Chall, Jeanne Sternlicht

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CHALL, Jeanne Sternlicht

(b. 1 January 1921 in Shendishov, Poland; d. 27 November 1999 in Cambridge, Massachusetts), psychologist, leading expert in reading research and instruction for more than fifty years, and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Chall was the youngest of five children of Hyman and Eva (Kreinik) Sternlicht. At the age of seven, Chall moved with her brother and three sisters to New York, where she met her father for the first time. (Chall's father had left Poland for New York in 1920.) The Yiddish-speaking Sternlicht children attended New York City public schools, learning English at a time when no bilingual programs existed. Chall was the first in her family to attend college. Gail Kearns, a former student and friend of Chall's, wrote, "Jeanne Chall could have been considered a 'poster child' for free higher education." She was able to study at City College of the City University of New York because it charged nothing for tuition; her older sister helped pay for her transportation. In 1941 Chall graduated from City College cum laude. She later earned an M.A. (1947) and a Ph.D. (1952) from Ohio State University. In 1946 she married Leo P. Chall; they had no children and divorced in 1964.

From 1943 to 1945 Chall worked in New York City at Teacher's College, Columbia University, as an assistant to Irving Lorge, an early pioneer in intelligence testing. Here Chall discovered her love for, and the importance of, comprehensive research. At Ohio State she first applied this love for research, developing, with Edgar Dale, the Dale-Chall readability formula. The formula quickly became (and still is) one of the most widely used guides for matching texts to readers. Between 1950 and 1965 Chall taught at City College, where she published her first book, Readability: An Appraisal of Research and Application (1958). During this period she also took visiting positions at the State University of New York at New Paltz (summers 1954, 1955, and 1956) and at Columbia University (summers 1958 and 1960; fall 1960; spring 1961). Chall first taught at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education in 1963 as a visiting associate professor. In 1965 she accepted Harvard's offer of a full professorship.

During the 1960s many educators were calling for a change in the ways in which children were taught to read. While some moved blindly ahead with the latest trends in education (including the dismissal of phonics, often in favor of the "look-see" method), Chall asked why such innovations were employed before research evidence supporting their effectiveness was developed. In Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967), she argued that the teaching of phonics was necessary in reading instruction. In preparation for the book, Chall reviewed hundreds of research studies done between 1910 and 1965; she also visited classrooms and interviewed teachers and textbook publishers. Chall's book reminded readers that pedagogical innovation should be based on sound research, not on the latest fad.

Chall was prolific throughout her career. In addition to Learning to Read, in the 1960s she wrote more than twenty articles and, with Shirley C. Feldmann, a research report entitled "A Study in Depth of First Grade Reading: An Analysis of the Interactions of Proposed Methods, Teacher Implementation and Child Background" (1966) for the U.S. Office of Education. She was the consulting editor for Folktales of Other Lands (published in eight volumes between 1963 and 1964), and she was a developer of the Roswell-Chall Auditory Blending Test (1962). Altogether, Chall wrote, co-wrote, or edited more than twenty books; the total number of her articles, tests, research reports, and interviews exceeds two hundred.

In her research and writing Chall expressed a commitment to helping all people improve their reading skills. In "Attitudes of Children from a Deprived Environment Toward Achievement-Related Concepts," in the Journal of Educational Research (October 1965), Chall and her coauthors argued for the importance of improving the reading abilities of low-income minority children. She also demonstrated a concern for adult literacy, a concern whose beginnings might be traced to the part she played as a grade-school student in helping her mother learn English so that she could pass the citizenship exam. The extent of Chall's concern is expressed in such articles as "Estimating the Size of Vocabularies of Children and Adults: An Analysis of Methodological Issues" in the Journal of Experimental Education (winter 1963).

In 1966 Chall founded the Harvard Reading Lab (now named after her) and served as its director for more than twenty-five years. Her other professional commitments were extensive. She acted as secretary-treasurer (1963) and president (1965 to 1966) of the National Conference on Research in English. From 1962 to 1965 she sat on the board of directors for the International Reading Association. Also in the 1960s Chall was asked to join a number of advisory committees, among them, the Steering Committee, Project Literacy, U.S. Office of Education (1964 to 1970); National Advisory Committee on Dyslexia and Related Reading Disorders, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (1968 to 1970); Advisory Council for Title III, ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act, enacted in 1965), Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1968 to 1972); and Advisory Board, Children's Television Workshop (1968 to 1999). In all she was affiliated with nine professional associations, eighteen advisory committees, and five editorial boards, including the board of the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Chall was the recipient of the most distinguished honors in the field of education. Her more than fifty years of professional work did not cease until her death at the age of seventy-eight from congestive heart failure. Less than two weeks earlier, with the help of Mary E. Curtis, Chall had finished The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom. Returning to the question that sparked much of her research and writing—Why are so many educational innovations adopted before research supports their effectiveness?—Chall concluded that the traditional approach to teaching (as opposed to the student-led, hands-on approach) produces higher academic achievement, especially for low-income children. She spent much of her career making the connection between good research and good practice, citing that educational innovation should be based on solid research.

Information about Chall is in Gail Kearns, "Jeanne S. Chall: A Memorial Tribute" and "Practical Tools for Teachers: A Selected Reference List of Resources by Jeanne S. Chall," both in Perspectives: Journal of the International Dyslexia Association (2000); the Gale Group's Contemporary Authors Online (2000; <>); and William Dee Nichol's website about Jeanne Chall at <>.

Candice Mancini-Knight