Teaching pioneer Kenneth Goodman believes education is key to social equality

Kenneth S. Goodman and his wife, Yetta Goodman

The most gratifying aspect of teaching is watching your students move toward their own greatness, says Kenneth S. Goodman, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona department of language, reading and culture.

“I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I’m also proud of what the people who I’ve had a hand in educating have done — it gives me hope,” says Goodman.

Goodman, who turns 90 this month, has spent more than half a century improving the way educators teach and understand early childhood development. He’s an educational pioneer, who is best known for founding the whole language approach to reading.

According to the Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development, the whole language approach is an instructional philosophy on teaching based on three constructivist assumptions: learning cannot be separated from its context; each learner’s purpose for learning is integral to what is learned; and knowledge gained is socially constructed through negotiation, evaluation, or transformation.

Teaching eighth graders sparked Goodman’s love for the classroom. Adolescents are developing not only as people, but as thinkers, so teachers are afforded a wonderful opportunity of influence, says Goodman. “It’s a very moral age, and that’s the age when everything has to be fair.”

He was also running day-care camps and adult-based learning classes at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. That’s where he began to develop the social aspects of his teaching techniques.

No matter the grade level, whether it is graduate students or eighth-graders, students are not performing at the same capacity, nor are they equally interested in the material being taught, he explains. Goodman would utilize a small group technique, establishing a social setting amongst peers, and he would simply coach them, helping along their learning.

“Adolescents in particular, if you’re not dealing with their social concerns, they’re not really going to do much learning,” says Goodman. “One of the things that schools often neglect is the fact that school is the place where kids form relationships and learn how to get along with each other.”

However, Jewish day-care facilities are centered on social learning environments, and working in that milieu was instrumental in Goodman developing as a teacher and researcher.

“There’s a lot of overlap, because education is not just cramming knowledge into kids’ heads,” he says. “It’s understanding how people learn, the importance of their being able to express ideas and work together.”

His classrooms were always noisy, because his pupils were always collaborating, Goodman says.

His first full-time job in teacher education was at Wayne State University in Detroit, where Goodman developed miscue analysis, a technique that identifies why readers construct a different text than what is actually written.

After Goodman earned an undergraduate degree in economics, he returned to school to earn his bachelor’s degree in education at the University of California, Los Angeles. He went on to earn his master’s at California State University, Los Angeles, and his doctorate in education at UCLA.

Goodman says he knew he wanted to improve the craft of teaching, which ultimately inspired him to earn his doctoral degree.

He held multiple positions at the National Council of Teachers of English with the reading commission, research foundation, commission on the English language, and elementary section committee.

As his three daughters progressed through school, the family had a running joke that became folklore throughout the neighborhood. If they did poorly, Goodman would reward them with a cash prize, he explains, because learning was more important than test scores.

In 1975, Goodman and his wife, Yetta, who is also considered a pioneer in whole language education, were offered professorships at the UA. They’ve called the Old Pueblo home ever since, and they both hold emeritus positions and conduct research.

Goodman has published dozens of books and journals throughout his career including, “What’s Whole in Whole Language,” a seminal work that contributed to this grassroots education movement. Originally published in 1985, it has sold more than 250,000 copies worldwide.

The Goodmans also helped found the UA department of language, reading and culture during the early 1990s — a model for higher education that was replicated across the country. 

About 12 years ago, Goodman also developed eye movement miscue analysis, where sophisticated cameras record how a reader’s eyes travel across written text, producing a powerful data set that provides insights into reading comprehension.

Two years ago, Goodman published, “The Smart One: A Grandfather’s Tale,” a children’s book that chronicles the plight of Jewish families who fled persecution in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century, told through his father’s perspective.

If Goodman was a few years younger, he would be devoting his time to making healthcare and education a universal right, he says.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to get true equality unless we have equal access to education, because test scores correlate with zip codes,” he says. “What that means is, we’re not giving the same kind of education to kids at all levels.”

At an international conference, Goodman once asked a representative from the World Bank if there was enough money to provide children with universal education and healthcare. Of course there is, was the response, it is just a matter of priorities.

“If there are unhealthy people in our society it hurts everybody, and if there are uneducated people it hurts everybody,” he adds.     

In 2001, the UA began offering the “Kenneth S. Goodman In Defense of Good Teaching Award,” which recognizes educators who have experienced economic or social consequences as a result of taking a stand for what is right for the profession.

On Saturday, Dec. 30, Goodman will celebrate his 90th birthday at Prep and Pastry on Grant Road. They are expecting at least 70 people — including family members, former students, UA colleagues, and their neighbors at Academy Village — to enjoy an evening of dining, music and a small program focused on Goodman’s colorful life. A special musical guest will fly in from Detroit for the occasion. 

Bruce Johnson, dean of the UA College of Education, says Goodman’s breadth of influential work has added nothing but distinction to teaching professionals, especially at the UA. “It’s impossible to overemphasize how profound his work has been; to find someone whose work has such widespread, strong impact is really unusual.”

When Johnson taught elementary school in Arizona and New Mexico between the 1980s and the mid-1990s, the whole language approach was growing exponentially, he says. This technique helped Johnson as a teacher.

While using a phonics-based approach to teaching reading can be one method, there are far more ways to educate, says Johnson, adding English is a compendium language and hardly phonetic.

“It made sense to me that we need to do much more than just teach basic phonics,” he says. “We needed to give children many opportunities to read real work, in context and in stories that made sense rather than just teaching them the mechanics.”

Johnson says that eye movement miscue analysis provides evidence that while we are reading our eyes are incorporating other contextual information, rather than simply skimming along a single sentence. 

More important, Goodman has never been afraid to take a stand when his work was thought to be controversial, Johnson says, referring to the difference between the whole language and phonics-based approaches.

“And he’s not only made a profound impact, he’s actually touched on a very crucial issue in teaching reading and the fundamental ideas of how we go about teaching reading,” he says.