Campus & Community

Immersed in Words: Connie Juel Plans to Take Harvard into Schools

3 min read

Newly appointed professor of education and incoming director of the Harvard Literacy Laboratory Connie Juel is moving some of the services of the renowned lab into public schools. This is part of her overall plan to broaden the experience of Harvard’s graduate students. “There’s no better way to train reading teachers and reading supervisors than to bring them directly into the schools where children are most involved in the process of learning,” she says.

Juel’s own experience as an elementary-school teacher fueled her research, which helped to overturn a prominent literacy theory of the 1980s–that readers read by predicting upcoming words rather than by learning about letter-sound relationships. While serving as the Thomas G. Jewell Professor of Education at the University of Virginia, Juel concluded that matching spoken sounds to letters is the foundation of literacy. “Disabled readers frequently have problems perceiving the sounds in spoken words, like the ‘uh’ in ‘mumps’ or the ‘sh’ in fish,” which is called phonemic awareness. “This prevents them from connecting letters to those sounds.”

Much of Juel’s career has been devoted to identifying and documenting how best to intervene and help the struggling reader by improving classroom instruction. For the past eight years in Charlottesville, Virginia, UVA students and community volunteers have tutored first-grade remedial readers using Juel’s model, which emphasizes reading, writing, and letter sounds. On average, 90 percent of those tutored students have completed first-grade reading at or above grade level.

Juel is currently completing a study that follows the literacy development of 200 children, from preschool through first grade. “So far it is clear that early oral vocabulary is a strong predictor of both phonemic awareness and later reading comprehension. This means that teachers who develop oral vocabularies in their young students make a real difference.”

The Harvard Literacy Laboratory, founded by reading expert Jeanne Chall in the 1960s, is staffed by graduate students who work one-on-one with children aged 6 to 19, two hours a week. The Literacy Lab’s waiting list averages 60 pupils–and that makes Juel uncomfortable. She and other researchers have found that early intervention with literacy problems is critical, before a child gets too discouraged. Without intervention, a poor reader at the end of first grade has a 90 percent chance of remaining a poor reader. Juel hopes that moving the lab into public schools will help to develop both knowledge of effective interventions and effective reading instruction in the classroom.

In her new office at the Graduate School of Education, Juel has nearly two dozen photos of her former graduate students huddled beside children, teaching them to read. Like her predecessor Jeanne Chall, who trained legions of policy experts, researchers, and reading teachers, Juel is always eager to put research findings to work. “Watching children learn to read is like seeing a whole future open before them.”