Whole Language describes a literacy philosophy which emphasizes that children should focus on meaning and strategy instruction. It is often contrasted with phonics-based methods of teaching reading and writing which emphasize instruction for decoding and spelling.

After its introduction by Kenneth Goodman (1963), the Whole Language approach to reading rose in popularity dramatically. It became a major educational paradigm until the late 1980s and the 1990s. Despite its popularity during this period, educators were highly skeptical of whole language claims. What followed were the “Reading Wars” of the 1980s and 1990s between advocates of phonics and those of Whole Language methodology. Congress commissioned reading expert Marilyn Jager Adams (1994) to write a definitive book on the topic. She determined that phonics was important but suggested that some elements of the whole language approach were helpful.

However, once we get past all the press releases to understand Ken Goodman and the significance of his approach, it is essential to understand where he started, career wise and where his ideas originated from. As a young teacher, Goodman was in a large inner-city school district dealing with poor, low-income students with significantly poor academic skills. His first research had to do with student mis-cues when they were reading and how many mistakes students made per passage, (Goodman, 1967).

Chomsky and Goodman

The whole language approach to phonics grew out of Noam Chomsky’s ideas about language acquisition. In 1967, Ken Goodman had an idea about reading, which he considered similar to Chomsky’s, and he wrote a widely cited article calling reading a “psycholinguistic guessing game”, (Goodman, 1967).

Goodman thought that there are four “cueing systems” for reading, four things that readers have to guess what word comes next:

  1. graphophonemic: the shapes of the letters, and the sounds that they evoke.
  2. semantic: what word one would expect to occur based on the meaning of the sentence so far.
  3. syntactic: what part of speech or word would make sense based on the grammar of the language.
  4. pragmatic: what is the function of the text.

Graphophonemic cues are related to the sounds we hear, the alphabet, and the conventions of spelling, punctuation and print. Students who are emerging readers often use these cues. Proficient readers and writers draw on their prior experiences with text and the other cueing systems. Ken Goodman writes that, “The cue systems are used simultaneously and interdependently. …an initial consonant may be all that is needed to identify an element and make possible the prediction of an ensuing sequence or the confirmation of prior predictions,” (Goodman, 1982). He continues with, “Reading requires not so much skills as strategies that make it possible to select the most productive cues.”

The semantic cuing system is the one in which meaning is constructed. “So focused is reading on making sense that the visual input, the perceptions we form, and the syntactic patterns we assign are all directed by our meaning construction,” (Goodman, 1996). The key component of the semantic system is context. A reader must be able to attach meaning to words and have some prior knowledge to use as a context for understanding the word. They must be able to relate the newly learned word to prior knowledge through personal associations with text and the structure of text.(Goodman, K. 1982).

The syntactic system, according to Goodman and Watson, (Goodman, Y. 2005). includes the interrelation of words and sentences within connected text.

The pragmatic system is also involved in the construction of meaning while reading. This brings into play the socio-cultural knowledge of the reader. Yetta Goodman and Dorothy Watson state that, “Language has different meaning depending on the reason for use, the circumstances in which the language is used, and the ideas writers and readers have about the contextual relations with the language users. Language cannot exist outside a sociocultural context, which includes the prior knowledge of the language user,” (Goodman, Y. 2005).


Eventually, Goodman formulated a theory that students could learn to read, with comprehension, even with miscues, if they were able to rely on the context of the passage, in whole, to help them understand the meaning of what they were reading. In other words, a reader could link or frog-jump over words he did not know, and by referring to the context of the total passage, would be able to ‘understand’ the meaning of the unknown word. In the end, the reader could understand and comprehend the entire passage.

His Whole Language theory caught fire in the 60’s and 70’s and whole generations of school age children were taught to read with this theoretical approach. It was in the late ‘70’s (about) and early ‘80s and the 90’s that parents and educators became aware of the fact that students were graduating from high school, still unable to read.

What was happening? Back to the drawing board and back to conventional forms of instruction. Further research into the nature of reading and of learning has shown us clearly that young readers have to learn to decode words and language. And, today, teaching colleges are training teachers that the pre-K to 3rd grade years are all about decoding and decoding skills. Students have to be able to break words apart, put them back together again, construct sentences and ultimately, construct meaning from what they read. Education appears to be back on track.

Alas, poor Ken. Hard times. However, all is not lost and there is light coming from that tunnel. The students Goodman originally worked with were poor readers from poor academic backgrounds. It is highly likely these students were never taught good decoding skills. Here is the important point. Instead of attempting to reverse the clock and go backwards to the 2nd grade and reteach those skills, he simply skipped over all that decoding stuff and taught students’ techniques to read with their existing skills.

Other teachers at the same time were working with inner-city school kids and learning that if students were simply interested in what they were reading, they would read without being forced to do so, (Fader, 1955), (Krashen, 2012).

The Goodman approach can be resurrected and used today with older students when it is not possible to duplicate the K-3 learning experience. I am speaking of ESL and ELL learners, many of whom don’t come to this country until they are nearly adults.

As high school or especially as college students, ESL’s are required to read substantial amounts of material. This is a struggle for them. Time and time again, while working with ESL students, I have seen them glued to their dictionaries and carefully translating their English texts word by word or phrase by phrase. The length of time this translation process takes is, to putting it mildly, extensive.

So, what can we do to keep the ESL/ELL student even with their peers? Students can be taught the Kenneth Goodman approach to reading, wherein, they construct meaning from the text not by translating word by word but rather by understanding the piece they are reading in context with the whole text.

Currently, I teach my ESL students to keep a word journal and to write down words that they don’t know. However, they are not to stop and look words up in a dictionary unless they feel strongly they cannot understand the passage without help. Then, later, they can go back, look up the word, even write down a definition. Students can leaf through their notebook for a refresher or put the words on 3×5 cards and practice them.

ESL students, need to learn to live with some ambiguity. (This and this can also apply to older native speakers who are struggling with reading.) In their reading, they will not understand every word. They need to learn to read and comprehend to the best of their ability and, well enough to get the class assignment done. As most teachers will tell you, they would rather have a completed student assignment that is somewhat less than an A, than to have no assignment at all.

Unfortunately, students all too often give up and either quit coming to class as they feel too overwhelmed. Reading requirements are a big part of that overwhelm.

In conclusion: ESL students are overly dependent on dictionaries and translation devices to get them through their reading and assignments. The Kenneth Goodman Whole Language approach to reading can be utilized for these students, as well as low-achieving older native speakers. The Whole Language approach can help them get through their reading with sufficient understanding of the material to complete class work. Students can be trained to create word journals and to make a habit of recording words they don’t know, learn the words and thereby, expand their vocabularies.

Constant reading in English and expanding vocabularies combined with listening to spoken English with help these students to eventually become good readers, proficient writers and good communicators.




Adams, M.M. (1994). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-51076-6.

Fader, D. (5/5/1955). Hooked on Books. Mass Market Paperbacks.

Goodman, K. (1963). A Communicative Theory of the Reading Curriculum. Elementary English, Vol 40:30, Mar. 1963, pp 290-298.

Goodman, K.S, (1967). Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game, Journal of The Reading Specialist, 6 (4), 126-135.

Goodman, Y. (2005). Reading Miscue Inventory. Katonah, NY: Robert C. Owen Publishers, Inc.

Goodman, K. (1982). Language and Literacy. Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan. ISBN 0-7100-0875-9.

Goodman, K. (1996). On Reading. NH: Heinemann. IBSN 0-435-07200-5.

Krashen, S. (5/5/2012). The Power of Reading, The University of Georgia College of Education, The COE Lecture Series. Retrieved from www.youtube.com. Retrieved: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSW7gmvDLag&t=1236s

Whole Language, Wikipedia. Retrieved: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_language

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