Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Jeanne Chall publishes Learning to Read: The Great Debate

“Phonics” or “"look-say"? Which one of these two methods works better to help children learn to read? This was a question that attracted the attention of many educators, researchers and parents during the 20th century.

 “Phonics” is also known as the "code-emphasis" method. It consists of teaching the sounds associated with particular symbols, the letters of the alphabet. Children learn to read by sounding out new words, one at the time. "Look-say" is also known as the "meaning-emphasis" or holistic approach. It consists of teaching whole words using a flash-card method. The focus is not on the individual letters but on the meaning of the word and its overall shape. Children learn to recognize entire words at sight ("sight words") without breaking them into parts.

By the 1960s, educational researchers were intrigued by the conflicting evidence produced by studies assessing the two methods. Then, Dr. Jeanne Chall (1921-1999), a psychologist working in the Faculty of Education at Harvard University, was requested to evaluate the merits of the existing research on this topic. For three years, Dr. Chall examined hundreds of studies undertaken during the period 1910-1965, visited classrooms and interviewed teachers and textbook publishers. After that, she devoted two years to summarize the findings and write her conclusions. The result of this major study, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, was the book Learning to Read: The Great Debate, published in 1967.

Until the publication of Learning to Read, the scholarly knowledge on this topic was dispersed and confusing. The merit of Jeanne Chall was to put all the pieces together in one volume in a clear and understandable language. She also came to the conclusion, based on the evidence she gathered, that learning to read is a developmental process, and that phonics is a more effective teaching method. Chall argued that children who have been taught only with holistic methods appear to do better in the early years but tend to fall behind later because they lack the skills needed for the transition to independent reading.

However, Chall recognized that holistic approaches help learners to recognize irregular words which do not sound as they are spelled, and give children a jump-start in the early years. For this reason, Chall recognized the need to combine the two methods. Because phonics nurtures logic, and whole-language is based on memory, children can benefit from both. Having said that, if forced to choose, Chall’s preferences are clear. She argued that if children are to become independent self-educating readers, they need a good grounding in phonics. After the publication of Learning to Read, the phonics-whole language debate continued, sometimes with excessive polarization, but no serious research on the topic could ignore the pioneering contribution of Chall’s book. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the jury is still out on this debate, although methods that combine both approaches are gaining momentum.

Jeanne Chall was born in Poland in 1921, and immigrated to New York with her family at the age of 6. She 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 continued her studies at Ohio State University, where she completed a master’s degree in 1947 and a Ph.D. in 1952. She worked for some time at Ohio State, at Columbia’s Teachers College, and at City College of New York, and in 1965 she joined the Harvard Graduate School of Education as full professor. In 1966 she founded the Harvard Reading Laboratory, which she directed for more than 20 years.

Jeanne Chall died on November 27, 1999 at the age of 78. Throughout her life, she educated a large numbers of researchers, reading teachers, and policy experts. In the weeks before passing away, Chall completed her final volume, The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom?, which was published in 2000 by Guilford Press.


Jeanne Chall, Reading Expert And Psychologist, Dies At Age 78. Harvard Gazette Archives . accessed January 24, 2004.

Folio Books : Learning to Read: The Great Debate. accessed January 24, 2004.



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