Jeanne S. Chall


Adult Literacy at Harvard 43 Years Ago

Tom Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education (Ret.)

There was a heady atmosphere for adult literacy education in the winter and spring of 1975. I arrived in January as a Visiting Associate Professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) at the invitation of Jeanne Chall, Director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory.

If you count the year 1975, then 2017 marks the 43rd anniversary of my stay at HGSE and I have reflected back on that year not least because my second daughter was born that June at Boston Lying-In Hospital. But as exceptional as that is, I was also fortunate to be there when adult literacy was on the agenda which had been established earlier in the May 1970 issue of the Harvard Educational Review.  The special issue was on Illiteracy in America and the lead-off article was by Paulo Freire, who had been a Visiting Professor at Harvard’s Center for Studies in Education. His article was entitled, The Adult Literacy Process as Cultural Action for Freedom. Later that year his seminal work on The Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published. While I did not know Paulo when he was at Harvard, I later had the opportunity to work with him for one week a year for nine years in Paris at UNESCO House where we both served on the International Jury for Literacy

The second article in the special issue of the Harvard Educational Review was by David Harman, who was at that time a doctoral student. Later he was an Assistant Professor of Education at Harvard. I knew David when I got to the HGSE in the winter of 1975. From time-to-time he and I would meet on 

Harvard Square for coffee, a pastry, and some talk at the Blacksmith House café and bakery on Brattle Street. David was very interested in promoting adult literacy education as a functional skill. In this regard, he did a considerable amount of consulting with the U. S. Department of Education (USDE) on adult literacy. He worked there with Paul Delker, then the Director of Adult Education in the USDE. The major outcome of David’s work with Paul was what became knownas the Adult Performance Level (APL) project. The APL called for teaching adult basic skills within the functional contexts of adults’ daily lives, such as in transportation, health, etc. 

The APL went on to perform the first national assessment of adult literacy and reported that some 20 percent of adults were functionally illiterate and another 30 percent or so were only marginally literate. These data helped spur the National Literacy Campaign of the 1980s.

The same year of 1975 saw a major report of the prestigious Committee on Reading of the National Academy of Education arrive with the title of Toward a Literate Society. The book was edited by John (Jack) Carroll and Jeanne Chall,and though it was concerned with the full range of literacy issues at all ages, the book contained two important chapters on adult literacy issues, bringing these issues into the consciousness of a wider range of scholars and educators.

Just four years later, in 1979, Carman St. John Hunter of World Education and David Harman highlighted adult literacy issues and brought out a Report to the Ford Foundation in the form of a book entitled Adult Illiteracy in the United States. By then, David was back home in Israel at the Hebrew University. The program officer at the Ford Foundation was Gail Spangenberg, who later went on to form the Business Council for Effective Literacy (BCEL) in the 1980s and the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy (CAAL) in the 2000s. In the late 1990s, World Education and Harvard formed the National Center for Adult Learning and Literacy to advance adult literacy education in the United States.

During my stay at the HGSE Jeanne and I made it a practice to meet once a week, schedules permitting, at a cafe on Brattle Street on Harvard Square. The café had a floor covered with sawdust to catch drippings from the large plates of food they served. Jeanne and I spent many hours there eating and talking about literacy.  Jeanne was especially interested in a 1975 book I had edited called Reading for Working: A Functional Literacy Anthology which reported on the readability of technical manuals in military jobs. This fit well with her interest in readability analysis.

She also discussed with me a 1974 book I had published with colleagues called Auding and Reading: A Developmental Model. This book looked at research on the relationships of listening (auding) to reading.  Jeanne saw the relationship of oral to written language as particularly important in the development of literacy. Almost a decade later, in 1983, her book entitled Stages of Reading Development was published and she included data from both the Reading for Working and the Auding and Reading books, including two figures from the Auding and Reading book illustrating the relationships among oral and written language.

In 1987 Jeanne had me back to present workshops on Functional Context Education: Making Learning Relevant. I gave the workshops twice in two days in Gutman Library. This was my last visit with Jeanne at Harvard, though I participated in several meetings with her at different venues in the1990's up until her passing in 1999.

In 2009, I visited the Harvard Square area and noticed that the cafe where Jeanne and I ate is now gone, and the Blacksmith House café where David and I used to meet is now integrated with the Cambridge Adult Education Center. The Square changes, but the adult literacy work goes on.