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In Memoriam: Kenneth S. Goodman (1927–2020)

ILA Staff
 | Mar 17, 2020

Yetta & Ken Goodman
Kenneth S. Goodman, often referred to as the founding father of the whole language approach to reading, passed away peacefully at home on March 12. He was 92. He is survived by his wife and colleague, Yetta M. Goodman, with whom he collaborated frequently.

Goodman, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, served as president of the International Reading Association (now International Literacy Association) from 1980 to 1981 and at-large Board member from 1976 to 1979. Throughout his storied career, he earned some of the highest honors in the field, including the William S. Gray Citation of Merit (1986). In 1989, he was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame.

“Ken Goodman was a literacy icon who was fearless where the authentic learning of our children was at stake,” says Kathy N. Headley, president of the ILA Board of Directors. “To say he will be missed is an understatement.”

“The world lost another giant,” wrote Gary Stager upon learning of Goodman’s death. “Ken Goodman was responsible for developing the theory underlying the literacy approach known as whole language—making him one of the most important, vilified, and courageous educators in history.”

Widely considered one of the most influential scholars in the field, Goodman’s work was often as polarizing as it was pioneering. He once famously described reading as a “psycholinguistic guessing game.” His concept of written language development being parallel to oral language development led to the whole language approach as well as research into related concepts such as miscue analysis and the three-cueing system which, though highly debated, continues to serve as a foundation in many early reading classrooms.

“Whether in agreement with Ken or not, he always promoted deep thinking and conversation among members of the literacy community,” says Diane Lapp, chair of ILA’s Literacy Research Panel and distinguished professor of literacy at San Diego State University.

“I didn’t agree with everything he said, how he said it, or when he said it, but in almost every case, with hindsight, I came to realize that he was right and I was wrong,” says James V. Hoffman, professor of language and literacy at the University of North Texas, who refers to himself as Goodman’s “academic grandson” (“If there were a 23andMe test for academic lineage, I would flow 100% Ken Goodman.”)

Goodman, Hoffman says, “[led] me on a career path that I could never have imagined without his inspiration.” It’s a sentiment shared by many, including Brian Cambourne, principal fellow in the faculty of education at the University of Wollongong in Australia, who says that his experiences at Goodman’s research center “changed my life, professionally and personally, forever.”

“Like many others touched by Ken’s work, I realised that his view of the reading process went far beyond the insular conception of reading as a subject of the curriculum,” Cambourne says. “At the core of his work was a constructivist view of learning that insisted that students should be active participants in their learning, not mere recipients of some static ‘stuff’ called ‘knowledge.’”

Some of Goodman’s colleagues, including Cambourne and Hoffman, have shared touching tributes. Reading their words, it’s apparent how deeply this loss is felt.  

In the United Kingdom, Goodman is credited with revolutionizing early reading instruction. Past presidents of the United Kingdom Reading Association (now the United Kingdom Literacy Association) issued a joint statement on his passing. Greg Brooks, emeritus professor at the University of Sheffield, Henrietta Dombey, emerita professor at the University of Brighton, and Colin Harrison, emeritus professor at the University of Nottingham, said there is no one who has trained to be a teacher in the past 40 years in the UK who is not familiar with the work of both Ken and Yetta.

“Ken’s passionate advocacy for reading for meaning and enjoyment, rather than for accuracy at the expense of meaning and enjoyment, helped to inspire the ‘real books’ movement in the UK,” they said. “His approach brought theoretical support to what was to become a nationwide practice of daily parent–child book-sharing, with a book taken home from school each day.”

They continued: “Ken Goodman has a stature as a scholar in the field of literacy that is unmatched, and that will endure.”

Headley agrees, adding, “The literacy communities extend our regrets and love to his wife, Yetta, and family and friends.”

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