Reading & Literacy

Kenneth S. Goodman, ‘Founding Father’ of Whole Language, Dead at 92

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 21, 2020 11 min read
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Kenneth S. Goodman, whose influential theories of reading dominated the teaching of reading in grade school classrooms in the 1980s and early 1990s, died in his Tucson, Ariz., home March 12. He was 92.

The cause of death was several underlying health issues, not COVID-19, said Yetta Goodman, his wife of 67 years and frequent research collaborator.

Whole language instruction emphasized that students learn to read through immersion in books and eschewed traditional systematic teaching of phonics and spelling. During its heyday, it dominated U.S. teacher-preparation programs and curriculum guidelines alike. The philosophy was also extremely popular in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom.

“His greater legacy is undeniable. I bet you that in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s there’s hardly a teacher who went through a teacher education program anywhere in the country who didn’t encounter Goodman’s work,” said P. David Pearson, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ken Goodman

One reason whole language became so popular among teachers was because it emphasized teachers’ knowledge and skill in responding to student needs, rather than scripted programs and curricula—an appealing refuge during a period, beginning with the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk, in which policymakers tended to look skeptically at teachers’ work. Whole language was also one of the clearest expressions of longstanding progressive education thinking in its embrace of the idea that learning should be student-centered rather than teacher directed.

“Ken was kind of an incurable progressive who thought that, left to their own devices, kids would do good things, and would seek meaning in everything they did,” Pearson said.

The successive 50 years of literacy research following on the heels of Goodman’s early work, based on experimental studies and cognitive science research, has concluded that, contrary to Goodman’s ideas, skilled readers rely more heavily on knowledge of letter-sound correspondences than context clues when learning new words. For many students, that body of work notes, the alphabetic code must be explicitly taught, not incidentally discovered.

Still, even Goodman’s critics acknowledge that much of that research was directly inspired by his work.

“He was a scholar who thought the world worked a certain way, came up with a theory that was hugely influential that drove a heck of a lot of science because folks had to do studies testing whether he was right or wrong,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “And as often happens in science, a theory that drives a lot of work doesn’t turn out to be correct.”

A Major Influence

Born in Chicago in 1927, Goodman earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Michigan and eventually found his way to California. He was active in progressive causes in both states, something that would mark his career for the rest of his life.

The activism made securing a public school teaching job in the 1950s somewhat precarious, which led to his teaching in private schools, and ultimately a decision to pursue graduate study. He completed both his master’s degree and doctoral degree in education at the University of California Los Angeles.

Returning to Michigan to teach at Wayne State University, he turned his attention to reading while working with students in the Detroit district. He was influenced by the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky, Lev Vygotsky, and Jean Piaget, as well as by a novel teaching approach, called “language experience,” he had seen in San Diego, according to Yetta Goodman.

“We were excited about language experience because it was focused on having kids writing about their experiences, not just having kids write 500 S’s on a page. That’s what people were doing in those days,” she said.

Goodman’s classroom-based analyses of students’ oral reading, and how they retold the stories they’d read, grounded most of his own research. Students’ errors, or “miscues,” he believed, provided insight into the reading strategies each student was using. Miscue analysis suggested that even young students were inferring things about language systems: For example, they often would substitute articles with other articles or determiners with determiners. And the miscues showed they were always engaged in meaning-making, not just identifying new words.

In all, he theorized, readers relied on a system of “cues” to read: syntactic cues, or the function of words in a sentence; semantic cues, or word meanings and symbols; and graphophonic cues, or how letters looked and sounded. Those ideas were laid out in a number of papers, most notably in a 1967 article he wrote for the Journal of Reading Specialist, in which he called reading a “psycholinguistic guessing game.” Efficient readers, he said, engage in a complex process of sampling, predicting, and refining information using the cueing systems, not by attending to precise patterns, spellings, and syntax of words.

The theory almost immediately revolutionized how educators thought about the reading process, said Pearson, who first encountered Goodman’s ideas as a young graduate student.

“I realized at that time that the old model I’d been reared on in graduate school—that reading was a sum total of all the parts that you accumulate on an assembly line of skills—was doomed,” he said.

Underpinning these ideas was the idea that, just as oral language develops naturally, young readers were naturally wired to learn to engage in systems of print and make meaning out of what they read.

His ideas would soon give way to an emerging discipline under the moniker whole language—a term Goodman did not invent—alongside scholars such as Frank Smith, Dorothy Watkins, among many others. His exact contemporary, New Zealand psychologist Marie Clay, would develop similar ideas and go on to found a popular reading-intervention program, Reading Recovery.

Many of the implications of reading instruction came into focus: Since students were innately wired to read, they should be given access to many kinds of books, encouraged to write daily about their interests and experiences, and teachers should respond to students’ individual needs rather than engaging in traditional worksheets and sound drills.

Not Dismissive of Phonics

Goodman was not, as is often asserted, wholly dismissive of phonics, a view more accurately ascribed to fellow whole-language theorist Frank Smith. He believed readers did use knowledge of sound-letter systems when reading, but relied on them less as they grew more efficient. But he insisted that phonics should be taught only incidentally—a teacher might, for example, call students’ attention to certain sound-letter patterns when students encountered them.

In 1975, Goodman moved to Tucson to teach at the University of Arizona, where he would work for the rest of his life, ultimately becoming an emeritus professor of education.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Goodman was a much requested speaker at professional conferences for English/language arts teachers. He served as president of the International Reading Association (now the International Literacy Association) from 1980 to 1981 and as a board member from 1976 to 1979, and helped establish the Whole Language Umbrella subgroup (now Literacies and Languages for All) within the National Council of Teachers of English.

In a sense, the evolution of whole language into a broad philosophy for teaching rather than a series of agreed-upon teaching protocols also proved to be its Achilles heel. One 1990 article concluded: “One cannot draw from the literature a concise definition for whole language because no such definition exists. Whole language represents many things to many people and has been used to define many different elements of classroom reading instruction.”

And some of the hallmarks of the whole language classroom, including invented spellings, flexible lesson plans, sustained silent reading, and generally a lack of systematic grammar instruction, made whole language an easier target for critics, who deplored what was sometimes described as an “anything goes” approach to teaching.

Goodman himself generally stayed away from the curriculum applications of his work. A lifelong skepticism of traditional textbook reading programs, his one experience writing curriculum does not appear to have been a happy one. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he worked on a Scott Foresman reading series based on his theories, which proved unpopular.

“For schools and teachers, it was a bridge too far, and there were too many choices to make and not enough direction to make teaching simple, and it fell flat in terms of its receptivity,” Pearson recalled.

And although Goodman insisted that the cueing systems were not directly applicable as an instructional method, teachers and professional-development providers implemented them in ways that some scholars found troubling. In a 1998 article, Marilyn Jager Adams, now a research professor at Brown University, found that many teachers were encouraging students to learn new words by relying on simplistic prompts, (“Does it look right? Does it sound right?”) based on the cueing systems—and they were often resistant to using phonics to help students identify new words.

“If the intended message of the three-cueing system was originally that teachers should take care not to overemphasize phonics to the neglect of comprehension,” she wrote in that essay, “Its received message has broadly become that teachers should minimize attention to phonics lest it compete with comprehension.”

(A recent Education Week survey found that the cueing ideas continue to be widely used by teachers and teacher-educators, and that they are the basis of some of the most popular early literacy curriculum materials on the market.)

More damaging still to whole language was a new wave of empirical research beginning in the late 1970s.

Skilled readers, those studies found, depended most on the sound-letter code to learn new words, not on context, as Goodman had theorized. Cognitive scientists, meanwhile, found that learning to read was not an innate process like learning to speak, but rather something that in fact needed to be hardwired into the brain—and for many though not all, students, explicitly taught.

Research reviews in the United States and in other countries have concluded that students do need to be taught phonemic awareness and phonics systematically and explicitly.

‘My Science Is Different’

The ongoing “reading wars” pitting whole language and its successor, balanced literacy, against more traditional kinds of early reading instruction also represent one of the clearest examples of an ongoing split in K-12 education research, which often divides ethnographic, classroom-based, qualitative methods prioritizing observation and the craft knowledge of teachers from the quantitative, experimental research conducted by psychologists, cognitive scientists, and economists.

As has been pointed out numerous times, researchers subscribing to those various approaches tend to work in different departments far across campus, attend different conferences, and publish in different journals.

“It was hard for Ken to argue with the psychologists in particular and people like Marilyn [Adams] ... on their own terms,” Pearson said. “He had a different way of doing research, and what he called evidence to counter their claims, they would not agree constituted credible evidence.”

In a 2019 interview with journalist Emily Hanford, who pressed him to respond to the body of cognitive research, Goodman alluded to those fundamental differences.

“My science is different,” he said.

In later years, Goodman was sometimes put in the role of defending whole language, as well as criticizing the movement in the early 1990s and 2000s towards standards and accountability. A frequent commentator and writer of letters to the editor to Education Week and other publications, as well as a source for reporters, he responded to a wide range of critics.

Yetta Goodman, though, noted that her husband was a generous, funny man who liked a good joke, and whose sense of humor and graciousness permeated his interactions with students and colleagues. He enjoyed cooking, often holding elaborate feasts for graduate students after they’d finished their dissertations. And despite some well-publicized spats with other literacy researchers, he maintained good relationships even with those with whom he disagreed.

“I have this wonderful picture in my head which I’ll never forget,” she said, describing an IRA conference in the early 1980s. “He and Jeanne [Chall, a Harvard professor who endorsed systematic literacy teaching], were asked to do a phonics and whole language thing together, and Jeanne came up to Ken and said, ‘Let’s walk inside together, arm in arm, so people know we’re good friends even if we disagree with each other.’ And they did.”

Some of the ideas that Goodman fought passionately for are now broad staples of ELA classrooms, including the importance of children’s literature, immersing new readers in books, and creating print-rich environments for students. And the last few years of policy has resuscitated the importance of comprehension—not merely word identification—as a goal of reading programs, particularly in relationship to the background knowledge students need to understand what they read.

Goodman’s insistence that writing is a powerful complement to reading rich texts lives on in both the Common Core State Standards, and is a key notion in the current interest in improving elementary and middle-school curricula programs.

In addition to his wife, Goodman is survived by three daughters, all of whom work in education, seven grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.


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