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Brian Cambourne Remembers Kenneth S. Goodman

By Brian Cambourne
 | Mar 18, 2020

Kenneth S. Goodman headshot
On March 12, ILA past president Kenneth S. Goodman passed away peacefully at home. Goodman was without question one of the most influential scholars in the field of literacy education. In this series of posts, several of Goodman’s colleagues reflect on the indelible impact of his work and his life.

Whenever I met Ken at conferences or communicated with him via email, he would always greet me with a whimsical “G’day mate.” This was his way of acknowledging both my Australian-ness and my Australian working-class roots. Even though I’ll forever value the times Ken and I would “[tire] the sun with talking and sent him down the sky,” when all my tears are shed, that’s how I’ll remember him. I’ll hear his gentle, whimsical voice welcoming me: “G’day mate.” 

Ken and I have been “mates” in the Australian way now for more than 45 years. This mateship began in the academic year of 1975–76. I’d been lucky enough to be awarded a postdoctoral fellowship to the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). During one of the many coffee breaks I took in her reading centre, the late Jeanne Chall said to me, “Brian, there’s this fellow from Wayne State called Ken Goodman who’s been writing a lot about something called miscue analysis. He claims it shows that meaning-based approaches supporting learning to read are better than code-based approaches. Seeing you have more time than the rest of us, why don’t you research his claims? Perhaps you could do a paper for the Harvard Ed. Review, which we could publish?”

She then gave me a large red box with the words “Reading Miscue Inventory” (RMI) on its lid and said, “The material in this box is by three of his research students who should know his work better than most. You can start here. To help me in this task, Courtney Cazden, my fellowship sponsor, found some money to send me (by Greyhound) to Wayne State to spend time with Ken and his doctoral students.

On arrival at his centre, Ken welcomed me, found me a desk, and gave me a large bundle of stuff to read. It was here that I witnessed the kind of scholarship Ken engendered in his students and colleagues.

What I found in the red box together with my experiences at Ken’s research centre changed my life, professionally and personally, forever.

With the benefit of over four decades of hindsight, I now realise that I had been caught up in a Kuhn-ian scientific revolution. However, in 1975, I thought I was simply experiencing multiple ahas about reading, language, learning, and teaching.

One aha in particular forced me to question the paradigm of learning I’d long held. In one of the papers Ken gave me to read that day was this statement: “The oral and written forms of the language are parallel versions of the same thing—language.”

This was a turning point in my professional life. Michael Halliday’s “Learning How to Mean” had just been published (Halliday, 1975). The connections between Ken’s and Halliday’s theories shook me to my professional core. I wrote in my journal, “If learning how to talk is learning how to mean using the oral mode of language, then perhaps learning how to read and write is learning how to mean using the written form of language? If they’re parallel versions of the same thing, perhaps they can be learned similarly. Perhaps learning how to mean is what the brain has evolved to do?”

When I returned to HGSE from Wayne State, Jeanne asked me to write an evaluation of the RMI and summarise Ken Goodman’s work. The result was my first paper to be published in Reading Research Quarterly (RRQ), “Getting to Goodman.” It wasn’t quite the summary that Jeanne was hoping for, but to be fair to her, she encouraged me to submit it to RRQ.

That was the paper which launched my academic career and set me on the path of research and theory building I’ve been engaged in for most of my professional life.

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. Rather, it drew from a range of separate discipline areas including psychology, linguistics, cognition, and the then newly emerging fields psycho- and sociolinguistics. 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.”

Although he is at rest, his work keeps his memory alive for me, and I can hear him now as if he were in the room himself: “G’day mate.”

Brian Cambourne is a principal fellow in the faculty of education at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

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