Poly(A) tails enhance the stability and translation of most eukaryotic messenger RNAs, but difficulties in globally measuring poly(A)-tail lengths have impeded greater understanding of poly(A)-tail function. Here we describe poly(A)-tail length profiling by sequencing (PAL-seq) and apply it to measure tail lengths of millions of individual RNAs isolated from yeasts, cell lines, Arabidopsis thaliana leaves, mouse liver, and zebrafish and frog embryos. Poly(A)-tail lengths were conserved between orthologous mRNAs, with mRNAs encoding ribosomal proteins and other ‘housekeeping’ proteins tending to have shorter tails. As expected, tail lengths were coupled to translational efficiencies in early zebrafish and frog embryos. However, this strong coupling diminished at gastrulation and was absent in non-embryonic samples, indicating a rapid developmental switch in the nature of translational control. This switch complements an earlier switch to zygotic transcriptional control and explains why the predominant effect of microRNA-mediated deadenylation concurrently shifts from translational repression to mRNA destabilization.