Reading & Literacy

Father of ‘Whole Language’ Rallying Against Reading-Group Speaker

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 03, 2004 2 min read
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Kenneth Goodman is not known for his silence. The professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, popularly known as the father of the “whole language” method of teaching reading, has been wont to interrupt conference sessions or speak bluntly at public hearings to deride what he sees as lockstep, skills- based approaches to instruction or narrow views of reading research.

So instead of taking his seat among the guests of honor at the reading- research awards gala during the International Reading Association’s upcoming annual convention, Mr. Goodman plans to station himself at the door, along with colleagues he is enlisting in a protest against one of the keynote speakers.

To Mr. Goodman’s dismay, the 80,000-member organization has asked G. Reid Lyon, a prominent official of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, to speak at the event on the opening day of the conference, to be held May 3-6 in Reno, Nev. Mr. Lyon and the branch of the National Institutes of Health that he directs have been influential in directing federal and state reading policies that are contrary to the principles of whole language, a literature-based approach to instruction.

The work has made Mr. Lyon a sought-after speaker across the country. But in Mr. Goodman’s view, the federal official has played a role “in establishing a narrow and exclusive definition of reading research in federal and state laws and marginalizing and blacklisting researchers, research methodologies, and research paradigms,” according to e-mail postings he has made to a popular listserv for reading teachers and scholars.

‘Something Special’

While Mr. Goodman does not object to having presenters of different viewpoints participate in the conference, he wrote, the research awards event, honoring scholars committed to a broad range of research methods, is an inappropriate forum for Mr. Lyon. Dorothy Strickland, a Rutgers University researcher who is well-respected within the IRA, will also be a presenter at the awards ceremony. This year the association has also invited its past presidents—including Mr. Goodman—as special guests, although they will not have an opportunity to speak.

“Let me make clear that I do not object to Lyon or any of his associates being on the program at IRA. What I object to is how he is being showcased in this unique research context,” Mr. Goodman wrote in the online posting to “colleagues” asking them to oppose the event. “But [the association] puts us in the awkward position of further legitimating Lyon by our attendance and in the awkward position of silently listening to him as he disparages all past research on reading.”

Several other researchers and longtime supporters of Mr. Goodman have also tried to rally support for the boycott.

But officials of the Newark, Del.-based association say Mr. Lyon, as a leading voice on reading research, is the appropriate person to give an overview of progress in the field and help recognize outstanding reading research.

“We respect the right of people to express their opinions,” said IRA Executive Director Alan E. Farstrup. “Given the volatility of issues in research right now it’s certainly not surprising that there is controversy over this.”

Mr. Lyon said that while he is not likely to change Mr. Goodman’s mind, he hopes his message will resonate with the audience in general.

“When the audience hears what Dorothy and I have to say [about how research should inform reading instruction and policy], Mr. Lyon said last week, “I think the quality of the discussion will speak for itself.”

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