My Memories of Jeanne Chall, a Legend in the Field of Reading Instruction

Twenty-four years ago, I had the opportunity to teach under the direct supervision of Jeanne S. Chall, PhD, who was widely regarded as a leading expert in reading instruction.

The Stages of Reading Development, one of her books, was enormously influential. At Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I was taught by Chall, the students in the Department of Reading, Language, and Learning Disabilities were given the option to teach reading in the Harvard Reading Lab, now called the Jeanne Chall Reading Lab. This was the cutting edge of reading instruction. Chall immigrated to the United States from Poland when she was seven. She was the first person in her family to ever attend college. She never lost the pluck and intelligence that allowed her to excel when the odds were stacked against her. Although she was quite short, she exuded incredible confidence and strength. She was passionate and vehement. You could easily imagine her as an army general, and more than a few students were intimidated by her.

jeanne challI applied to the Department of Reading, Language, and Learning Disabilities because I wanted to study with Chall. In my application essays, I wrote about the experiences I had already had as a reading teacher. Something in my application caught Chall’s attention because in our very first meeting as a department, as we were introducing ourselves, she exclaimed, “Oh, you’re Daniel. I need to speak with you after the meeting.”

When we met, the two of us talked excitedly about teaching adults to read. I felt like I had made it to the summit, the pantheon of reading teachers. Although I was a capable and competent undergraduate, I had never established a close relationship with any of my professors. Even my advisor was someone I barely knew. But there I was on my first day of graduate school, sitting in front of the great Jeanne Chall talking about reading instruction. I don’t remember what her words were exactly, but she indicated that she fully expected me to participate in the Harvard Reading Lab. I assured her I would. She said, “Great. I’ll be your advisor.” So began one of the most wonderful years of my life.

Teaching in the Harvard Reading Lab was a rite of passage for us reading teachers.  We were assigned students from local schools who exhibited pronounced reading disabilities. The students would come to the Harvard Reading Lab twice a week to receive reading instruction. Following the Harvard Reading Lab manual, we would first evaluate each student’s reading characteristics and try to identify specific needs. We would then develop and implement a remedial reading program for the student. At the time, the war between the whole-word and phonics approach was raging across the country. Chall was emphatic that good reading instruction incorporates the best elements of both approaches. Chall also emphasized that having students read high-interest books was crucial to any good reading instruction. Perhaps the best trick I learned from Chall was putting short phrases on flashcards and teaching students to read in phrases, an approach I use to this day.

Over the course of the year, Chall did periodic observations of us while we were teaching. There were specially designed rooms with one-way glass and audio to listen in.  No one was left unscathed. No matter how well you prepared your lesson and no matter how well you implemented it, Chall made sure you were aware there was enormous room for improvement in your approach, choice of materials, pacing, interactions with your student, and every other aspect of the work you had done. Junior faculty and a few students who were in the know had already prepared all of us for the scathing critiques we would receive no matter how well we did. I welcomed the critiques, which made me a better reading teacher and, I believe, a better person. Chall had exceedingly high standards and cared deeply that when we left the Harvard Reading Lab, we were the best reading instructors we could possibly be.

One phenomenon that I encountered at the Harvard Reading Lab was that sometimes, after working a couple of months, a few of the students actually exhibited worsening reading comprehension. This finding was perplexing to us graduate students. Chall taught us that when reading, students quickly begin to incorporate strategies we have taught them for decoding, syllabicating, and attacking unfamiliar words. This makes greater demands on their active working memory, which leads to a temporary decrease in reading comprehension. Though short lived, this phenomenon taught us that when you are teaching a highly specialized skill, there isn’t always immediate improvement.  Learning is not linear. Chall taught us that it is important to get comfortable with the ebb and flow of skill acquisition our students may experience.

As our year began to wind down, Chall and Mary Beth Curtis, another remarkable teacher and mentor in our department, shared with all of us graduate students that they felt our attendance at Commencement was very important, that they hoped to see all of us there, and that they would be there rain or shine. It rained, but they were there. Seeing them sitting, happily, proudly, outside in a light drizzle without even an umbrella spoke volumes. They fully embraced their students’ experience by participating in it so fully, from the very first day of instruction to the very last day-and, in fact, beyond. Several years later, while I was considering pursuing my PhD at UCLA, it was Chall’s enthusiasm for the plan that gave me the most confidence. To this day, there is not a moment when I am working with a student when I do not draw on some aspect of her training.  I am always thinking about what Jeanne Chall taught me.


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