A Tribute to Jeanne Chall

Jeanne Chall's Historic Contribution

In one of the tributes that follows, a longtime friend and associate recalls how Jeanne Chall believed being a teacher was the most important job: "She delighted in telling how, when she became a professor of education and director of the Reading Laboratory at Harvard University, her mother asked if she could still tell her friends that her daughter was a teacher."

Indeed, her mother could. And surely the most important lesson Jeanne Chall taught—both directly in her classes and seminars and, more tellingly, in how she conducted herself as a scholar—was, as E. D. Hirsch, Jr., has described the spirit that animated her work, "to follow the evidence fearlessly wherever it might lead." Jeanne Chall did that, and it got her into a lot of trouble with people who didn't like where the evidence led. But she stood her ground and inspired others to do likewise. In recent years, that ground has shifted. The evidence supporting Jeanne Chall's original findings about teaching beginning reading has become crushing in its abundance and conclusiveness. And countless children who otherwise would be hopelessly struggling are now on a secure path to reading.

Jeanne Chall died Thanksgiving weekend, 1999. She was 78 years old. Last fall, The International Dyslexia Association (IDA), an organization with which Jeanne Chall had long been associated, devoted a special issue of its newsletter Perspectives (Volume 26, No. 4) to her memory. The guest editors, Marilyn Jager Adams and Linda K. Rath, gathered tributes from many of Jeanne's colleagues, students, and friends. With IDA's permission, we have chosen five of those tributes to reprint here, and we have added a review of the book Chall finished shortly before her death. "No single person has contributed more to the substance, dialogue, or advancement of the field of reading education," the editors of Perspectives wrote. To that we can only say, with gratitude, Amen.


By Diane Ravitch

As a historian of education, I have studied the history and politics of reading research. Based on my research, I can say without qualification that Jeanne Chall's significant contribution to this field changed the course of the debate about reading in the last third of the 20th century. Chall will long be remembered for both the quality of her research and for her matchless integrity, which inspired her students and admirers in many other fields.

Here is the context that brought Jeanne Chall to the forefront of the reading debate. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the public schools were roundly criticized for intellectual flabbiness. Then, in 1955, Rudolf Flesch's sensational book, Why Johnny Can't Read, charged that there was a national reading crisis caused by the widespread use of textbooks and reading programs that rejected phonics. Flesch insisted that the popular "look-say" method, found in books like the Dick and Jane reading series, had no support in research. His book topped the bestseller list and was serialized in many newspapers.

In 1961, as the debate about how to teach reading continued, the Carnegie Corporation of New York commissioned Jeanne Chall, who was well established as a careful reading researcher, to review the controversy. Chall spent three years visiting hundreds of classrooms, analyzing research studies, and examining textbooks; she interviewed textbook authors, reading specialists, and teachers. In her landmark book Learning to Read: The Great Debate, published in 1967, she did not agree with Flesch that there was one and only one successful method for teaching beginning readers. She concluded that no single method had completely solved the problems of teaching reading; some methods were better than others, but none was a panacea.

Chall was not an ideologue; she was a careful researcher who understood teaching. She knew that it was extraordinarily tricky to compare the effectiveness of different teaching methods because each approach contained elements of the other. She pointed out that schools that had recently adopted phonics programs still used the look-say readers, and teachers tended to rely on the methods with which they were most familiar. In the 1930s, she observed, phonics survived in a hostile environment because some teachers clung to their old phonics charts, closed the classroom door, and hoped that their supervisor did not come in unannounced. However, she discovered that teachers who had been trained since the 1930s had never learned to teach phonics and were likely to fall back on what they knew best, which was the look-say method.

Chall found that from 1930 until the early 1960s, there was a pervasive professional consensus on the one best way to teach reading. This consensus de-emphasized the use of phonics and concentrated on teaching children to recognize whole words and sentences. It stressed silent reading, rather than oral reading (oral reading was associated with phonics because it demonstrated the child's knowledge of the sounds of letters and syllables). Children were encouraged to identify words "at sight" by referring to pictures and context clues; the sight vocabulary was carefully controlled and repeated often in the primers. While phonics was not necessarily banned, it was relegated to a minor role in learning to read.

This orthodoxy, Chall discovered, was not supported by research. In reviewing reading research from 1912 to 1965, Chall found that studies of beginning readers over the decades clearly supported decoding. Early decoding, she found, not only produced better word recognition and spelling, but also made it easier for the child eventually to read with understanding. The code emphasis method, she wrote, was especially effective for children of lower socioeconomic status, who were not likely to live in homes surrounded with books or with adults who could help them learn to read. For a beginning reader, she found, knowledge of letters and sounds had more influence on reading achievement than the child's tested mental ability or IQ.

Instinctively wary of any extremism, Chall warned teachers, schools, and textbook publishers not to go overboard in teaching phonics, not to jettison comprehension and good stories. She had recommended phonics only as a beginning reading method, a method to start the child reading in the first two grades, followed by a quick transition to reading good stories. She had predicted that if schools made a fetish of phonics, there would be a counter-reaction, and a movement would rise up against the overemphasis on systematic phonics. She expected that this counter-reaction would demand a "natural" approach, a renewed attention to recognizing whole words and reading for meaning and appreciation. Of course, she was describing, with uncanny accuracy—back in 1967—the rise of the whole language movement.

When the whole language movement became a major factor in American education in the 1980s, as Chall had predicted, she was often targeted as one of its "enemies." In publications and debates, she was sometimes accused by whole language partisans of being a tool of the "far right." This, of course, was absurd. Jeanne Chall never let herself be used by anyone. She was a woman of remarkable candor, clarity, and personal integrity. She reported what she found, and she did not seek favor from anyone nor serve as a foot-soldier in anyone's political campaigns.

Even as the attacks on her continued, she stressed that both decoding and comprehension were critical for young readers. Her critics twisted her words, but they never managed to tarnish her scholarly reputation, and she never descended to trading insults with those who insulted her.

Her message over the decades was clear and consistent. Teaching children to read is difficult, not easy; it requires consistency, skill, and open-mindedness. Research can point us to better methods, but only well-prepared teachers can make good methods effective in their classrooms.

She will be remembered in the history of American education as a teacher, a scholar, and a person of the highest character who cared deeply about children. Having just completed a history of American education in the 20th century, which documents Jeanne Chall's important role in clarifying "the great debate," I can assure her many friends that her work will not be forgotten.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education and Research Professor of Education at New York University. Her latest book is
Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).


The Great Debate

By Marilyn Jager Adams

When we sat down for lunch, I saw that Jeanne had brought a copy of my book. "Listen," she said, "I want to read you something." She opened the book and read from my summary remarks about The Great Debate.

Chall's book is a classic because it is thorough, disciplined, and readable.... The observations and data she amassed seemed inescapably to suggest that—as a complement to connected and meaningful reading—systematic phonic instruction is a valuable component of beginning reading instruction. Its positive effects appeared both strong and extensive. Yet the reader is left with the impression that these findings took Chall by surprise.1

She closed the book, sat back, and peered at me long and hard. "Have I said this to you?" she finally asked. No, she had not. "Then what makes you think it is so?"

I felt at least uncomfortable. In giving oneself license to write from the soul, one necessarily gives others license to see, rightly or wrongly, more than one has written. Had I overstepped in this reflection? Had I misread? Had I trespassed on her person?

That evening she called on the phone. "I've been thinking," she began. Then with a great swell of pride in her voice, she announced, "The Great Debate was my first feminist book! Do you know?" We both laughed, for both of us did.

Not that Chall was surprised that phonics is useful for young readers. English, after all, is an alphabetic script. Yet, few who delve into the primary research are prepared for the strength or the scope of the phonics effect. A working knowledge of spellings and spelling-sound correspondences is fundamental for young readers. It is essential. Furthermore, whether children gain that understanding is very, very strongly influenced by instruction. That is what Chall figured out as she wrote The Great Debate. Moreover, she figured it out despite the fact that, by today's standards, the research base from which she worked was both crude and spotty. Had she been anyone else, she might well have understood and written about these findings only as they fit her prior beliefs. But she did not. Bothering instead to push and ponder their collective meaning and credibility, she caused herself to question and, ultimately, revise her own beliefs, even knowing the social and professional risks of so doing.

Still today, after many hundreds more pages, many thousands more experimental hours and subjects, and many millions more dollars worth of work, we have certified much but learned little more. The conclusions of our scientific efforts to understand beginning reading remain "point for point, virtually identical to those at which Jeanne Chall had arrived [in The Great Debate] on the basis of her classroom observations and interpretive reviews of the literature."2

If Chall's conclusions defied her expectations, if they have been proven only through subsequent decades of hard empirical effort, then one cannot help but wonder. How did she manage to figure them out? The answer, I am convinced, derives no more from Chall's exceptional intelligence and discipline than from her uncontainable intellectual honesty. In the last chapter of The Great Debate, Chall wrote:

In presenting the conclusions of this study, and especially the recommendations growing out of these conclusions, I am keenly aware that I can never hope to escape from the influence of my time.... It would be foolish to think that I do not share in this human condition.... I hope I have adequately stressed that the conclusions and recommendations I present here hold for now—for the present available evidence, for existing school conditions (as I see them), and for the goals we seek now.3

Compare this voice to those who have so loudly and brutally maligned her for her work. Then reconsider the strength of this woman. How much easier her life would have been had she given up or given in.

Now, more than 30 years later, our country is again recognizing that its future depends on the education of its children. At the same time, for reasons of informational advances and demographic shifts, the educational disparities and inequities of our public school system are more clearly quantified and more starkly ghettoized than ever before. In her preface to The Reading Crisis, Chall reflected:

It is common today, as in the past, to look elsewhere than to educational research for an understanding of the literacy problems of low-income children and for ways of solving these problems. Currently, cultural and political theories are offered as reasons for the low achievement of poor children and for the lag between mainstream and at-risk children. Although cultural and political explanations may help us understand the broader picture, in the end they must be translated, in practical terms, into what can be done in schools and in homes. Such translations ought to consider the historical findings of educational research—that good teaching improves achievement and thereby can empower all children and especially those at risk.4

Indeed, thanks largely to Jeanne Chall, we now possess an overabundance of hard data that only strengthen her conclusion: Provided that we apply the lessons we have learned, there is no reason for any healthy child in any classroom in our country to be left behind in reading.

Marilyn Jager Adams, currently a consultant with BBN Technologies, Cambridge, Mass., is the author of Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print.

1. Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print, p. 39. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

2. Adams, 1990, p. 49.

3. Chall, J. S. (1967). Learning to read: The great debate, pp. 305-306. New York: McGraw-Hill.

4. Chall, J. S., Jacobs, V. A., & Baldwin, L. E. (1990). The reading crisis: Why poor children fall behind. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


Tribute to Dr. Chall—A Teacher

By Nancy Rae Neill

Once, I explained to Dr. Chall that while I wrote thousands of memos, letters, curriculum guides, and so on as a part of my job, I was not "a writer." She listened carefully, as she always did to everyone, and then related that once she had said something similar to Dr. Edgar Dale. He asked her if she could sit for long periods of uninterrupted time and hold a pencil. To her affirmative replies, he said, "Then you can write—and I will help you." Because she helped me, I am writing this tribute.

I never told Dr. Chall that she was the greatest teacher I ever had, and I don't know that I could. I believe she knew at some level but would not have felt it was a valuable allocation of time to talk about it. I do know she believed being a teacher was the most important job. She delighted in telling how, when she became a professor of education and director of the Reading Laboratory at Harvard University, her mother asked if she could still tell her friends that her daughter was a teacher. I remember, too, while visiting a school during the height of the whole language movement, how stunned and saddened Dr. Chall was when corrected by a teacher who preferred to be called a "facilitator."

In 1966, I read a draft copy of Dr. Chall's Learning to Read: The Great Debate. I was a graduate student of the senior author of the major "look-say" basal of the day. While he appeared ashen after reading her book, it made sense to me. Many of the children who came to the clinic at his university required systematic phonic instruction in order to advance in learning to read. Yet, even as she wrote about the importance of phonics, Dr. Chall cautioned people not to overdo it, or "we will be confronted in 10 or 20 years with another bestseller: 'Why Robert Can't Read.'" This is exactly what happened!

Dr. Chall's capacity for looking at all facets of a problem was remarkable. She tirelessly asked questions of everything and everyone, including herself. By questioning her students, she forced us to focus, to analyze, to synthesize, and to think for ourselves. She was so great at enabling others that we frequently believed we had done it all on our own.

Dr. Chall's power as a teacher drew not only from her scholarship and experience, but from her rare ability to empathize with students, young and old. I recall a day when we were observing reading lessons from behind large one-way mirrors in the Harvard Reading Lab. One young adult student had advanced from a virtual non-reader to the intermediate level. However, his halting "collaborative" reading with his tutor was almost painful to observe, and his reading growth seemed to have reached a plateau. The young man was slouched down in his chair and struggling over the book that was lying on the desk. The tutor sympathetically waited for him to puzzle over every difficult word. Jeanne shortly zipped out and asked if she could work with him. She had him sit up straight and hold his own book. Then she asked him to start reading with her help, and she instantaneously provided any word he missed. The student began to read faster and faster and, soon, without Jeanne's assistance. When Dr. Chall told him that was fine and he could stop, he kept right on reading to the end of the chapter. The student's body language was totally altered in a 10-minute period and, from the smile on his face, it was clear that he now knew he could read. Jeanne reinforced this with a few positive comments and encouragement to take risks and continue working to meet his goal. It was not long before the young man reached his goal: to read and comprehend a book that his father had written.

I also recall walking through the exhibit hall with Dr. Chall at one of the International Reading Association Conventions. At a booth selling a high-interest, low-vocabulary series of textbooks, she noticed that the series started out a few months below grade level but, by sixth grade, began with stories that were listed as two years below grade level. Dr. Chall asked the representative why this was so. If children used the series, and if it was successful, then why wouldn't they progress in achievement instead of losing ground? The representative treated Dr. Chall as someone not too bright and carefully explained that this was the correct way for "slow" children to learn to read. (This disregarded all research evidence to the contrary as well as Dr. Chall's work on the importance of using challenging reading material in instruction.) The representative compounded his errors by stating that the readabilities were correct because the company used the Dale-Chall Readability Formula to determine all the levels. When Dr. Chall asked if this was true even at the first- and second-grade level, he assured her that it was. (Note: The Dale-Chall Readability Formula was developed for assessing materials at grades 4 and above.) Dr. Chall asked a few more questions but never told the representative her name. I love this story and would have used it for many a laugh. However, I noticed that Dr. Chall never told it to anyone nor used it in any presentation. In fact, in the volumes of writing that she produced, and in the many presentations I listened to, I never heard her make one comment that would personally hurt another individual. She wrote and spoke as a professional, basing her comments on evidence, observations, and personal experiences working directly with children and teachers.

Dr. Chall was my teacher, my mentor, and my friend—as she was to each of us involved in learning about reading. Even now when I read an interesting article in Education Week, the New York Times, or wherever, my hand automatically reaches for the phone to call Jeanne for her insight and comments. So many of us will always miss her charismatic smile and the ever-present twinkle in her eyes.

Nancy Rae Neill is supervisor of curriculum and instruction for the Racine Unified School District, Racine, Wis.


Jeanne Chall: A Memory

By Wiley Blevins

A Beginning

I was 24, a new Harvard Graduate School of Education student, and fortunate enough to be in Dr. Chall's class during her final year of full-time teaching. I'll never forget that first day of her Reading, Schools, and Social Policy class. She began the class by listing the topics we would discuss throughout the semester. After a few topics, a young woman sitting next to me nodded her head knowingly in response to one of the topics. "What do you think about this?" Dr. Chall inquired, pointing to the now stunned redhead. The student squirmed slightly as she muttered her feelings about the topic and what she thought should be done in schools based on these feelings. Annoyed or amused, I'm not sure which, Dr. Chall quickly interrupted her, "What research do you have to base that on?" she firmly asked. "None," the girl answered slightly embarrassed. The girl began to backpedal like a tourist in a rowboat approaching the Niagara Falls. Dr. Chall's message was received. Whatever we said in (or out of) class had to be supported by solid research. We were never to make statements or decisions based on feelings, unsubstantiated beliefs, or gut reactions to situations. It was a lesson I never forgot.

An Ending

A year prior to Dr. Chall's death, I returned to the picturesque streets of Cambridge with a colleague of mine to speak to a publishing class at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I was now an executive editor at a large publishing house working on reading textbooks for the primary grades. Before the publishing class, a lunch was arranged with Dr. Chall. Throughout the lunch, Dr. Chall spoke about her work schedule (writing to noon each day), a book she was sending to a publisher (her last), and several future projects she was planning. I discussed with Dr. Chall current issues in basal reading publishing, such as the push to have controlled text in first grade with a much higher decodability count. Dr. Chall's research greatly supports this notion as does my work. My concern was over "how" controlled and/or decodable the text should be. I couldn't locate any research that provided an optimum decodability number. I explained to Dr. Chall that various educators and state policymakers were beginning to set decodability minimums for this text. "On what research do they base that?" Dr. Chall firmly inquired. "I haven't seen this research!" The tone and message were familiar. "What would you suggest?" I cautiously queried. "I would have to conduct research to find out," she replied. Our conversation led me to conduct the most important research of my career—an attempt to answer this question. I owe much of what I know and have done to Dr. Chall's expertise and guidance. The field of education is certainly lacking without her brilliance. I thank her and will miss her.

Wiley Blevins is director of Primary at Scholastic.


Teacher and Mentor

By Linda K. Rath

At a celebration marking the 30th anniversary of Sesame Street, Jeanne Chall sat in the front row. I accompanied her to this event, and she nudged and whispered to me throughout. When Gerry Lesser saluted her from the stage, thanking her for "insisting that the alphabet have a starring role in the show," she leaned over and hissed, "What a battle that was. Self-esteem, that's all they wanted. I had to fight to make them give kids knowledge and skills!" Elmo himself came over to thank Jeanne at the dinner that followed. "You helped me learn my ABCs," he crooned.

Though Professor Jeanne Chall was a world-class scholar, she was also a maven of TV. She watched talk shows, documentaries, music specials, and educational programs for children. She believed that television could help accomplish her life's mission: teaching people, especially at-risk children, to read. She made a point of watching every new kids' show on the PBS lineup, and she had strong—and sometimes surprising—opinions of them (e.g., Barney and Teletubbies got a thumbs up).

Dr. Chall was on board to advise writers during the Electric Company era, and she was eager to contribute to the newest pro-literacy PBS series, Between the Lions.1 She was one of the first to hear of the new show, in fact, due to her long-time friendship with Phyllis Cerf, former head of Beginner Books at Random House. Between the Lions is the brainchild of Phyllis's son, Christopher, and several New York colleagues, and they turned to Dr. Chall early on for ideas about the curriculum content.

Ever the tough critic and teacher, Jeanne was also a diligent and thorough advisor. Each script was read with the same care she always gave to the papers and dissertations of her students. She'd mark her script copies with "No!" and "Why here?" and sprays of suggestions. She argued that children want to learn, so there's no need to jazz things up to the level of parody or burlesque. She would persistently prod and cajole the writers to promote cultural literacy and deliver systematic phonics instruction. But she was always supportive and had a good-humored touch at these important advisory meetings.

Jeanne saved her heavier-handed approach for our private talks, when she would urge me to be forceful and clear-sighted in my role as curriculum director. I was nervous on the day I brought her to WGBH for a screening of our first pilot episode, "The Fox and the Crow." I knew she'd notice every mistake, missed opportunity, and over-the-top enactment. But her eyes lit up as she watched the opening story unfold. She did let out a "tsk, tsk" every now and then, and she swatted me playfully when she felt something was distracting or unnecessary. We stopped the tape about 50 times, so she could explain her objections. Then, at the end, she proclaimed, "I like it. It's much better than Sesame Street ! The family is really very charming. They read books and play with words—it's so upbeat and literary! Now, here's what you have to do to make it better...." Two days later, she called to say that she was very excited about the show and that we'd better start thinking about a classroom curriculum to supplement it. "When you start writing the materials and teacher's manual," she said, "I'll be happy to help you with it." Regrettably, that was not to be.

The episode Jeanne critiqued that day is dedicated to her, and her name appears on a logo at the end of each show, along with the names of several departed Sesame Street writers and Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss). I think she would have loved to know that she is to be forever in the company of those smart, talented men who shared her mission and looked to her for guidance.

Jeanne would also have been happy to know that when I read a script, I hear her voice questioning every word and lesson. Is the vocabulary rich enough here; is it too sophisticated there? I pull out Readability Revisited2 and check the word list. I use her arguments in prodding writers to teach important skills and promote cultural literacy. Wouldn't she have loved to see this notice in the paper the day after Between the Lions premiered:

Which brings up the great reading debate—phonics or whole word, you ask? No question, Between the Lions is foursquare behind phonics. Just listen to The Vowelles tell about the short E sound (eh, eh, eh).3

Linda K. Rath is curriculum director for Between the Lions. She was a research assistant and teaching fellow for Dr. Chall in the late 1980s.

1. Between the Lions is a co-production of WGBH and Sirius Thinking, Ltd. It is funded in part by a Read to Learn grant from the United States Department of Education through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major support is also provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Park Foundation, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Charles H. Revson Foundation, and the Institute for Civil Society. National corporate sponsorship is provided by Cheerios® and e-Toys®.

2. Chall, J.S. & Dale E. (1995). Cambridge, Mass.: Brookline Books.

3. Jeanne Spreier, TV Week, The Dallas Morning News, April 2, 2000.

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