December 02, 1999
University Gazette


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Jeanne Chall, Reading Expert and Psychologist, Dies at Age 78

Jeanne Sternlicht Chall, a psychologist, a leading expert in reading research and instruction for over 50 years, and professor emerita at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), died on Saturday, Nov. 27, of congestive heart failure at her home in Cambridge, Mass. She was 78.

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). "Jeanne identified and studied the crucial issues in education decades before others," said GSE 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."

Chall was born in Poland on Jan. 1, 1921, and moved to New York at age 7 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. 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 and directed the lab for more than 20 years. She trained legions of researchers, reading teachers, and policy experts.

Chall was called upon by a succession of U.S. presidents and secretaries of education to bring her wisdom to national literacy efforts.

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. In the weeks before she died, Chall completed work on what will be her final volume, tentatively titled The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in Classrooms, which will be published in February 2000 by Guilford Press.

Chall is survived by three sisters, Sylvia Rauch of East Brunswick, N.J.; Miriam Warmbrand and Shirley Decker, both of Rego Park, Queens, N.Y.; and seven nieces and nephews. A memorial service will be arranged at Harvard in the spring of 2000.


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College