (third edition, 1996); Stages of Reading Development (second edition,1996); Teaching and Assessing Phonics (1996); Teaching Children to Read (1998) and Reading Difficulties (1999).
At her retirement, Chall donated her personal collection of textbooks and historical materials including 9500 titles spanning over two hundred years of American education history to the HGSE's Monroe C. Gutman Library. The books include scholarly works in the fields of education and psychology as well as storybooks, novels, textbooks, and nineteenth and twentieth century readers and spellers.
In the weeks before she died, Chall completed work on what will be her final volume, tentatively entitled "The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in Classrooms." A summary of trends she observed in her over 50 years in education, Chall drew on history and education research to illuminate the debate between traditional and progressive education camps. The book will be published this February.
Chall is survived by her three sisters, Sylvia Rauch, Miriam Warmbrand, and Shirley Decker, and seven loving nieces and nephews. A memorial service will be arranged at Harvard University in the spring of 2000.
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Harvard Graduate School of Education
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